The Thin Ice in Your Museum Leadership

thin-ice

It’s winter in New England, and in the wake of multiple storms, it’s hard not to think about snow and its dangerous cousin, ice. It falls off roofs, sends trucks spinning, and encases your car in armor. And yes, since we’re talking about museum leadership here, ice makes a pretty perfect metaphor.

Ice is all the things you can’t prepare for. You prepare for snow, but the temperature goes up just enough and the heavens deliver sleet. Some of you might say a huge percentage of your job is dealing with things you can’t prepare for: the steady-as-a-rock employee who tells you she needs six months of FMLA to resolve a family medical crisis; the unexpected leak that cascades two floors flooding the museum store; the fundraiser that seemed so brilliant in concept, but felt weirdly flat in actuality. Ice isn’t always visible, making it that much more treacherous. You pound down the sidewalk, your head on today’s to-do list and suddenly you’re flat on your back. And then there’s everybody’s favorite: thin ice, the surface that makes you think you can ’til you can’t.

There is a necessary watchfulness about good leadership. As a museum director you’re not just the visionary, you are the doer. In the event of catastrophe, your role is not sky-is-falling hysteria, but rather, a sense of purpose and a plan B. And a plan B means being the person who gets it done.  How many of you have had a boss who talked a blue streak, but nothing ever happened? How many of you have worked or work in museums or heritage organizations where strategic plans languish in digital folders, where meeting minutes don’t contain action items, where annual performance reviews seem like out-of-body experiences? If so, you’re working for someone who can’t plan, and it shouldn’t be a surprise if your organization ends up on the ice.

Good leaders look ahead. They plan. They even plan for moments when their plans go awry. And they do stuff. It’s hard to inspire your staff when as director your life seems like a constant whirl of coffees, lunches and cocktails. Not that all those things aren’t important, but museum staff–indeed every type of staff–needs to know what their boss does. So here are five things museum leaders can do to aide planning, help with transparency, and maybe, steer the museum ship clear of the ice.

  1. Do your direct reports know what you’re working on? And, do they know how your projects and theirs intersect?
  2. Do all your organizational initiatives, particularly those involving big money, have a back-up plan? Are those plans articulated or in your head?
  3. Does your organization publish–in a Google doc, on a white board, in an email–a list of deadlines so staff know when projects are due across the organization?
  4. Do your direct reports share their to-do lists orally or in writing with their team, department or  full staff?
  5. Do you regularly post-mortem all your big projects, share the results, and decide how to change going forward?

Sixteen more days and it will be March. Tell us what you’re doing to stay off the ice, metaphorically and otherwise.

Joan Baldwin


Museums and a Community-Connected Staff

womens-march-banner

It’s Sunday morning. Leadership Matters has just returned from 36 hours away. We went to Seneca Falls, NY, to join 10,000 people in support of women’s rights–but particularly women of color and transgender and queer women–whose workplace issues, even in the august halls of museums and heritage organizations, dwarf complaints from their more privileged white sisters.

Why Seneca Falls? For readers from outside the United States, Seneca Falls was home to the first women’s rights convention in 1848. Yes, it’s dismaying that we’re still having a variation of the same conversation 169 years later, but so be it. The day was glorious. The speeches, from march organizer and Auburn, NY mayor Marina Carnicelli, to tribal leaders from the Seneca and Akwesasne Mohawk nations, to our own Sally Roesch Wagner, a professor, author, speaker, and museum founder who we interviewed for Leadership Matters, were inspiring. They were uplifting not just for their words, but because while we listened we were part of the 4+ million people on seven continents who took time to stand up for what they believe in.

love-not-hate-makes-american-great

Which brings us to our real focus: How important it is for museum staff to participate, not just in the life of the museum, but in the community. Don’t say you don’t have time. Do you vote? Can you recognize your state representatives, your city council people people, your town select people if you see them on the street? Do you speak to them? What do you do as a staff or as individuals to make your community a better place? If the answer is not much, think about what would happen if your staff showed up to help pack or serve food at the local soup kitchen, if you picked up trash in a local park or took old photographs to the community nursing home?

Museums are like novels or poems. They provide visitors a chance to step outside their own lives, to experience something different, and to make connections to the world they live in. As museum staff, how can we do our best work, interpret the past, link art and culture or connect to the natural world, unless we actually live in it? So as we begin 2017, make a promise to participate. Do what you can. Do what engages you. If you need inspiration, check out the Womensmarch 10 actions in 100 Days. Even if this isn’t “your” issue, it’s a great model for engagement. That way on January 1, 2018, when you look back, maybe it will be with a new understanding and commitment to some part of your community, city or region.

Good luck and let us know how you participate.

Joan Baldwin


As Museum Leaders, Do You Replace or Do You Rethink?

were-hiring

Few museums have enough money. Even big ones. Just look at this week’s headlines. The Metropolitan Tabled Its New Wing while it shaves $31 million from its deficit. Almost 400 miles to the south, the august Colonial Williamsburg laid off 40 more employees, bringing its total layoffs over 24 months to 100. These are two notable examples, but many museums and heritage organizations face similar scenarios. And even if they’re not downsizing dramatically, each hire is freighted with a sense of urgency. New staff need to be a good fit, and wherever they are in the organization they need to help move it forward, which brings us to the question of whether as a museum leader, when you hire, you replace a position or rethink it.

Let me interject here with a little story. I know someone who was hired two months ago to replace a long-time employee. As is the case with many individuals who’ve spent decades in an institution, what the outgoing employee did was a bit of a mystery. Myriad things had attached themselves to her job description like barnacles either because she was good at them or someone asked her to do them and she never stopped. Conversely, there were things she jettisoned because she didn’t like them or wasn’t good at them. None of that web of “all other duties as required,” was included in the job description which was bland and boiler plate. The leadership agreed only that the position needed replacing without actually talking through what it wanted and what would be best for the organization. The new hire, whose resemblance to the outgoing employee is minimal at best, has found her acclamation hampered by the gap between what some of the leadership imagined for her position and what is actually written. And what is written is so useless that she is called to task for “not doing her job.” Yet who knows where the boundaries of her job really are? She consults with HR too often, and remains frustrated that what was offered is not reality. It’s not a good situation. And it’s definitely a waste of talent, time and money.

Admittedly this is an extreme example, but it comes from not pressing pause long enough to really talk about a new hire. These discussions shouldn’t be personal. It’s not about denigrating the outgoing employee; it’s about saying what does the museum need now? This should be the fun part. The in-a-perfect-world part I would hire a person who can do X,Y, Z. Once you identify what you need that’s new, you can go back and unpack the old job description to determine what the organization can’t live without. Some of those tasks may end up parceled out to other employees, while others will be included in the new hire’s job description. The point is only that even if you have buckets of money, it costs money to replace staff. Work slows while you cover for an empty position, and if your orientation program is poor, it may stay slow while the new hire tries to figure out her place.

As in so much of leadership, it’s better if you are intentional. Think a problem through. Talk to staff. Discuss what you need. Then act. Then don’t assume it’s all fixed. For goodness sake check in with your new employee. You may think you speak clearly, but that’s not always how people hear you. Make sure new staff are happy, challenged and understand their role.

Last, but not least, if you’re a wanna-be museum leader, a current leader, or a long time CEO, know that not all staff leave of their own volition. Firing is part of your job description. You may never have to act on it, but it’s a facet of the hiring process that everyone in leadership copes with. So, again, be intentional. Don’t hire a new employee simply because she’s 180 degrees different from the one you let go. Know your organizational needs, measure them against her strengths. Then decide. As a leader, your job is to drive your organization into the future with as much imagination and grit as you can muster. Make sure you have the staff you want on the journey.

Joan Baldwin


The Year in Review: 2016 (Plus a Look Forward)

new-year-jump

Dear Friends, colleagues, readers,

2016 was a year of unending politics, the unexpected deaths of cultural icons, enough global warming to open the northwest passage, and way too many police shootings. Yet here, in the calmer waters of Leadership Matters, we continued to grow. We more than doubled our views, moving from 23,529 in 2015 to 55, 723 in 2016. Although most of our readers live in the United States, people around the globe, from Russia, India, Canada, Uzbekistan, Malta, Greenland, Rwanda and many, many more, continue to find us. Wherever you are, thank you. We’re honored to be part of a community of concerned, open and interested museum leaders.

If you are new to Leadership Matters, here are some of our most popular postings for 2016: Museums and the Salary ConundrumThe Salary AgendaThe Top Ten Skills for Museum LeadersDo Museum Staff Work for Intangibles?, and When You’re Not a Museum Leader: Seven Ways to Act Like One.

And we didn’t just write blog posts. We finished the manuscript for Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace, which we expect will be published by Routledge in May 2017. We spoke at AAM in May and NEMA in November. We worked with a group of like-minded colleagues to found Gender Equity in Museums Movement or GEMM, and to release the GEMM call for action which you’ll find in a pdf on the right side of this page.

Suddenly it’s a new year, and we have to do it all again, only differently, with equal or more imagination and energy. So we thought we’d begin with a quote from Lin-Manuel Miranda, the force behind the award-winning musical Hamilton, taken from The Daily Beast, December 27, 2016. Miranda was asked about the soul-crushing (for some) results of the presidential election. Here’s part of his answer.

But I woke up with a very pronounced case of moral clarity. In addition to the disappointment, it was like, oh, this does not change the things that I believe in. The things that I believe in that this candidate doesn’t means we’re going to have to fight for them. You don’t want to go backwards when it comes to our LGBT brothers and sisters; you don’t want to go backwards when it comes to the disenfranchisement of voters of color. We have to keep fighting for the things we believe in, and it just made that very clear: I know who I am, and I know what I’m going to fight for in the years to come. That felt like the tonic of it.”

We love this answer. It responds to the sadness many of us felt having ended up on the losing side of the Electoral College, but it acknowledges the hope and the energy that museums need to move forward, meaning if you’re an engaged leader of a value-driven organization that’s plugged into your community, you will move forward. You must move forward. You will fight for what you believe in–in museum offices, exhibition spaces, historic sites, and in your programming–and that is a tonic.

How can being engaged with communities or working for equal pay for women of color, as well as queer and transgender colleagues in the museum field be a bad thing? And how about committing to raising museums’ consciousness about bias? Wouldn’t that be an important goal as well? And isn’t it about time all museums were value-driven? Values are not just something left to sites of conscience. Every community has things it cares about, and its museums (and their leaders) should reflect those cares.

So..as we look toward 2017, we’ll leave you with another quote from the poet Mary Oliver in her new book Upstream. “For it is precisely how I feel, who have inherited not measurable wealth, but, as we all do who care for it, that immeasurable fund of thoughts and ideas, from writers and thinkers long gone into the ground–and inseparable from those wisdoms because demanded by them, the responsibility to live thoughtfully and intelligently. To enjoy, to question–never to assume, or trample. Thus the great ones (my great ones, who may not be the same as your great ones) have taught me–to observe with passion, to think with patience, to live always caringly.”

Take Ms. Oliver’s words to heart. Bring passion to your observations, be patient about your work, and live with care for others especially your colleagues.

Be well and best wishes for good 2017.

Joan Baldwin


Holiday Reading (& Listening)

a-woman-reading-a-bookDear friends, colleagues, readers and acquaintances,

Let’s face it, there is just too much information out there. Yes, some of us are seduced and beguiled by fake news or give up news altogether, but there is also a lot of really good writing going on. So if you’re taking time off before the new year and plan to devote yourself to self improvement of one kind or another, we recommend a cozy chair, a hot beverage, some great music, and one or more of the following.

Real books:

A Truck Full of Money by Tracy Kidder–If you’re a leader or a wanna be leader, pay particular attention to the early chapters where Paul English sets up his first company.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates–A must read, particularly if you’re white, and deep in your lizard brain you think your beliefs and your unconscious biases aren’t aligned.

Articles and Short Reads:

42-Ways to Make Your Life Easier A little trite, but true. And you can download it.

Cleaning the Museum A voice from 1973 to remind us how important all our staffs are not just the ones with cool jobs.

Raising a Trail-Blazing Daughter Even if you’re not a parent, good advice from the notorious RBG.

Five Myths that Perpetuate Burn Out Across Nonprofits One of our favorites. We’ve written about this from the museum point of view, but this is better.

When It’s Dark Enough, You Can See the Stars is about the tenacity of nonprofit leaders. It’s about why we’re in this game even in the toughest of times.

How Far Should We Go In Building Leadership Qualities? To thine own self be true, baby.

Growing Bigger, Staying Collaborative – 5 Tools for Building Non-Bureaucratic Organizations  True to form, Nina Simon doesn’t hold back about sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly of her museum leadership journey.  This time it’s about facing and embracing organizational change.

The 5 Elements of a Strong Leadership Pipeline Thanks to the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network for the lead to this post which stresses organizational culture, learning through exposure, and knowledge sharing as key ingredients in movign

And to Listen to:

Just a Little Nicer If you’re not already a fan of NPR’s TED Radio Hour you should be. This is a good one to listen to as we look toward resolutions for 2017.

SNL’s Cold Open Hallelujah If your life is so busy the 8 million times this flashed on your screen you missed it, you need to adjust your life. Then you need to listen.


Counterintuitive or Ways Museum Workers Can Resist Bias at Work

confirmation-bias

We haven’t written an equity piece in a while, and given that in a few weeks when the administration changes in Washington, D.C., gender equity may move from the back seat to the way, way back, we thought we’d take a final opportunity to remind readers that we all bring biases to the office. Even in museums where we are uber careful to engage and embrace our community at the front of the house, bias may be alive and well in the staff room. And if your hair is starting to smolder, bias isn’t a gender thing, meaning it’s not something men do to women. It’s something we all do, whether we mean to or not.

Think of bias as a lot of small suitcases that we carry around with us. As babies and toddlers, those bags are empty. Over time, experience, our parents, our extended family, our peer group fill those bags. Some are packed with deep-seated angry thoughts with no basis in fact, some with yearning for particular individuals who symbolize larger issues, some with our ability to deflect and hide from situations that upset us. Don’t believe me? Try serving on a jury. It’s an excellent place to see bias at work. Why do you think there are jury consultants? Because whether we admit it or not, we judge people and situations all the time.

But isn’t just going to work difficult enough some days? You betcha. We all wish we had privately endowed funds that would permit us to work or volunteer on our own schedule. And don’t museum workers have enough on their plates? There’s raising money, raising more money, strategic planning, board building, being there for community in contemporary and meaningful ways, connecting to community, being catalysts for imagination and inspiration. And behind the scenes, away from the public, there is strategic planning (again), working in teams, reaching across disciplines and departments, saying thank you, and being respectful of colleagues. And yet through it all those little bags of bias accompany us.

Are you aware that taller people make between 9-15 percent more than their shorter colleagues? That blond women make 7-percent more than their brunette or black-haired peers? That overweight employees make less than their slimmer co-workers? This is especially true for women where extra weight costs women workers between $9,000 and $19,000 annually. It’s doubtful anyone hiring for museum positions would admit to preferring tall blonds who could be extras in Viking movies, but that’s the thing about bias, it’s not necessarily something we control. That’s why it’s called unconscious bias.

As museum leaders, acknowledging workplace bias is the first step in making it less of a problem. So here’s a Leadership Matters to-do list to send bias packing in 2017:

  1. Know yourself. Do you prefer one employee over another? Instead, spend time with the person you prefer less. Make an effort to understand them and their point of view. Identify your own bias so you can keep things equitable.
  2. Remember that as a leader you model behavior for your staff, team, department. Bias toward an employee may lead to the entire group isolating that person.
  3. Research shows that white Americans associate positivity with white folks and negativity with black folks. That may not be what people say they believe, but it is the result when psychologists test for implicit bias. If you’re a white American, unpack those bags before you interview, hire, or do an annual performance review.
  4. A lot of people are biased against women in leadership positions. That is not code for men don’t like women leaders, that’s a sentence that means a lot of men and women are unconsciously more comfortable with a male leader. You may want to take AAUW’s Implicit Association Test to help you sort out your own feelings.
  5. Know that having a diverse team or staff doesn’t eliminate bias. That’s how your staff looks. How they behave is something else. Self-awareness, empathy and understanding are all necessary weapons against bias. Work at developing them.
  6. You may think you’re a great communicator, but find out if that’s true. Provide feedback so you know whether your staff, team, department has the safety and sense of belonging it needs.

Leadership Matters will be back next week with a Holiday Reading List to tide you over until 2017. In the meantime, be well, and tell us how you eliminate bias in your museum workplace.

Joan Baldwin


Embracing social media literacy: Integrate it meaningfully with your museum’s work, content and interpretation goals

moma-tweetGuest Post by Jennifer Riddell

Jennifer works in museum interpretation and is communications co-chair for the Washington, DC chapter of ArtTable.  You can reach her on Twitter at @jenlriddell.

The digital, networked museum has been slow to evolve and adoption of interactivity, open-source content and social media has been reluctant. In the early days (that is, within the last decade) a museum’s social media function was usually handled by web staff who established institutional accounts, sometimes with fuzzy support and direction from executive leadership. Under the “create once, publish everywhere” mantra, social media content was drawn from pre-approved marketing/communications material and the organizational website and redirected through social media platforms. The publicity value, as well as means of connecting with newer generations of museum-goers and supporters, solidified the business rationale for the function and for dedicated social media staff.

In 2017, we will arrive at the 10th anniversary of the debut of the iPhone and the transformation of our mobile phones into networked visual communication devices. Iphones and their progeny supercharged the development and uptake of social media, enabling people and organizations to establish an ongoing online presence.(1) Today, 79% of internet-using U.S. adults are on Facebook, which has seen increased growth in recent years, while the next most popular platforms, Instagram (32% of adults online) and Twitter (24%) hold steady.(2) Further, many people use their phones as a primary means of accessing the Internet. Analytics reveal more visits to some museum websites via phone or tablets than computers.

As the social media landscape grew, and with the rise of analytics and evaluation, proactively planned social media calendars and platform complementarity became necessary to managing the output, which would hopefully drive engagements and broader dissemination of the content. A performance announcement can go out on Twitter, alongside a calendar post and invitations on Facebook, where an attendee streams it live, all of which may followed by Instagram posts and Flickr uploads.

But how and why does social media matter to those of us who are not museum social media managers, web designers, or tech/backend experts? How does it relate to those museum professionals whose work revolves around engaging visitors with collections and exhibitions through interpretation, educational programming, visitor service and the like? Thinking about social media as another channel for engagement—with the same compelling narratives, quality of content, and relevant messaging that you develop and plan to support your interpretive and core values—can help frame a better understanding of it. Often museum professionals have little interaction with institutional social media if it is not a formal element of their work (although they may be personal users). I think it is increasingly important to get a handle (pun intended) on social media from whatever rung in your organization that you occupy — senior level on down—as it develops and evolves into an indivisible component of visitor engagement and a means of knowing more about your community.

“Now that we have visitors on board, where do we want to take them?”(3)
Social media amplifies the reach of exhibitions and programs, and provides opportunities for patrons to respond, which, in turn, increases engagement. Social media also offers significant opportunities for creativity and innovation in collection and exhibition interpretation, exploring ideas about what museums are for, and how visitors connect and form their own communities around and with them.

In the last decades, museums centralized visitor experience, alongside the traditional functions of collections stewardship and scholarship. Interpretive practices increasingly utilize storytelling, creative and relevant engagement, visitor participation, and multiple visitors’ voices. Successful and authentic social media practice embodies these qualities as well. In other words, it is part of the work you are already doing in your museum. Technology or your belief that you have no idea how Twitter or Instagram works shouldn’t inhibit you from using social media into interpretive messages or programs. Your focus is still content.

Gaining social media literacy helps you to see opportunities for its use. All staff should be empowered and encouraged to be a part of the social media wave since inclusivity (see Tate’s “digital as a dimension of everything” strategic plan(4)) ultimately yields richer and more diverse content. Don’t forget that a museum’s staff is also part of its community, and their connections and interests alone magnify the presence of the museum many times over.

“Brand ambassadors, content managers, evangelists”
Many descriptions of social media describe an organization’s social media manager as its brand ambassador. This is an important role that should be informed by and serve as a hub for professional networks across your museum and beyond. For example, inside the museum (virtually or physically) visitors’ interests are no longer confined to exhibition spaces; they are curious about the life of the museum behind the scenes. Social media allows you to show visitors what the work of the museum is about, and authorize staff to speak and respond in their own voices about what they do. Not many people outside museums know what a curator does. For that matter they don’t know about the roles of conservators or frame-makers either. It is also key to be alert to the possibilities presented by exhibitions and programs. In one museum, curators of a photography exhibition wished to connect with people who might have archival family photos of a similar theme. This type of project is a natural fit for social media outreach and fosters real participation and exchange. In these examples, it is not necessary to even know how to tweet, but just to recognize that an opportunity for engagement—and suitable platform—exists.

Externally, social media connects museums in real time with their communities. Examples could include local artists, other arts organizations, schools, non-art organizations, and enthusiastic local repeat visitors and supporters. They welcome avenues for a more vital and personal connection with your institution. If you stage a performance or sponsor an artist lecture, how might social media be used to offer a closer look at the performer’s life, process, ideas, etc.? Context can inflect and enrich your programming and demystify artistic practice. Crowd-sourcing questions, a community art project, or challenging your social media followers to see your collections in a new way encourages people to voice their own interpretations and understandings. No one has a lock on interpretation and visitors are goldmines of stories and experiences that, in turn, serve to validate others’.

Getting your social media literacy off the ground
1. Develop clear social media usage policies and guidelines
Social media policy and guidelines should be integrated into the organization’s Internet usage policy. The social media component should cover the mechanics of who establishes, maintains, and accesses what accounts, how content will push or pull from other sources, staff professional and personal interaction with museum social media, and legal and ethical considerations. Consider how social media policy and guidelines reflect the larger mission of your organization and the established policies around communications and conduct.

2. Get the basics from social media staff
Partner with your organization’s social media staff to understand the mechanics of posting (scheduling, pushing from one platform to another, live tweeting, analytics, content parameters, etc.). Ask them to explain in their own words the uses, audiences, pros and cons of different platforms from their perspective. There is no secret sauce. An understanding of basic principles will encourage museum staff to utilize their social media of choice to shape, collaborate and support the organization’s larger interpretive goals.

● Don’t feed content through social media platforms like so much wood through a wood chipper. Adapt it to meet user’s needs and expectations in each platform.

● Help empower internal networks so that when timely and interesting stories arise social media channels news from different parts of the museum.

3. Sign up.
You may have a Facebook and a LinkedIn account, but try Twitter, Instagram, YouTube or Pinterest. Start following some individuals and organizations that you like. Make a few posts. The goal is not specific skill development per se, or to become a social media star, but to just understand the basic functions. Participate in a twitter chat. Follow live tweeting of an event. Create an Instagram story. There is a degree of crossover between the personal and professional that is generally a part of using social media, so delineate your participation accordingly. Begin to observe the voice and functionality of different streams of social media information.

4. Unpack the rationales and mission-based reasons for the use of social media in your organization.
Beyond an imperative to simply have a social media presence, what can it accomplish, and what are the priorities? Does your social media presence align with what you’re doing elsewhere in the museum? Goals such as extending collection interpretation, reaching new audiences, redefining organizational identity, or promoting greater accessibility should be defined and broken down into actionable measures. Think about how social media allows you to engage in conversations locally, regionally, nationally or internationally. Not everything about social media is virtual, and successful social media campaigns/memes, and hashtags elicit action and awareness around an issue or topic.

5. Social is non-hierarchical.
Acquaint yourself with social media influencers in your community interested in your museum or related subject matter. They can be your advocates whose authentic voices and imprimatur lend a different kind of credibility to the authority a museum already possesses. Some influencers are already part of your organization, with active profiles in or outside the museum sphere. Being open to what social media may set in motion or introduce can be embraced as part of the learning, enjoyment, and connection that the museum experience can engender.

1 Facebook, established 2004, YouTube, 2005, Twitter, 2006, Instagram, 2010, Snapchat, 2011, to mention platforms with the largest user bases.
2 http://www.pewinternet.org/2016/11/11/social-media-update-2016/ accessed 12/7/16
3 Nancy Proctor, “From Headphones to Microphones: Mobile Social Media in the Museum as Distributed Network,” Creativity and Technology: Social Media, Mobiles and Museums eds. James E Katz, Wayne LaBar, and Ellen Lynch, p. 30.
4 http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/19/tate-digital-strategy-2013-15-digital-as-a-dimension-of-everything accessed 12/7/16