This fall Anne Ackerson and I will teach a course called “The Museum Leadership Challenge” for Johns Hopkins University’s Museum Studies master’s degree program. As a result, we’ve talked a lot about what we really think the key components of museum leadership are. It’s an ongoing conversation, but the thought of being in a classroom, even a virtual one, puts a different spin on things. I won’t lie: Participating in a program that annually launches newly-minted graduates on the museum world, makes us acutely aware of the museum ecosystem, particularly the job market. The job race is a daunting prospect, asking applicants to create (or shed) versions of themselves via social media, to send hundreds of resumes zooming around the Internet, all while trying to work or volunteer in this field they’ve committed time and money to. It’s a big, complicated deal. And the elephant in many rooms.
Even though a director’s position is sometimes the way out of the hideously low salaries plaguing the museum field, it’s often viewed as a painfully pressured role, so many emerging museum folk avoid the leadership challenge. At small museums and heritage organizations it’s the job that sends 26-year olds to board meetings with people old enough to be their grandparents. Instead, you aim for positions as curator, chief curator, collections manager or educator, director of engagement or social media guru. But here’s what we say: all those positions lead. And more importantly you need to be the leader of yourself. That sounds dopey, but think about it. Your career, in which you’ve invested a bundle of money, isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you make happen.
When you get your first job and start moving up the museum ladder, you will spend hours in planning meetings. You’ll plan exhibitions, events, and programs. You’ll think about branding, messaging, and mission statements. This will be the 10,000 hours Malcolm Gladwell talks about. Hopefully, you will have good mentors, leaders and guides. Hopefully you won’t zone out with your iPhone under the table. And, hopefully, you will think strategically. Why do we care? Because we want you to think strategically about your own life and career. We want you to make things happen. So, if you’re a new museum person, here are five questions to think about:
- What makes you happiest at work?
- How do you manage a challenge and can you embrace and learn from failure?
- Who are your mentors and advisors?
- Have you made a list of your leadership qualities?
- If you’re already working in the field, do your plans and values align with your museum or heritage organization?
If you are a board member, director or department head, directly or indirectly responsible for hiring, know that the culture of your organization affects not only longtime employees and new hires, but the field as a whole. You are change agents. Here are five questions for you.
- Does your organization have a values statement? Have you read it recently?
- Does your organization have a HR policy and/or an HR department?
- What has your museum or heritage organization done to keep bias out of the interview room?
- What is the most important quality you (or your organization) looks for in new employees?
- When was the last time your board talked about staff salaries?
Strategic planning isn’t just for organizations. It’s for individuals, too. No, it’s not a panacea, but in an overcrowded field knowing what you want will help you move ahead of the pack.
In a week a friend and colleague of mine and Anne’s begins a new job. When all the papers were signed, and everything was real, she wrote to tell us the good news. Moving from a smaller organization to a much larger state-funded position, means she transitions from supervising a few to many.
Our friend and colleague is beginning a new chapter, and she isn’t alone. In the last year a number of our professional colleagues have gotten new jobs or new job titles. One thing distinguishes all these folks; not one thinks s/he has “arrived”. They are all learners. They read widely, observe carefully, and reflect. So while this annotated list is for them–you know who you are–we hope all our readers will find something they like.
For the Individual Leader/learner:
- For women leaders: 7 Small Steps Women Can Take to Make Their Voices Heard
- The importance and danger of bias in the workplace: 13 Cognitive Biases
- One of our colleagues to whom this post is dedicated, spent part of his first 100 days as a new leader doing other staff members’ jobs. He already knows what this article teaches us.
- What If Companies Managed People As Carefully as They Manage Money
- This was written by women to their younger selves, but we believe much of it applies to humans: Six Leaders on the Advice They Would Tell Their Younger Selves
About the Business of Museums:
- Written using theatre as the primary example, this article asks a lot of basic questions about non-profit workplace diversification. Diversity for Dummies
- If you aren’t already reading this blog, you should be: How Imaginary Lines Drawn By Cultural Institutions Hold Them Back
- An explanation of the difference between diversity and inclusion and why it matters: Beyond Diversity
A Short list of books and Ted Talks for leaders:
- Daring Greatly by Brenee Brown.
- We Need to Talk About An Injustice a Ted Talk by Bryan Stevenson.
- Why It’s Time to Forget the Pecking Order at Work
Six Practices for Your First 100 Days from Leadership Matters:
- Listen. Don’t wait for your turn to talk, listen.
- Love what you do.
- Participate before making decisions.
- Model empathy and respect.
- Practice reflection. Write, walk, meditate before or after work.
- Identify your biases and work to leave them outside the office.
And, last, a poem from Mary Oliver:
The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
—Mary Oliver taken from https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/133.html
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
It’s May, so it’s time for the the American Alliance of Museums–AAM for short–annual meeting in St. Louis. Anne and I are lucky enough to not only be going, but we’re also proud to be part of a discussion based on our forthcoming book, Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace (Routledge, 2017) Our session, “Workplace Confidential: Museum Women Talk Gender Equity,” takes place Monday morning, May 8, in Room 127, America’s Center, where we’ll be joined by Kaywin Feldman from MIA, Jessica Phillips from Fraunces Tavern Museum, Ilene Frank from the Connecticut Historical Society, and Wyona Lynch-McWhite, VP at the Arts Consulting Group. All four women were interviewed or contributed to our book, and have plenty to say about gender equity. This isn’t for women only. It’s a session for everyone interested in an equitable workplace. We hope to see you there!
Our session is part of AAM’s Career Management track, so if you’re coming to the meeting and searching for other programs like this, try looking under “Management and Administration” as well. And don’t forget the “Museum Directors” track. You don’t have to be a director to attend those sessions. Altogether there are over 30 sessions related to leadership. There’s even one on failure as in the famous Samuel Becket line “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.”
Anne’s facilitating a leadership discussion in the CEO Roundtable on Monday, 3-5 pm, in Landmark 4 at the Marriott St. Louis Grand. She’ll be sharing the Layers Leadership, a recent outcome of work by museums, libraries and archives as part of the IMLS-funded NexusLab project. If you’re interested in talking about the varying leadership roles one plays and their attendant challenges, skills and outcomes, stop by Anne’s table.
If you prefer a smaller discussion format, we will also be part of the Peer Mentoring Roundtables for Emerging and Career Professionals on Tuesday, May 9, from 11:45 – 1:45 in the Expo Hall. This event offers 23 tables with smart, experienced folks, along with colleagues, friends and mentors, ready to talk about everything from resume tips to mentorship, to aligning career and organizational goals. We’ll be at table 12, ready to talk about Self-awareness, Career Planning, and Mentoring as Part of the Leadership Learning Curve.
We hope you’ll drop by the Open Forum on Diversity, Equity, Accessibility and Inclusion on Tuesday morning, 9-11 am, where we’ll be representing GEMM — Gender Equity in Museums Movement. We’ll have the 5 Things You Need to Know tip sheets on leadership, salary negotiation and networking, along with other GEMM materials!
The annual meeting can be overwhelming so use your travel time to identify where you want to go and what you want to do. (If you arrive by Sunday morning, AAM runs an intro session from 9-11 am in the America’s Center.) Make sure to divide your time between career building–that’s for you, and idea building–which you may discover in sessions you select or in visits to St. Louis’s museums, galleries, zoo and botanical garden–and network building–that’s for you and your organization. It will be another year before you’re in a place with so many museum folk so make the most of it.
In the meantime, channel your inner Judy Garland (Meet Me in St. Louis). We hope to see you there.
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
*Organizational DNA is a metaphor for the underlying factors that together define an organization’s“personality” and help explain its performance.
In a few weeks Anne and I fly to St. Louis, MO, for the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting. We arrive early, however, because the day before the meeting we are teaching in AAM’s Getty Leadership and Career Management Program. Anne will speak about career strategies, and I’ll speak about self-awareness. In both cases, we’re talking about museum leaders as individuals, but these ideas also apply to organizations.
You’ve all read about or participated in strategic planning, but how about self-awareness? And more particularly, how does self-awareness apply to your organization? Does your organization know who it is? Really? Or does it only know who it isn’t? Are you not the flashier art museum across the park or not the sophisticated science museum down the street? Does knowing you are not an outdoor site really tell you anything? Maybe what you need to know is your organizational DNA? Because just as it helps to understand yourself in the museum workplace, it also helps when an organization knows itself in the museum marketplace.
Last week we saw a job advertisement that made us–as proponents of organizational self-awareness– leap for joy. It was listed on on Idealist.com. It’s for the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization that celebrates those who fought in the Revolutionary War. To join, you must be a male descendent of a commissioned officer of the Continental Army or Navy; however the Society is more than a membership organization. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., it also maintains a library and a house museum, both open to the public.
To be honest, based just on its name, the Society of the Cincinnati might not be our choice for the most open, transparent, authentic museum organization, but that is biased thinking, and this is a pretty extraordinary job advertisement. Clearly, this organization is comfortable in its own skin. It knows exactly who it is. And it wants you to know too, and it is respectful enough of you, as a possible applicant, that it doesn’t want you to apply if it isn’t the place for you. Read the announcement. Even if you’re not a Revolutionary War scholar, who wouldn’t want to work for an organization that writes, “We aren’t looking for clerical support or a general office assistant. We aren’t looking for someone who simply likes history or enjoys writing. We aren’t looking for someone who just graduated from college with a history degree and knows a lot about some other historical time and place…….This isn’t an internship. It’s a serious professional opportunity for someone with the right historical knowledge, writing and editing skills, creativity, and problem solving ability.”
Like a self-aware person, the Society of the Cincinnati knows itself. That knowledge allows it to be open and authentic about what it needs. What if more organizations wrote job advertisements like this one? What if, instead of the opening paragraph describing the museum, followed by a paragraph saying they need an individual with a graduate degree, at least five years of experience, who is creative, a team player, and who can walk on water while multi-tasking, and oh, is also a social media whiz, organizations described who they really are and what they really needed?
An authentic ad doesn’t have to be unprofessional or sassy. It just needs to be clear and truthful. And to do that, you need to really know your organization. That doesn’t mean that if you’ve worked there since 1980 you automatically know it. It means you have to pay attention to the way it behaves, the decisions it makes, and the people it hires.
Don’t know your organizational DNA? Here are some things to think about and do:
- Ask questions and listen. We know a new museum leader who’s spent his first hundred days working and learning in every department on his site.
- Read your organizational history. Even if it was written ages ago, look for the organizational truths that remain.
- Talk with your board, especially if you are new. Do they align with what the organization says about itself?
- Try to identify your organization’s intangibles: How do staff behave at work? What is considered the “right” way to behave at work? Does your organization have an ’embrace-all’ attitude for the public, but a staff that is bastioned and siloed?
- Write down the organizational truths you encounter. Discuss them. Test your theories with board members and colleagues.
It may take a while to come to consensus, but once you do, you can put all your organization’s writing to the test, and make sure it really speaks to who you are. Then maybe you can advertise for the individual you really need as opposed to the one-size-fits-all version.
Imagine this: You’re in a planning meeting. The discussion is momentarily rich, the whiteboard populated with words, phrases, and ideas. In the middle of it all, someone says, “But we can’t do that. We’ve always done it this way.” We’ve all heard it. It’s frequently offered, usually without malice, as if a higher being had just parted the clouds and offered your organization a sign that says DON’T CHANGE ANYTHING.
We know–even the person who uses the phrase knows–that past successes don’t predict the future especially in a world as lightning fast as ours. Yet museums and heritage organizations persist in trotting out the same programs in the same way, year after year. They resemble a virus. You’ve had it before, you’ve got it again.
Through the magic of Google I learned that Grace Murray Hopper (1906-1992), a pioneer computer scientist with a PhD in math from Yale, was the first person to point out how dangerous that phrase is. In 1976 she wrote, “On the future of data processing, the most dangerous phrase a DP manager can use is “We’ve always done it that way.” Hopper was a rear admiral in the Navy so she understood what it means to work in a tradition-bound organization although the clock in her office ran counter-clockwise if that tells you anything. Admittedly, Hopper is a total aside; she’s here to point out that if a woman in a highly-regulated, hierarchical, hide-bound organization can think like that, you can too.
But what if–even if you don’t like the scheduled program or event–it’s a crowd pleaser? Should you change something that’s a cash cow just for the sake of change? The New York City Ballet doesn’t say “Let’s skip the Nutcracker this year. It will be more fun to do something modern during the holidays.” And you shouldn’t skip your metaphorical Nutcracker either. But you can change the process and the way you plan. Just doing that is a big step towards changing your organizational culture. And as a leader, remember, resistance to change isn’t irrational. Often these events come at the busiest time of year when staff is already stressed, and may (rightly) feel if it “ain’t” broke why fix it?
So here are some thoughts, (in no particular order), about breaking out of the we’ve-always-done-it-that-way loop.
- Don’t let discussion end when the WADITW phrase is uttered. Ask the person to explain how and why the old way is still better. Keep talking.
- If you want to depersonalize discussion, ask a staff member to play the devil’s advocate at the start of the meeting, arguing the counter-intuitive position for the group.
- Ask everyone to finish the phrase, “But what if we….” in relation to the project, program or event.
- Build a post-mortem into all your events, programs and projects. Allow staff to evaluate while it’s fresh in their minds, and lay out possible changes for the coming year—or scrap the whole thing.
- Don’t let this become a Millennial versus Boomer problem. Younger staff don’t advocate change because they’re young. They advocate change because they look at problems differently. That’s what Boomers did in the ’70’s. Now it’s someone else’s turn.
- Listen. Really, really listen especially to the folks who are on the front lines of whatever event you’re evaluating.
Strong organizations grow. They grow by adapting, and adaptation happens intentionally. Repetitive behavior stunts growth. That’s not what your organization needs. Be the mold-breaker. Channel your inner Grace Murray Hopper and set the clock going the other way.
A colleague of mine is not happy. Her distress has nothing to do with her home life except perhaps that a dismal work situation affects life at home. Were she asked, she would describe work as a place absent respect, transparency, challenge, and perhaps honesty. But she isn’t asked. It’s no wonder she isn’t happy. Sadly, she’s not alone.
Recently Gallup released its State of the American Workplace Survey. Gallup looked at four levels of employee needs: basic needs, individual needs, teamwork and personal growth needs. Basic needs provide the training and context to allow employees to perform their best. This creates trust which in turn spurs teamwork, resulting in personal growth. Gallup posits that knowing what you’re supposed to do is a basic workplace need. That seems like a no-brainer, but in small museums or heritage organizations, particularly when millennials replace longtime employees, there is an assumption that the new hire will do whatever the old hire did. The elephant in the room is that sometimes no one really understands what the outgoing employee did, everyone just knows it got done. My colleague has never seen her job description. Left to figure out things on her own, she’s found herself frequently in possession of half the information making her work very frustrating.
You would think that if American workers were angry or dissatisfied, bored or disengaged, it might be because we work too hard. Or because we don’t make enough money. You’d be wrong on both counts. According to Gallup, if you’re among the 51-percent of disengaged American workers, it’s likely because you have a bad boss. Is it really possible that just over half of the country’s employees works for a less than able leader? Apparently. And guess what else bad bosses do? They create unhappy employees. How does this happen? Gallup reports that too often companies promote based on tenure–meaning you’ve been around a long time (Do I hear Millennials sighing out there?) or were successful in previous jobs. Neither of those things mean you were (ever) a good leader.
What does any of this have to do with museums? A lot. Our world is not so sacrosanct that we don’t have a few bad bosses of our own. Museums also sometimes promote based on accomplishments rather than demonstrated leadership skills; the Metropolitan Museum may be the most notable current example, but there are certainly others. Fortunately, the museum world has Joyful Museums. It’s the brainchild of Marieke Van Damme. She’s a museum leader by day, but she’s worked on Joyful Museums since 2013. And every year Joyful Museums takes the field’s temperature in the form of a workplace happiness survey. The 2017 survey is open now. If you haven’t already, please participate. The premise of Joyful Museums is positive, i.e. that identifying the museum field’s problems is the first step in creating better workplaces. Van Damme suggests that intense job competition, low wages, a do-more- with-less attitude, poor support for professional development coupled with a lack of understanding of HR issues leaves many employees in Gallop’s 51-percent of disgruntled disengaged workers.
Is there hope for change and happier staffs? Yes, and if you’re a museum leader or board member, there is still work to do. Remember, you’re not a social worker. Your job isn’t to fix staff members’ life issues. Your job is to provide a safe, equitable workplace that challenges its employees, encourages deep thought and imagination, while moving the organization forward. With that in mind, here are five things to do before summer.
- Find your institution’s HR policy. If it doesn’t exist, gather staff and trustees together and make one. If it does exist, does it need revision? Does everyone have access to it?
- Make sure all your employees have current job descriptions and receive annual employment reviews. Support their professional goals.
- Make sure all your employees know what is expected of them and can meet the goals you set together.
- Be a fierce advocate for benefits: paid time off; health insurance; family leave; maternity/paternity leave. If the day-to-day in your staff’s lives is taken care of, there will be far less stress at work.
- Don’t fall into the trap of we’re a non-profit so it’s okay if our hourly wage is less than a big box store. It’s not okay. The big box store doesn’t require a master’s degree. Make staff salaries a priority. People, not buildings, make change.
And tell us if your staff is happy.
This seems to be the season for strategic planning. Everyone wants a strategic plan. Or they want to revise the one they’ve already got. Maybe it’s because I live in Connecticut, which, if the legislature has its way, may soon be the only left-leaning state with no support for the arts and humanities. As a result, Connecticut arts and heritage organizations are scrambling to utilize dollars on the table, and many are turning to strategic planning. And that’s not a bad thing. Anything to keep the wolf from the door.
All organizations should plan, and more importantly, they should be comfortable with the planning process. Planning should be one of those things that just happens like bill paying, snow removal, or checking the temperature in collections storage. You just do it. Here’s what’s worrisome though. So much of strategic planning starts with the big-picture questions–the organizational equivalent of where do you see yourself in five years? And frequently those questions devolve into discussions about what an organization does or could do. In the end, that results in actions defining character and even mission, not the other way around.
What if museum leaders, and the legions of consultants who assist with the strategic planning process, asked why first? Why do we do what we do? And, perhaps more importantly, what does your organization stand for? Imagine you’re waiting outside your state senator’s office. His aide tells you his appointment with the local food bank is running over. Can you wait? Of course you can, but what are you going to say about work in a heritage or arts organization that matters as much as feeding the poor? Few of us would choose knowing why our communities are the way they are over three square meals a day. Yet understanding how our communities develop informs every decision we make today. A broad and nuanced view makes us better citizens. Isn’t that important?
If you’re asked who would miss your organization if it closed its doors 60 days from now, what would your answer be? Would it be families who come to the children’s after-school program your art museum runs, or residents who access the oral history project led by your historical society or would your answer be WHY you do those things? You run the after-school program because you believe all children need to see and make art. You run the oral history program because new residents, and those who’ve been in a community for decades, need to share and understand the choice they made in moving to your city or neighborhood. Asking the why question helps align beliefs.
So here is a short list of things to keep in mind if your spring to-do list includes the proverbial strategic plan:
- Does your organization have a shared values statement? If not, make one. A values statement is a governor on organizational action in the same way a collections policy limits what you collect.
- If you are a board member, ask yourself if you’re still passionate about the heritage or arts organization you serve. Are you a board member out of duty, habit or love?
- If you are a staff person, do you understand and believe in your organization’s values? Can you articulate how your program or department upholds those values?
- Many of us enter the museum world because things intrigue us— photographs or film, textiles or 18th-century high chests, landscape design or stained glass. As our careers move forward we find ourselves distanced from things, managing people and programs instead. Ask yourself why the museum field matters to you now. Why should it matter to your state legislator?
- Last, find the why in your work. Join your colleagues in making it matter. Life will be better and your planning process will go smoothly.
Tell us how you differentiate the how from the why at your museum or heritage organization.