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 our experience few people are ambivalent about Malcolm Gladwell. (If you’ve been in an isolation tank and managed to miss his meteoric publishing success, he is the author of Outliers, Blink, among others, and most recently David & Goliath.) Gladwell’s name came up in our book Leadership Matters in a chapter called “How Do We Know What We Know?” There we elucidated the qualities our group of 36 history and cultural museum leaders share. One of those characteristics was experience, and more specifically, the value of variety and perseverance when it comes to experience. What does this have to do with Gladwell? Quite a bit as it turns out. In his book Outliers he has a chapter on what he calls the 10,000 hour rule. In it, Gladwell expounds on research by K. Anders Ericsson, now at the University of Florida, on the differences in talent between pianists. Ericsson wanted to know why among people of similar natural abilities, some became gifted amateurs, while others took to the concert stage.
The answer has to do with practice. It turns out that those who became professional pianists steadily increased their practice time from three hours a week as children to more than double that as teens. By the time they reached their twenties they had practiced approximately 10,000 hours. Ericsson’s and subsequently Gladwell’s point is that what separates the sheep from the goats among the innately talented is time devoted to deliberately learning, honing and practicing increasingly nuanced and difficult music. Let us point out that neither Gladwell nor Ericsson are suggesting that anyone who practices endlessly will become a concert pianist. You need the music gene first.
What does any of this have to do with leadership? We discovered that our group of leaders had their own cache of 10,000 or more hours devoted to developing or advancing their craft. One visited, blogged and wrote about museums for years before becoming a director in her own right; several worked for grant making or consulting firms where every day they dealt with a new cast of characters and a new set of problems. The same is true of one of our leaders who worked in the state legislature and another who began his career as an actor. All these experiences required repetitive decision making at the point of transaction. Even if you think 10,000 is an arbitrary number, know that collectively our leaders took advantage of every situation that offered repeated practice, recognizing problems, evaluating alternatives and providing solutions.
Leaders need to learn to turn on a dime–to pause, pivot, and change at the drop of hat, and to do so with a dose of grace and humility. If you are already a leader, where did you find your 10,000 hours? If you are an aspiring leader, will you be open, courageous, and ready to take advantage of new experiences when they are offered? Let us know.