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.
It’s been a while since anyone at Leadership Matters was a graduate student or applying for first time jobs. (Back then it was a painfully slow business conducted via the U.S. mail.) But we suspect that in the museum bubble there are some career tropes that persist: You’ll become a museum anthropologist and spend half your time in the field; you’ll be profiled in the New Yorker for your work at a major art museum; your work in interpreting slavery or immigrants will become a model for the field. While we hope your dreams come true, it’s a fact that many newly-minted graduate students’ first job will be as “lone rangers”, serving as historic site managers for small, independent heritage organizations or managing sites for larger county or state agencies.
We were prompted to think all this when we read Robert Wolfe’s Experience Beyond the Classroom. Posted on AASLH’s blog, Wolfe’s tightly-written piece points out that being the only staff person may mean that a grasp of basic plumbing or the ability to operate heavy machinery can turn out to be as useful as the research for a master’s thesis. But we think what he’s really saying is two things: First, be open to possibility. If your pipe dream is to manage a major historic property, then realize what that means. You want to manage an old or very old property containing a lot of old or very old stuff. When you start applying for jobs a huge percentage of the competition will come to the table having completed an exhibit at a historic house or catalogued a malingering collection or done the fall school tours. But who apprentices themselves to the buildings and grounds supervisor or the director? Who watched and listened while leaders decided whether to trench the building’s exterior before or after the new roof was put on? Who sat in the back of the room while the historical society leadership went before the planning board to negotiate new signage? Wolfe mentions learning to drive a standard vehicle and operate heavy machinery. Assuming you’re not in graduate school virtually, you likely have an entire graduate school to learn from. Don’t confine yourself to the museum studies or art history program. Visit the plant manager. Shadow someone. A building is the biggest object–in fact, the container–for the rest of a heritage organization’s collection. So if you’ve been an apartment dweller or tenant all your life, recognize what you don’t know, and how to gain some experience.
You don’t need to master all the trades, but basic knowledge is helpful, which brings us to point two: be strategic. We can’t say this enough. You can want and wish and hope your way right through your graduate program, but when the rubber hits the road and you have to choose, you may end up a solo site manager. Here are some suggestions that may make the path easier once you find yourself the sole leader:
- Reach out to the heritage leaders in your area. Arrange a once-a-month gathering for drinks or coffee and an exchange of information. Learn from each other.
- Expand your posse of peeps to include a Mr. or Ms. Fix-it. Maybe it’s your father or your grandfather, maybe your best friend, but find someone who’s owned a home or two, who’ll take your call after you successfully turned off the spewing plumbing but before you meet with the plumbers.
- Know what you don’t know. You wouldn’t conserve a painting by yourself, you’d raise the money and send it to a conservator so don’t trust the care of the building to just anyone.
- Understand that there are likely people in your community who are more interested in your building and how it works than in anything inside or in the generations of folks who lived there.
- Don’t make decisions alone. Does your organization have a building committee? There are a lot of complaints about boards that don’t manage and boards that micro-manage, but when heritage buildings need help, that generally spells money. Not only should you not make those decisions by yourself, hopefully the strategy for making decisions already exists. When the roof is failing and snow is forecast is not the moment to test how your historic house functions in crisis.
- Know yourself: Do you work well independently? Will you seek community when you need it? Working as a loan ranger isn’t for the faint of heart.
Be well. Do good work, and send us your tips for life as a solo heritage organization leader.
It seems fitting that a few days after Thanksgiving 2016, we should say thank you. So to all of you from 129 countries, who are responsible for Leadership Matters’ almost 85,000 views, we’re grateful, humbled, and inspired. It’s been an awe-inspiring ride, and we wouldn’t be here without you.
But if you’re a leader, you understand that thank you’s shouldn’t be reserved for once or twice a year. Good leaders, whether in a museum, heritage organization or other non-profit know the power of an authentic thank you. Here’s a story: As many of you know I am a curator serving in a large organization whose primary focus is education. As a former boy’s school, there is a long shadow of testosterone that imbues our organizational DNA. A while ago a male colleague approached me. He has distinctive handwriting and he wanted me to write handwritten thank you notes for him addressed to some of our administrative staff. Why? He felt they were rarely thanked, and he wanted the praise to stay with them, not bounce back to him. I wrote about 20 notes. Each was accompanied by a fresh flower. Did we unlock the key to American education that week? No. Was there a lot of smiling in the hallway? Yes. That was a thank you that took planning. Most don’t. They are genuine often spontaneous compliments for jobs well done.
You know that old phrase “You attract more flies with honey than vinegar”? Well, it’s true. Gratitude is a trait, an emotion and a mood. Genuine gratitude is a response for good work, for a strong team, for an innovative program or exhibit or out-of-the box thinking. So, as we do for so many topics, here are some thoughts about gratitude for individuals, leaders and organizations.
- When something goes well, when it’s a pleasure working with your team or department members, thank them. Gratitude doesn’t just come from the director; you can thank your colleagues as well.
- When someone compliments you, own it. And say thank you.
- Make a thank you matter. Don’t diminish its meaning through overuse.
- Understand what your staff is doing so you can thank them appropriately, and so you know the difference between a daily job done well and a challenge met with new and inventive thinking.
- Be clear about whether you’re thanking an individual, a group or both, and don’t hesitate to call out an individual’s or a team’s exemplary service.
- Remember that 4 out of 5 employees say they would stay in a job longer if their boss showed appreciation for their work. This is not the moment to play Scrooge. Check out this link for more details on how employees feel about being appreciated: Glassdoor Survey.
- Be equitable in your thank yous. Don’t favor one demographic–new employees vs. experienced, young vs. old–over another.
- Be creative in how you thank folks. Can you offer an exemplary employee a chance at a juicy, creative project or a new parent the chance to telecommute?
- Respect your staff. Your behavior is an ongoing thank you.
- Appreciation–the act of saying thank you is a great motivator. Museums and heritage organizations thank donors all the time. Don’t forget to thank staff as well.
- As with leaders, thank you’s come in many forms. Raises are the most obvious and reflect gratitude for dedication and achievement at work. If that’s not possible, how about career development opportunities, time off or an unexpected gift? (My colleague’s notes and flowers, for example.)
- And speaking of time off, if you can’t close the museum or heritage site, can you offer half the staff four or eight hours off while the other half covers, and then reverse the procedure? Everyone gets paid time off and it may prove eye-0pening to experience the museum while covering someone else’s job.
- Make sure your board (or the the board’s compensation committee) understands what your museum staff values when it comes to employee appreciation and what they don’t, and make sure the leadership and staff are comfortable communicating that information.
So for those of you on a break from work this long weekend, we hope it was a happy one. Write and let us know how you say thank you as employees, leaders or as an organization.
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?
As part of our 100th post celebration we asked readers to tell us what was on their minds. One reader sent us an email that included this question: How do you work for an organization you love, with a mission you believe in, and cope with the horrible struggle of poor management behind the scenes? First, let’s acknowledge up front that there are often times in our lives when we don’t want to or can’t get a new job. If you are the trailing spouse or partner, if you have family ties that will be exacerbated by moving, or if you’ve only just begun a job and discover it isn’t the bowl of cherries you thought it would be, you may find yourself stuck when, in other circumstances, you would apply for a new job immediately.
So…what do you do? You’re doing work you like in a field you adore for a person whose idea of great is your idea of mediocre. Or worse, you work for a person who can’t get out of her own way, and who manages to make things worse not better. First, some coping strategies: These types of leaders can’t be depended on for much except confusion and mismanagement. As a result, don’t be rude, but try to avoid hallway conversations or spontaneous chats. You aren’t going to get the support you need and you will likely leave more confused than when you began. Poor leaders often don’t think strategically. That means you need to do the heavy lifting. Make sure your meetings are scheduled ahead of time. Make lists, and use them to guide conversation. Take notes during the meeting. Once it’s over, email a thank you and follow up with “This is my take-away.” That way, your job/role/project is down in black and white. Should anything go wrong or there’s any kind of misunderstanding, you’ve left the door open for your director to comment.
Second, make sure you have a mentor/advisor. This can be someone internal or better yet someone external. Remember, mentors aren’t therapists; they are there to help you navigate work and career situations. Don’t personalize or demonize your bad leader–that’s for drinks with your friends. Use time with your mentor to sort out your own communication style. Perhaps the way you ask questions is too oblique and you need to be more direct. Perhaps you are waiting for acknowledgement of your excellent work from someone who doesn’t recognize excellence, her own or anyone else’s. Perhaps you need to let go of things that aren’t your responsibility; in other words, play your position.
Once, when I launched into a rant about a co-worker, a very wise director looked at me and said, “People don’t change.” I sputtered to a halt. Of course people could change, and besides it’s for the sake of the organization. Why wouldn’t they want to moderate their behavior? Her answer: most of the time they don’t and they can’t. If you’re going to be good at the non-content part of your job, then you need to be adaptable, someone who can size up staff no matter where they are on the food chain and get along.
Last, here are some suggestions about how to make the external part of working for Mr. or Ms. Mediocre better.
- Don’t be the servant employee. Be a bit more self-centered. Think about your job as a resume builder. What can the job offer you–training, travel, mentoring–that makes you a better you.
- If you work in development, communications, HR or any field museums share with other non-profits, are there job opportunities that build your skill set away from the field, but allow you to stay in your community, city, town?
- Read last week’s post on More Than a Mentor and make sure you have a posse.
- Consider taking on an outside project as a consultant or a volunteer. Again, be strategic. What will it do for you? Allow you to work with folks you admire? Be a resume builder? Earn some extra money to fund either a vacation (re-charging in these situations is important) or professional development that your institution might not pay for.
- Look for opportunities and take them. Is it your turn to schmooze trustees through your department? Don’t avoid it because the trustees hired the incompetent leader in the first place. Meet them and sell your own piece of the pie.
- Finally, as we said last week, always check-in with yourself. Only you can know how sad, angry or tortured a job is making you. If it’s making you sick, step aside. You’re smart, well educated. There are other jobs in other fields. This may be the universe telling you to press pause on the museum field, so listen.
Are you working for the stress-you-out director? How do you cope?
Recently I’ve found myself listening to NPR’s Here & Now, a show I’m ashamed to say I somehow managed to miss. Not only is it good listening, but in the last two weeks I’ve heard two interesting broadcasts that you may also want to hear or read. Friday, Here & Now ran a long piece on women in leadership in American ballet. Don’t be skeptical until you’ve listened. You are free to turn it off if you don’t hear some parallels between the ballet world and the museum world especially those of you who are women.
I also heard an interview with Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, the author of Leadership B.S.: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time. Professor Pfeffer is NOT a fan of blogs like this one. He’s not much on the burgeoning leadership book industry either. He believes there are too many gurus out there, babbling uselessly and working hard to create metaphors out of their personal narratives. I think his exact quote was that “the leadership business is filled with fables.” While he acknowledges the power of stories, he believes all of us need “accurate and comprehensive data, either qualitative or quantitative.” That is probably true particularly for museum land where we wander about with way too little data in the human resource/leadership arena. He also suggested there’s a difference between the values we espouse for our leaders: courage, vision, empathy, for example, and the ones leaders actually possess, and which, for good or for ill, we’re left to follow.
Last, Pfeffer made a distinction between leaders who lead for themselves and leaders who lead for the institution. At its most basic, this is the difference between the classic ego driven my-way-or-the-highway leader and the servant leader. And that made me think. How many of you have worked for someone whose real goal was personal advancement? Was it automatically bad? Over the years I’ve known some very successful leaders in the museum world. They preside over building projects, vast renovations and top-to-bottom programming change, and in some cases, it’s less about the organization as a whole than it is about the leader. Call it resume building. Call it self-centered, but the work gets done and it’s not necessarily shoddy. It’s just more about them than their museum. The flip side of the coin is the proverbial servant leader. Ask her what she does and she’ll say she “serves” as the director for the blah dee blah history museum. Servant leaders are humbled by their work and their sense of purpose overshadows ego and personal gain.
While these are two diametrically opposed styles, I’m not sure there’s a right or wrong here. As long as the leader’s goals are aligned with an organization’s mission, her motivations are somehow less important. That’s from the leader’s point of view though. Working for the servant leader might be vastly different from working for a leader who’s a closet empire builder. Is it naive to assume that what motivates a museum director might also influence how she treats her staff, how she invests in her staff, and the degree to which creativity and risk are tolerated? On the other hand, how could seeing yourself as the museum’s servant not change how you do everything?
Which side of the leadership coin do you find yourself on? Or does it change? And what do you think of the world of leadership self-help? Do you stand with Professor Pfeffer and say just give me the data or are you inspired by others’ leadership stories? We love hearing from you and despite the Professor’s opinions, we don’t have any plans to stop writing.
This week I thought I would write a little bit about “process.” By process I mean the way we as individuals and groups work our way through something, whether it’s a project, a press release, a benefit, an exhibition. As leaders you’ve all been there. Not only do you have to bring whatever it is to fruition, you have to bring your staff along with you. Hopefully, along the way, you play to their strengths, engage them, light creative fires, and make something that is better than any one of you would have made alone.
But before we talk about process, a story. I spent my vacation in Maine in a tiny coastal town that is about as far from the state’s moniker of “the way life should be” as possible. It’s a town that never quite pulled itself out of the mess of 2008. There is too little work and there are too many houses for sale. In the center of the village, though, is the library, which shares space with the historical society. They are both housed in a handsome mid-nineteenth century house and have a huge group of volunteers who keep the place running. They are also in the middle of a $100,000 fund raising drive. Last week as part of that campaign, they held a pie sale. Here are the particulars: Volunteers bake pies and quiches. They deliver them to the library before 9 a.m. the morning of the sale and people like me spend $12 to $15 per pie. I have to assume that purchases are a bit of a gamble because all the bakers can’t be as good as the person who made the three-berry pie I bought. In any case, at the end of six hours they made almost $1,000.
I spent a lot of time at the Library around the pie sale, and it made me ponder the question of process. I learned that the volunteers scour tag sales throughout the year for pie dishes and that when you buy a pie the dish is included. I learned they buy personal size pizza boxes to put each pie in. I learned that the pie sale spawned a silent auction and an art sale.
All of this made me think about process, about the way, we as leaders and department heads, volunteers and board chairman, make something happen. Because I think too often what we forget, and we do it for the best possible reasons, is to begin with a vision statement. Why are we selling pies? And to make sure everyone has the same answer, which might be: To make a lot of money for our fund raising campaign. What needs to happen next, but often doesn’t is an outline to keep people moving from A to D and so on without wandering into the weeds of art sales and silent auctions. It might also help staff or volunteers save time. Maybe it isn’t necessary to scour tag sales for 11 months. Maybe there’s another way to get pie pans.
I don’t mean to cast aspersions at our Library, but merely to ask if part of your leadership mantra is clarity. Before you head into a meeting, do you rehearse what you’re going to say? Do you deliver your vision clearly? Have you learned to pull staff back when in their enthusiasm they want to add the art sale to the pie sale? Can you curb their enthusiasm kindly while channeling it into pies? Is your staff used to tossing ideas in the air and batting them around? Are they kind when someone offers up an idea that seems a bit loony and out-of-the-box? To the best of your abilities, does everyone leave the room ready to take on their part of the project?
If you answered yes to most of those questions, you and your staff are in a good place. And, I suspect, will sell a ton of pies. If not, think about the places where you stumble and go into the weeds. Is it during the delivery of the idea? Perhaps you think your ideas are clear as a bell, but they’re not. Are you someone who’d rather not direct the meeting too much and as a result it zigs and zags, before becoming a contest with pies as prizes? Or are you the leader who has trouble pulling staff back on track. It’s rough sometimes, but know you’re not the only one who is suffering. Colleagues all around the table are waiting for you to pull the group out of the ditch. You will not only get the project back on track, your staff will applaud in their heads, and as long as you are kind, the person who’s off-track will get over it.
Leaders don’t get a lot of rest. At least not at work. And as a leader, meetings are your time to shine. So next time you deliver the news about a project, event, exhibition, make sure you’re on track so your staff can follow. Remember, an unclouded vision spawns creativity, which leads to a great “to-do list,” which leads to a meaningful event or program or project. Good luck. And share your “pie stories” with us here at Leadership Matters.