Change is a constant for today’s museum or heritage organization leader. It happens on a multitude of levels. One of our Leadership Matters interviewees summed it up when she quipped, “If you’re the kind of person that needs a structured environment to survive, I don’t think you can be a successful director.” Anyone who’s had their board president announce her resignation on the same day the pipes froze, which was also the same day an elderly volunteer slipped on the front walk and the NEH grant was due, knows that life in museum leadership can come at you fast.
There’s a personal element to accepting life as it comes that’s important. Our interviewee was right. There ought to be a sign hanging over the door to master’s programs in museum studies that says, “The Rigid Need Not Apply,” or better yet, “All Ye Who Are Nimble, Welcome Here.”
Today’s museum leaders know museums need to change to compete. The world moves too quickly for them not to respond. What does that mean? Just like individuals, organizations need to be present, authentic members of their communities. Too many museums and heritage organizations confuse being open with being engaged. Opening the doors on weary exhibits or roped off period rooms barely captivates anyone on a first visit, much less a second or third. Healthy organizations adapt in order to move forward. Like creative individuals they experiment, reflect, and try again in a constant effort to connect. If you wrote it as an equation, it might look like this: objects (or substitute paintings, plants, etc.) + context +communication = connection.
Here is Leadership Matters’ Top-Ten Change Check List. Use it to think about change in your organization, department or program.
- Remember if you are the executive director, you’re not the only change agent.
- Know how change–from small tweaks to capital improvements– happens in your museum. Make sure the change process is equitable.
- Big changes need to happen with staff not to them. Make sure everybody’s involved in change and everybody has a voice. Innovation and engagement should happen museum-wide.
- Once the organization commits to change, as a leader you do too. Save sarcasm or negative feelings for friends or run it off at the gym.
- Don’t try to do everything yourself. Change, especially big change, requires an all-hands-on-deck attitude. However inviting, it’s not the time to retreat to your office and close the door. Collaborate.
- You don’t know it all. Change is a learning opportunity. Listen. Listen. Listen.
- Get out of the weeds. If you’re leading change, you have a responsibility to the big picture. If you get that right, the details will follow.
- Change–especially big change–may require some uncomfortable conversations. Be prepared to confront, collaborate, and persuade the naysayers.
- Stagnation is bad and boring, but change for its own sake is like a nervous tick. Make sure you understand why change is happening before your board, staff and volunteers become change weary.
- Just like any big project–term paper, cleaning the garage, packing to move–change needs to be broken into smaller projects. Don’t micromanage. Let others lead and celebrate their success.
How does your organization make change?
We have written a lot about gender issues in museums on this blog, but the most obvious and also the most difficult is salary equity. Just in case anyone believes that in a field well on its way to being majority women that women are paid on a par with men, think again. This is a case where becoming a majority does not help unless everyone does something about equitable pay. And don’t get us started about how gender, race and sexual orientation influence salary equity. The gap just grows.
Don’t talk about how important it is to “diversify” your staff if you don’t address the salary equity question first. Whose problem is this? Everyone’s. Those of you receiving your graduate degrees this spring and looking for a first “real” job, and those of you who are board members, HR leaders, directors and staff members.
So what should you do? Well, not to sound too woo woo, but it depends where you are in the circle. If the ink is barely dry on your degree, make sure you have done your research as your job search narrows. Use AAM’s salary survey. If your grad program doesn’t own it and you’re not an AAM member, find someone who is. They can access the 2012 survey for you online or purchase the current survey (2014) for $60. Several of the regional museum service organizations have also issued salary surveys. Guidestar recently published its 2016 compensation report. With a $374 price tag, it’s beyond the reach of most individuals, but know that many nonprofit associations publish statewide statistics for the nonprofit sector. Use them. Find the job area you’re interested in and look at the salary range. Then use the MIT Living Wage Calculator to figure out how expensive it will be to live in a particular area. An acquaintance of mine is a finalist for an assistant director position at a big non-profit in Washington, D.C. It’s a chance to work with a mentor and she is one of three semi-finalists. She’s thrilled as she should be. Using the MIT Calculator, she will need to make $32,000 just to meet her expenses (fifty percent of which will go towards housing), and that list of expenses does not include school loans or lunches out or drinks after work or incidentally an apartment with a high charm quotient. If you are looking at jobs in less competitive markets, your living wage will be lower, but so will your expenses.
If you already have a job, but are looking for a new one, you will want all the same information; however, when you get to the interview stage, don’t provide your previous salary information. The relative wealth and culture of your previous employer and its failure to pay you adequately or not isn’t relevant when it comes to your job performance. (If you’re lucky enough to live or interview in Massachusetts, the new pay equity law which goes into effect in 2018 will prevent employers from asking about your previous salary.) And, if you are asked, all your research into cost of living will pay off when you turn the question around and tell the interviewer the salary range you are interested in. Whatever you do, don’t start to negotiate and than back down. There is only one sweet spot, and unless there are a dozen family and personal reasons to say yes, don’t. Your dream job won’t be your dream job if the only rent you can afford is a 40-minute commute away from work, so be prepared to say no thank you if you don’t get the offer you want.
What about women who suddenly discover they’re grossly underpaid? Say you run into the man who had your job before you and find out he was paid considerably more than you are. What do you do? Don’t rush into anyone’s office. Take a breath. Pull all your research together: for the working world, for the field, and for your organization. Ask for a meeting about your job performance. Presuming the results are positive, then reveal your discovery. If your board, CFO, director or HR person says no to a 20-percent raise in a year (assuming that’s the gap) see if you can get it guaranteed at 10-percent annually over two years. Remember, your base salary haunts you forever, prompting future raises, driving Social Security and retirement packages. If they say no absolutely, clearly it’s a red flag.
And what if you’re a board member, director, CFO or head of HR? We presume you believe in gender equity; and that you want to govern and or lead an equitable organization. What can you do? Figure out what the salary imbalance is across the staff, and how long it might take you to even things out. Create a values statement and a wage equity statement so gender equity becomes part of organizational policy. And let people know. Issue a press release, do a session at your regional service organization’s annual meeting. Taking a stand on these issues is rare. Heck, even acknowledging them is rare. How could it possibly hurt a museum, historic house or heritage organization if women knew it was committed to paying equitably? If the worst that might happen is that you are besieged with applications from bright, talented women (and men) who want to work for you, is that a problem? But we have huge capital problems and deferred maintenance you say? Maybe, but if your staff is unfocused and surreptitiously looking for work during the work day, they aren’t happy and you’re not getting your money’s worth. Get the best staff you can afford. What staff member does less for an organization after a salary bump, especially one tied to universal values?
Is your organization committed to a gender equitable pay scale? Write and tell us your story.
Last week our post on bullying brought comments about how bullies and staff in general are hired. Several of the commenters offered potential interview techniques to weed out the mean, the lazy, and the pompous. If you also read Christy Coleman’s blog post “Are History Museums Stuck on Stupid?” you can’t help but wonder if, as Coleman says, “too many [museums] are stuck in pedagogical or operating models that simply don’t work well anymore.” And, if you didn’t read it, you should.
Coleman chastises the field for wringing its collective hands as visitation declines; for meeting locally, regionally and nationally to hear about whatever the next big thing is when there is no one-size-fits-all cure; and for believing data is the magic elixir that will send visitation soaring. She concludes by offering an example of visitor engagement from The American Civil War Museum where she is the CEO. No surprise, its visitation has grown slowly and steadily over the last five years as Coleman and her staff engage their community in its own story. (We profile Coleman in our book, Leadership Matters, BTW.)
One of the smartest things Coleman says is “Museums want to be taken seriously, but often the biggest mistake is framing exhibits and programs for other colleagues.” In other words, don’t preach to the choir. What she doesn’t mention–at least overtly–is museums may be stuck on stupid (or mediocre) because their staff (and boards) need a shake up. We know there’s no shortage of eager, optimistic museum graduate students trying desperately to break into the field. Why then, especially in the world of history museums and heritage organizations, are so many museums trapped doing what they’ve always done: the roped off room; the docent-led tour; the exhibit of like objects with brief, yet grave, labels? What would happen if these same museums broke with tradition and hired an English major, an art major, or a psychology minor? Would our careful world implode if we looked at things differently? What if the English major’s charge was to figure out a house museum’s narrative and the places where it intersects with today’s world. Today the word revolutionary can have a slightly nasty tinge, but what about when it’s applied to 18th-century Boston? How are those revolutionaries different?
To ask these kind of questions you have to have a staff who is creative, non-judgmental, and whose primary concern is making their narrative resonate in their community. And to be clear, their community is the place where their historic house, heritage organization or museum is located. It’s not where the board lives or where the staff lives. If this is the staff you want, then your interview techniques not only have to suss out whether job applicants are vain and lazy, but whether they think in original ways, what books are on their bedside table, what was the last movie they saw, and when was the last time they took a risk, and whether it paid off. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know that rule- or tradition-bound cultures drive creative people away. Here’s Lolly Daskel on why they leave: 10 Dumb Rules That Make Your Best People Want to Quit.
To break out you have to want to break out. I’m fond of quoting David Young, Director of Cliveden in Philadelphia (and another Leadership Matters interviewee), who said organizations have to “allow leadership.” I would alter that and say organizations have to want change, and that begins with who you hire.
How is your museum breaking out of the loop?
In May I attended the Connecticut League of History Organizations (CLHO) annual meeting. In November, Anne and I, along with our friend Marieke Van Damme, go to the New England Museum Association’s (NEMA) annual meeting. According to the Bureau of Labor statistics if we could put everyone who works for a museum in one place, there would be 353,000 of us. If given a binary choice–46.7-percent of us–would identify as women. At meetings and conferences like CLHO, NEMA and huge events like AAM, there are a lot of women, and that visual makes many people believe our gender issues are solved. Done. Finished. There are so many women, what’s to complain about? We’ve arrived. Life is good.
We don’t believe that’s true, and before we say why, indulge us. We’re going to digress. Every week new readers find this blog. As its writers and designers, our focus is on what we’ve written most recently, but readers troll the archives looking for topic headings that interest them. Sometimes they comment. This week we received a comment from a women in response to the post “Can Museum Women Have It All?” It’s a heart breaker. If you’re inclined, you can scroll the 21 other comments for that post, some funny, some angry, some hoping for change. And if you’ve read it, you’re probably thinking, this woman’s problems are her own and don’t have anything to do with her job, whether it’s in museums or not. Yes. Sort of. Yet a field with notoriously poor salaries, especially for women, and more particularly, weak benefit packages, can leave anyone with family responsibilities (and I don’t just mean children) on the ropes.
Here’s what we believe about the gender question. A growth in population in a particular field doesn’t mean a problem is solved. Open doors don’t mean as much as we want them to–just think about museums and race. Fine to say we hire everyone, but oh, guess what? You need a graduate degree? How hard is that? Very, depending on your circumstances, and whether it’s intended to or not, it acts as a sifting mechanism.
But back to gender. A surfeit of women simply means more women in the late twentieth century invested in graduate school and found the museum field, but it doesn’t guarantee job equity, no siree. Think things are good where you work? Maybe they are. But ask yourself if your museum has the following:
- An organizational values statement.
- A board that has ever discussed any aspect of gender for any reason–organization, staff, exhibitions, board composition.
- An open salary scale, committed to avoiding bias and to equitable pay.
- Vacation and personal time off that allow staff to care for families and themselves when they are ill.
- Paid maternity and paternity leaves that allow parents to compete more equally in the job market.
- A private space for nursing mothers that’s not a bathroom stall.
- Flex time for staff.
After reading that list is the thought bubble over your head full of –but we have no money for paid leave, and my board would never discuss gender; it wouldn’t know how, and how can you have an open salary scale when your staff is tiny, and, and, and? Stop. Is it so radical to think about making museum human resources the center of a conversation? How might your workplace change if staff were less stressed about family and more focused on work? Think about the time lost when staff (or young directors) leave and the organization needs to re-group, re-hire, re-train. Grapple with the idea that your organization may require a master’s degree to apply, but pay less than a for-profit administrative job where a college degree isn’t required. Understand that your organization will never have a diverse staff if your job advertisements and subsequent job descriptions are best suited to someone with little graduate school debt and a well-off partner who provides benefits.
These are not problems you or your board will take care of in a day, a week or a month. But a willingness to acknowledge a problem and start down the path toward change will make the field better for everyone. Don’t wait for business to solve this problem. Let’s make museums the place that addressed the gender issue first and worked to solve it.
What are you doing to make museums better, more equitable ,workplaces?
Many of us remember Donald Rumsfeld’s famous remark to American troops in 2004, “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” It’s become a kind of trope for dealing with things as they are rather than as we’d like them to be. And unless you’re lucky enough to start a museum from the ground up, in the world of museum leadership it’s something all of us understand. From lazy boards to poorly-trained volunteers, to staff whose idea of great is your version of mediocre, leadership is rife with situations where directors, chief curators or department heads find themselves leading folks they might not have hired in the first place.
So what do you do? First, understand your role. Were you hired to be a change agent? Do you work for an organization that embraces change and is willing to raise the money for new staff and new salaries? If so, lucky you. If you weren’t make very sure you understand your role and your organization. Change isn’t easy, and when it comes to HR, you need wholehearted support from your board or director to persuade long-time employees that their jobs, work habits or responsibilities may change.
Second, get to know your staff. By that I don’t mean whether they raise chihuahuas, compete in triathlons or collect orchids. I mean get to know them at work. What the heck do they do? And how do they do it? For all you know they may have had spectacularly poor mentoring for the last however many years. Or the previous director’s understanding of that particular job was very different from your vision. So meet with them; shadow them.You may learn their concerns are similar to yours, but they’ve had no one to talk to, and neither the power nor the support to make change. Remember, no matter what you’ve been told about the leader you replaced, unless you worked for them too, you have no idea what it was like to be their employee. And here’s a little leadership truth: Being someone’s employee is very different than hearing that person talk about being a boss.
Last, before you review job performances or re-write job descriptions, make sure you provide staff with clear expectations and a safe, empowering environment in which to work. Don’t micro-manage. They will wonder why you’re getting the big bucks if you have time to wander in the weeds. Give them responsibility and let them run with it. Show them you trust them. Some will need more hand holding and check-ins, others not so much, but with clear expectations, it will be obvious when benchmarks aren’t met. Then and only then can you begin to winnow the staff you’ve got in order to create the staff you want. But this isn’t a recipe for letting staff go. Trust is a powerful engine. Call me a Pollyanna, but believing in staff members and gently pushing them to achieve is a good thing. Just make sure your equation is job understanding + clear objectives = benchmarks met. And don’t forget to say thank you.
What’s your strategy for moving your organization forward with what you consider a less than stellar staff?
Think of this post as a letter, a letter to all the boards of trustees searching for new directors, to headhunters, to museum administrators in large organizations looking for new curators or department heads, and to graduate school professors charged with molding the leaders of the future.
You write the job description with its list of characteristics and set it loose online. Based on AAM’s current list of job openings, here’s what museums, science centers and heritage organizations want from aspiring leaders. They need to be collaborative, intelligent, thoughtful, problem solving, ethical. They should possess high emotional intelligence and be community minded. They must also be able to make decisions, be creative, solve problems, and exercise good judgement.
It is probably unfair to criticize job descriptions randomly, but if you read enough of these you wonder why anyone yearns for a museum leadership position–clearly you take the world on your shoulders–leave aside why an organization feels it necessary to say it wants applicants to be intelligent. Really? Is the opposite “We’re looking for an average sort of person who will maintain this organization without challenging us too much so we as board members can fulfill our terms with a modicum of energy?” What is important here is that leadership doesn’t just reside in an individual. Organizations that matter own their leadership.
Recently I’ve turned back to one of our interviews for Leadership Matters, this one with David Young, the Director of Cliveden in Philadelphia. Young is well-spoken, thoughtful, and courageous. What sticks with me about his interview is his insistence that leadership is organic and organizational. In fact, the last line of his interview is, “A lot of organizations have to allow leadership. It has to be needed and wanted.”
Of course museums want great leaders, but it is a rare individual who is the sole catalyst for dynamic, systemic organizational change. No one works alone. Change happens because organizations are open to it. Dynamic organizations begin a search by recalibrating, checking in. Who and what have they become during the outgoing leader’s tenure? Are they happy with it? If yes, how can it be sustained? If no, what changes do they need to make? New directors aren’t magicians, lion tamers or psychologists although at times they may have to master skills from all three professions. And they don’t make change alone. Good leaders inspire, motivate, and outline a vision for the future that pulls board, staff and volunteers in is wake. But the board’s role is to understand the organization, to know where it wants it to go, and most of all to be open to change and to challenge.
Does your organization own its leadership? How do you know?