We’ve just returned from Austin, Texas and AASLH’s annual meeting that brings history museum folks together every year in a new spot. The skies were blue, and the location in the center of the University of Texas campus beautiful. What’s not to like about sitting with coffee and colleagues in a beautifully-planted courtyard between sessions? But one of the best moments was hearing Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation.
This amiable, relaxed, yet powerful conversation was a tone-setter and a metaphor for the way the field has changed over the last decade. There was no lecture, no powerpoint, no white guy behind the podium. Instead Walker chatted with Dina Bailey, CEO of Mountain Top Vision, and an interviewee in our Leadership Matters book. Walker is a slight man, warm and funny, but someone who knows where true north is. His view of history is nuanced, and his approach to the human race generous. “We all romanticize and mythologize our narrative,” he said, “because we need to do that. How do we talk about the journey without demonizing the choices that were made?”
Asked what quality is needed for today’s leadership, Walker had a one-word answer: courage, adding that there are a host of disincentives to leading with courage, but because the risk now is greater than ever, now is the time to speak up, speak out, and be bold. He suggested that even 20 years ago the American narrative was more straightforward, less complex, but less honest. He sees today’s national narrative as more oppositional, making leadership difficult. “Great leadership is about bridge building,” Walker said, adding, “It’s much harder to build a bridge than a wall.”
He urged the audience to speak up and speak out. “Progress won’t be made unless we get uncomfortable. Our boards can be very comfortable with privilege and prestige.” He believes what we need from boards today is people comfortable with justice, equity, fairness, and opposition.
When Bailey asked him if museums should be neutral, Walker responded with a story, remembering when a Ford Foundation board member asked him why the Foundation supported artists making political art. Walker’s response was that art has always been political to some degree or another, and it’s naive and dishonest to believe otherwise. “Privileged people and institutions don’t like change,” he quipped, adding that privilege becomes a collective around the board table.
Walker talked about the fact that it’s possible to succeed without humility or curiosity because success insulates people from the hard reality of truth telling. He cautioned the audience that sometimes it’s necessary to engage with board members in a way that helps them realize they are speaking from privilege. “Trustees want to do right,” Walker said, “but we all bring our own bias and limitations.” He urged the audience to meet people where they are, and for museum leaders to remind their boards that they are there not just to preserve but to innovate.
One sobering note before we close. As part of the AASLH Conference we presented a panel discussion with four interviewees from our book, Women in the Museum, and just as we did at AAM, we asked the audience for a show of hands indicating who had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Almost the entire audience raised their hands. Nationally, one in three women experience workplace sexual harassment, and over 71-percent don’t report it. Isn’t it time the museum field took Darren Walker’s advice and stepped up, spoke out, and showed some courage in protecting and supporting its female employees?
Photo by Wyona Lynch-McWhite
We begin this week’s post with a note of hope and encouragement for our friends and colleagues at museums and heritage organizations in and around Houston, Texas. Museum leadership can be challenging in the best of times, but this disaster surely tested all of you. Our thoughts and prayers are with you, your families, and the organizations and collections you serve and protect. And for our readers, know that both AAM and AASLH have disaster advice on their web pages. In addition, AASLH is actively collecting for storm relief online and at its annual meeting that begins Wednesday. Last, if you haven’t reviewed your site disaster plan recently, now might be a good time. If there ever were a metaphor for what leaders do, it’s a disaster plan. Leaders always need to be prepared for whatever comes next.
This week my organization spent time discussing issues of gender in order to prepare the community to support transgender and gender non-conforming students. We were lucky enough to have Mb Duckett Ireland, Choate School’s Diversity Education Chair speak to us. Late in the talk Mb dropped a line about intention versus impact. It stuck with me, and I thought about it the rest of the week.
There are so many moments when leaders intend one thing, and the result is the opposite. If you asked me to sum up everything I’ve read about intention vs. impact since Mb’s talk, it would be: It’s not about you; it’s about the person you’re talking to.
Too often we assume that positions of leadership automatically confer brains, kindness and respect. Sadly, as all of us who’ve worked for lousy leaders know, there’s nothing automatic about it. But back to intent vs. impact. Imagine, you are a museum leader, and you make a comment to a staff member. You mean it in a jovial, friendly way, but as soon as the words are out of your mouth, you realize something’s happening. And it’s not good. What do you do? Well, too often we retreat, we try to pretend whatever happened didn’t happen and move through the rest of the day. And if we’re confronted with what happened, we rarely sit right down in the space that makes us uncomfortable and say, holy smokes I was rude. We don’t engage because it’s uncomfortable to say “I messed up,” and because we’re afraid of making a bad situation worse.
One of the things the privileged (and all of us who are leaders, and therefore deciders occupy a place of privilege to a greater or lesser degree) don’t seem to realize is that tiny comments, assumptions, jokes and judgments aggregate. And it really doesn’t matter if you were “just trying to be funny” if on the receiving end it’s not funny but hurtful. Your intentions may be good, but your impact biased. And it’s your impact that packs a punch especially when later instead of apologizing you try to explain you’re not a misogynist or a racist or both.
As leaders we not only provide the vision and roadmap for our organizations, we model a way of being. Acknowledging that staff members have different identities, and working to create equitable workspaces is something all museum leaders need to do. We all mess up occasionally. When that happens do what needs to be done: Admit your mistake; connect with the person you’ve hurt or offended; reach out. You’ll find you build a team not a hierarchy.
We begin this week’s post with an invitation. For all of you traveling to Austin for AASLH’s annual meeting beginning September 6, we hope you will join us for “Workplace Confidential: Museum Women Talk Gender Equity,” a panel discussion on women in the museum workplace. Moderated by Anne Ackerson with panelists Ilene Frank, Shakia Gullette, Wyona Lynch McWhite, and Jessica Phillips, this panel is for everyone across the history museum world who has experienced gender-related workplace issues. It’s for emerging professionals who’ve had to deal with sexual harassment; it’s for women of color, who deal daily with the intricate intersection of low pay and benign racism, and for leaders who handle complex personnel issues daily. Panels like this one can’t wave a magic wand and send you home to a changed workplace, but they can help you feel you’re not alone, and offer advice and encouragement.
So if you’re going to be in Austin, we hope we’ll see you September 7 at 1:45 pm. Anne and I will also be around afterwards if you want a copy of our new book, Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace. We’ll even sign it for you!
Last week Artnet News ran an article titled “Is It Time for a Woman to Run the Metropolitan?” Their answer was a resounding yes, and just in case the Metropolitan’s interview list isn’t gender balanced, Artnet provided them with names of 11 stellar female candidates.
Leadership Matters would like to see the Metropolitan with a woman director too, but we’re going to go out on a limb here: The Met’s having a woman director is not the goal. The goal is equity in the hiring process. Frankly if the Met’s destiny is female leadership, history tells us now might be the moment. The museum has reorganized its leadership structure so that whoever becomes director will report to Daniel Weiss, President and COO. This “almost” position is a traditional spot for women. It is a place they frequently occupy in government museums, playing the role of task-oriented collaborator while the political appointee (often a white male) in the corner office is the performance based communicator. In addition, if you scan leadership positions in American museums, you will find that women are often hired to lead troubled organizations. Once they are off the respirator, they’re frequently handed back to a male leader.
Even though we wrote the book on women in the museum workplace, there’s something really depressing about parsing the leadership game by gender. In an equitable world we would assume that the Metropolitan’s top-five list might include women, people of color, and openly gay or queer candidates because we would assume that good leadership is good leadership. We would assume that as the country’s largest museum, the Metropolitan wants to lead by example. We would assume it incorporates blind screening into the hiring process, and that HR staff and board committees discussed how unintentional bias affects hiring. (They could learn a lot from AAM here.) Last, we would assume that the Metropolitan wants a professional with a proven track record and a particular skill set. This is very important for candidates who are not white males. Why? Because statistics show us that men are promoted on promise and potential while women are promoted on performance.
The bottom line? It would be awesome to see the Metropolitan join the Brooklyn Museum, giving us two organizations with budgets over $15,000, 000 with woman directors, but it’s the process we care more about. Changing lives for women leaders means museum workplace culture must change too, and that means boards need to be open, transparent, intentional, and as bias-free as possible in the hiring process. When it comes to hiring, boards need to recognize that what is paramount is the museum, not their private discomfort or uneasiness in the face of difference.
I have a colleague who is forthright, direct, sometimes foul-mouthed, and an incredibly dedicated and hard worker. She will also walk your dog if you’re on crutches, babysit so you can have a date night, or bring you food if you get Lyme disease. And no, she’s not perfect. Recently I commented on her new boss–a change that happened this summer–and wished her well. Her new leader is female, the outgoing one male. Knowing the former relationship was difficult, I said something to that effect. Her response? “Yes, but I enabled a lot of his behavior.”
That comment stopped me in my tracks. I asked what she meant. Her response? “Often I couldn’t wait for him to complete a project, write a letter, whatever, so I would make the work happen.” As a result, he looked good. The work got done. The way she explained it, the lightning pace of today’s workplace coupled with the power imbalance of leader to staff member, made discussing what, for her, was a challenging work situation difficult. In her mind, work trumped her frustrations so she she made sure it was completed smoothly, and moved forward. The only problem? Without time to press pause and talk things out, she was angry about doing his work and hers.
Remind you of anything? Maybe you’re an enabler: Trapped in a situation where there is no possible way explain to your boss how often she lets others (like you) pick up the slack. Or maybe you’re the leader. Museum leadership in 2017 is a multi-layered endeavor. The pace is fast, the news/social media cycle relentless. Leaders need a host of skills to move museums or heritage organizations from mediocre to majestic. We would argue, though, that the chief skill should be relationship building. Strong relationships build trust. Trust builds teams, and strong workplace teams change organizations.
We like to think a leader who’s observant about work relationships–whether through listening or watching–would have quashed a situation like the one described at the beginning of this post. Teams flourish because every member has a role to play, and in happy workplaces, staff are willing and able to cover for one another if there’s a need. Museum leaders, however, should never confuse support given willingly to help a colleague with an absence of effort that means other staff members cover or enable for someone who’s not getting the job done. And they need to be self-aware enough, to see that these situations apply to them as well as folks in external affairs, communications or education.
We’ve said it a lot in these pages: leaders need to make a habit of self-reflection–daily, weekly–whatever works. While walking the dog, sitting on the subway, jogging, or watching the sunset with a glass of wine, do a check-in. Go over what happened that day or that week. This isn’t mea culpa time. This is so you’ll know where the dragons are as you chart the course for the next day or week. And sometimes the dragons are you. Be a big enough person to recognize your own failings and self-correct.
In the wake of the ongoing dismay surrounding the Berkshire Museum’s decision to renovate its building, change its focus, and shore up a plundered endowment, and Lee Rosenbaum’s cautionary post about the National Academy of Design — another organization that hoped to cure its ills with cash — we’ve been thinking a lot about boards, board culture, board building, and board behavior.
We’ve written about museum leadership since 2013. Our focus has been the women and men leading museums and heritage organizations. Any of you who’ve read our posts know we believe passionately that the museum field needs to invest more in its leaders and staff than its infrastructure.
Lately museums have made news for a host of reasons including poor decision making and inattention. Each incident sends the press scurrying to find similar situations so the public is reminded of the field’s misdeeds. The field needs to make our job sector a place with better salaries, better benefits, HR offices, personnel policies, and gender equity training. That’s a cultural shift that isn’t going to happen overnight, and a lot of the heavy lifting needs to be done by museum boards. We don’t have a magic wand, but if we did, here are our five wishes for board behavior:
- Boards who understand why they’ve chosen to serve, who know that service is about the institution, whether it is tiny and all-volunteer or a community’s anchor store.
- Boards who believe in the museum field, who understand it’s a place with its own culture, rules, and most importantly, ethics and standards. Those standards weren’t invented a century ago because the folks at the newly-formed American Association of Museums (now American Alliance of Museums) had nothing else to do. On good days these ethics and standards actually inform what the field does.
- Boards who invest in museum leadership within their own ranks as well as staff ranks find that it can be a key to making change, not just an opportunity to shift the responsibility of leadership off their own backs.
- Boards who have a deep understanding of why their organizations matter know it is an understanding that informs and eases the ongoing task of raising money.
- Boards who know that museums hold the public trust, and realize that being a non-profit isn’t a ticket to practices and behaviors they wouldn’t sanction in their own businesses.
This sounds like we think all boards are badly behaved, and we don’t. Many, many are exemplary. But for the sake of collections, communities, and museum staffs, we’d like to see boards move the needle away from downright poor decision making and mediocrity. And the sooner the better.
Dear museum baby boomers, this post is for you.
If you were born after 1964, this may confirm or support some of your worst fears, so you may want to give it a pass. Here at Leadership Matters we’re now in the chapter where some of our museum mentors are retired–taking cooking classes, exercising like fiends, traveling, reading novels–while others are beginning to announce their retirement dates. Or they are starting to do the work to make that happen: achieving the last, penultimate position, beefing up their consulting business, downsizing, buying the forever home. You know the drill.
Then there are the folks who should be planning their exit, but aren’t. The only decision they’ve made is to stay on as long as possible. They’re treading water, sucking up big(ger) salaries, and contributing in the most lacklustre fashion. They give the rest of us a bad name. Don’t get us wrong. We more than understand that the overall crappiness of museum salaries may mean working ’til age 70 isn’t a choice but a necessity. But, we firmly believe that employees should be judged by their contributions, never by their age, gender or race. And age and length of tenure don’t give you the right to coast–at least not until you’ve announced your exit date. In fact, no matter what your age, we hope you’re not coasting, but instead contributing your best self at work.
Study the colleagues you admire most, whether in the museum field or elsewhere. They are probably individuals who are constantly on a path of reinvention. They are probably not people hiding behind we’ve-always-done-it-that-way–or people who believe social media is the instrument of the devil. They’re the people who somehow link their institutional knowledge, which may be vast, to what’s going on the museum field, and always manage to say something new (and wise) in meetings. They are the people we all want to be when we get over our case of impostor syndrome.
So if you’re a boomer, we urge you to be a contributor ’til the day you pack up your office. Perhaps your museum or heritage organization has a succession plan in place. Whether it does–and they are excellent planning tools–you can have a personal succession plan as well. Just as you strategized your career when you were in your 30’s, 40’s or 50’s, a personal succession plan can help design your exit.
Don’t wait ’til you’re on your way to your retirement party to whine that no one picked your brain, and asked about that great store of knowledge you’ve amassed. Write it down. This actually applies to everyone. Commit work flow and basic tasks to a document. That way even if you have a skiing accident, your colleagues can step up and complete some basic tasks.
And if you are retiring, what information would someone need to do your job well on day one? How have your organization’s quirks informed the way you do things? Were you a path-breaker in your position? Would you be willing to train your successor, and if the answer is yes, what might that look like? Perhaps the most important thing you need to strategize is what you’ll do when your days aren’t consumed with meetings, openings, and planning. Write that down too, but don’t share it. That’s for you and the rest of your life.
It’s summer. The days are long, and a lot of us are on vacation. If you will retire this year, commit to making the next 12 months the most fruitful ever. Go out with a bang.
Recently the Metropolitan Museum announced a change in its leadership structure. You’ll recall that former tapestry curator Thomas Campbell, the Met’s director since January 2009, resigned under pressure in February. Since then, the art museum world has been awash in speculation about who might succeed Mr. Campbell. The answer (sort of) is Daniel Weiss who is currently the Met’s president and CEO. Weiss’s new title will be president and chief executive. Most importantly, the museum’s new director–a position that’s still open– will report to Weiss.
Not surprisingly, this change set museum tongues wagging. For some, making Weiss top dog means the Metropolitan’s board is putting business (and money) ahead of content and mission; however, both Weiss and the as yet unnamed director will serve on the museum board and collaborate on its priorities. For others, there’s also the implication that the Met’s problems are all of Tom Campbell’s making. While Campbell may not have been the most able leader, it seems too easy to blame everything on him. Clearly he wasn’t prepared to move from leading the tapestry department to leading the whole museum, and his choices regarding relationships with women on the Met’s staff seem unprofessional at best. But the idea that Tom Campbell alone led the museum into its financial morass seems too facile. Where was the Metropolitan’s board in all of this? Were they so bewitched they forgot their fiduciary responsibilities, allowing Campbell to spend willy nilly?
The Met is the size of many small towns. In that, it’s unlike the vast majority of American museums. At least one museum blogger suggested that the Met’s new division of leadership runs counter to the American Association of Art Museum Directors’ (AAMD) guidelines which state, “The board should appoint the director—to whom it delegates responsibility for day-to-day operations—to be the chief executive officer of the museum.” AAMD’s guidelines may be the right path for most art museums. But the lesson here is that while guidelines are important, leadership for individuals and organizations is specific, and in many ways, personal. Museum boards need to choose the best possible leadership path for their organizations, and who’s to say that in this new, lightning-fast world, where ambiguity and change wait at every corner, that bigger museums wouldn’t benefit from a made-to-order leadership plan? The Met’s bi-partisan model is found more often in academia than museums, yet it makes its own kind of sense. The beauty of the Met’s solution is that in Daniel Weiss it found a person with a PhD in art history and an MBA from Yale, someone who has reportedly earned the trust of the Met’s chief curators, and someone who walks the walk.
How do leadership decisions like this flourish? They happen where boards aren’t wedded to old hierarchical models, where boards are interested in the challenge of change and cooperation. They happen when boards are willing to try and understand organizational culture. And, last but not least, leadership changes when boards invest time in actually finding the best solutions for their organization, rather than hiring someone so they can revert to doing what they’ve always done.
At the director/CEO level, leaders who truly embrace change need to be collegial and collaborative; they need to be as interested in serving as leading. The Met’s solution may not be the model for your organization, but the point is that the lone director, reporting to a board of trustees, is not the only model.
The world has changed. It’s global. It’s fast. Museums need alert, responsive leadership. That happens when boards and museum leaders collaborate, creating leadership models tailored to their organizations. That takes courage.
- Know your organization. Really know it.
- Use that knowledge to create a leadership model that works for the organization, not one that makes life easy for the board.
- Be bold. As trustees you want to do more than hand over a mediocre museum to your successors. Your community, museum staff, donors, and volunteers deserve the best. Figure out what that is.