Good leadership is kind of like good health. You may be blessed with great genes, but you need to work at maintaining a healthy body. Same with leadership. You may start strong, but you won’t have it every day unless you work at it. Intentionally. Forever. Until you walk out for the last time with the proverbial cardboard box full of stuff from your desk.
It isn’t easy. Some weeks leadership is downright difficult. So what happens when things go wrong? What happens when you believe you’ve acted honestly, openly, transparently, and somehow instead of the engaged, productive team you imagined, your group won’t meet your eyes and appears to be quietly seething? Worse, at each meeting, it feels as if you’re being called out. What went wrong? And more importantly, how do you find your way back?
First, no matter who you are, remember the old quote, “some days you get the bear, and others the bear gets you.” Not to mention, your ability to lead is complicated by many factors–your demeanor, your personal life, and your own role as both leader and follower because, whether you are an executive director with a challenging board of trustees or a chief curator responsible for a department, there is always a bigger fish. And the way you lead relates to the way you follow, and more importantly, to the way those further up the food chain see you.
So, to return to our scenario. You’re in a meeting. You’re trying to shape a project and move it forward. Things aren’t going well. Your team isn’t responding, and when they do, there’s an angry passivity in the air. No one seems to want to help you out. What should you do?
- Show some humility: Try “Maybe I got this wrong and we need to begin over. How should we change things?” In essence you’ve asked your team to see you are vulnerable. Why? Because you are. If you choose this path, mean what you say. There’s nothing worse than asking people to help you out when you don’t really want to listen.
- Understand that humility and courage are linked: In showing one you demonstrate the other. Both build trust.
- Make sure everyone participates from the beginning: A lot of novice leaders believe leadership revolves around their being the fount of all ideas while their team supports them. It doesn’t take long for staff to realize their role is essentially passive. All they need to do is show up, smile appropriately, and wait for the meeting to be over. (Hint: If praise is what motivates you, leadership may be a difficult journey.)
- Believe in your team: A process, project or program is always better with input from everyone at the table. Presumably your team is smart. You hired them for a reason. Let them shine.
- Put your personal feelings aside: The fact that your car got stuck in the snow, your washer leaked, you haven’t had a date in six months, or your adolescent broke a major rule is nobody’s business but yours. Focus on the problem at hand. Your issues are not an excuse to snap at your colleagues.
- Work is not a competition: Leadership doesn’t mean you have to best everyone on your team. You may be the path breaker, but you aren’t better at everything. That’s why you have a team.
As a leader, Abraham Lincoln is perhaps best known for his enormous self-awareness and his ability to subordinate his feelings in favor of the work at hand. When things aren’t going well, channel your inner Lincoln. Look at yourself from the outside. Get out of your own way, and focus on the work at hand. That’s why you’re there isn’t it?
Recently a friend and sometime mentee asked me to lunch. The subject? Career advice. After chatting about weather, children and politics, we got down to brass tacks. What does she want to do with her life? Two years out of college and she feels pressure–albeit self-imposed–from her peer group, from the ether, from the Internet, about not having reached some magical line ahead of (or with) her peers. The point of this story is not my friend’s career path, but the ability to offer advice, and more importantly to offer advice that’s actually heard.
Folks in leadership positions are frequently asked for advice, and yet advice giving, like mentoring, is one of those soft skills frequently bypassed on the trip up the museum ladder. That means some people arrive in the corner office with less than adequate listening skills. Yep, it’s that old saw again. How many times have we listed listening as a primary trait of leadership? A lot. In fact, advice-giving is almost a metaphor for the act of leadership. To be a good advice giver one needs to be self-aware, patient, empathetic, and yet willing to cut to the heart of a problem. And to ask for advice one has to be open, vulnerable, a good listener, with biases and opinions left at the door.
Even with a modicum of these characteristics in hand, the advisor/advisee relationship is tricky. Here are some considerations for both sides:
- Be humble enough to know whether you’re the right person. Understand the limitations of your knowledge and don’t overstep.
- While many leaders are story tellers, giving advice isn’t an opportunity to talk about you. You are not the subject. Your focus is your advisee’s question.
- Make sure you understand the nature of the question. Is the advice seeker testing an idea, seeking help with process or trying to make a decision?
- Summarize at the end of the discussion so your colleague has a sense of closure and direction.
- Be prepared to be available for a follow-up discussion.
For Advice Seekers:
- Make sure your leader has time to answer your question.
- Make sure she is the right person to talk to about this particular issue.
- Make sure you know what you’re asking and why. Sometimes advice seeking is a procrastination technique. Don’t waste your boss’s time if you don’t have a real question.
- Be prepared to listen. Be prepared to be challenged. Be prepared to look at your question in a different way.
- Say thank you and follow up. Let your advisor know how you fared and what happened.
The advisor/advisee relationship is the microcosm of the leader/staff relationship. If it’s working well, it’s not one sided; everybody benefits. If you have a leader whose door is open, who listens, who helps frame questions individually, you probably have a leader who does that collectively. And you’re lucky. It’s not just the museum staff who benefits, but the organization as well.
And by the way, after listening carefully, our lunchtime conversation seemed to be mostly about process, how to synch the various tasks necessary in a job search. Ideas were offered, summarized, and suggestions followed up. Now we wait to see what worked.
Not long ago a reader commented that leadership isn’t everything, that there’s a value in being a good follower as well. That remark stuck with me. In the four years since we began this blog we’ve looked at leadership from all directions. We’ve written about being the Lone Ranger director, about leading from the middle, about decision making, and about leadership and self-awareness. But we’ve neglected what it means to be a foot soldier. So today we turn the spotlight on followership.
According to our friends at the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are 353,000 museum and heritage organization employees. We have to assume that the vast majority do not occupy the corner office. They tend to have more responsibility than authority. They are assistant curators, fund raisers, educators, and volunteer coordinators. Some may go through an entire week and not see a member of their organizational leadership team, and yet all the planning, the vision, and the courage leaders incubate comes to life with the followers. They are the yin to the leadership yang.
Our reader was right: There is a stigma associated with followership. If your aspirations lean toward leadership, you don’t want to be tagged as the person who gets behind the concept, works well with others, and helps deliver a superior event, program or exhibit. Leadership in the United States is an individual thing, populated by creative outliers who sometimes believe they can do it on their own. Followership is a different sort of place.
Leaders sometimes have a reputation for arriving fully formed behind the big desk, but unless you’re an entrepreneur/visionary like Jeff Bezos your career trajectory usually begins as part of a team, a program, a department. There you learn to collaborate, to work with others. You support your leader’s decisions and share in the resulting successes. And, in a healthy museum or heritage organization, you feel comfortable challenging leadership, particularly in the face of something unethical. And even if you go on to become a leader, whether by accident or aspiration, without an understanding and an empathy for the qualities of followership, your leadership practice will suffer.
Of course there are also staff members who are undistinguished followers. They are the hermits–isolated individuals who’ve left before they leave. They are the unmotivated, kind of like an 8th grader who won’t participate in the team project except to tell everyone else what is wrong with it. And they are the trouble makers who participate through gossip, leaving discord in their wake.
For skilled followers–the ones coveted by all museums– work trumps individual differences–political, religious or lifestyle beliefs. For these folk, what’s important is what’s shared–delivering, for example, a brilliant historic site program blending geometry, history, and philosophy with grace and humor–not what you don’t. Every organization needs those folks. Accomplished followers are the people who bring good humor to collections storage when a pipe bursts and it’s all hands on deck. They are the folks who say thank you.
So, if you’re a leader, know your team. Even if your team is two volunteers and a part-time curator. Listen to them. Value them. Know what motivates them. Welcome the moments when they challenge ideas because it indicates they’re with you, and they want the best for the museum. Figure out ways to remove the barriers with which they may be struggling. Pay them what they’re worth. Thank them.
This is the first of several posts on the museum job hunt. Our guest blogger this week is Allison Clark (and, no, that’s not Allison in the photo).
When I first entered the museum field, I was a bright-eyed undergraduate whose opportunities seemed limited only by time. My college campus was nestled next to Houston’s Museum District, enabling me to bounce from institution to institution, department to department, trying my hands at everything from curation to collections management to interpretation. Through both paid and unpaid internships, I caught the museum bug: I wanted to share my enthusiasm for visual art with anyone and everyone. My supervisors became my cheerleaders, and with their encouragement, I earned my graduate degree in art education. As I was frequently reminded, this expensive piece of paper would add a coveted edge to my career. And, for a while, it did. I racked up fellowships and scholarships in graduate school, teaching visitors of all ages and presenting at conferences during the few moments when I wasn’t trying to make ends meet financially.
As graduation neared, I began haphazardly applying to entry-level positions across the United States. By some miracle, I interviewed for thirty minutes with a big-name museum in Los Angeles for one of their graduate internships. A few weeks later, I received the phone call I had dreamt about: I was invited to join their team, albeit without benefits and less-than motivating pay. Yet, all I could think was, “THIS IS IT – I MADE IT!!!”
A year later with the graduate internship under my belt, I was far less convinced. What no one explicitly told me as I worked my way up the museum education ladder was that full-time gigs were few and far between. Even in Los Angeles. Even for people with the experience and education to back it up. I applied to over 50 full-time museum education jobs across the country in the span of five months, and I was called back for four. And those initial call backs? They led to multiple rounds of interviews, teaching samples, and strategic planning presentations. At the end, only one job offer provided a living full-time wage with benefits – two things most people need to live on their own.
Now, I am aware that I am one of the lucky ones. I can go to urgent care without panicking about how I will be able to pay, and most days I get to do what I love. Unfortunately, this simply is not the case for many museum educators, who are all too often undervalued and still searching for their “break” into full-time employment with opportunities for career advancement.
So, let me provide the advice I wish I could have told myself ten years ago:
- Gain skills outside of your intended field.
Learn how to budget. Like, really budget. What would you do with $2,000? How about $250,000? Know the numbers, and know how to speak business. If this isn’t your comfort zone, join the club. Take free online courses (edX is my go-to), and expand your skillset to include some productive surprises.
2. Work hard, be nice.
One of the best things to do when you’re starting out (or moving up) is to do excellent work and share it with your peers, supervisors, friends, and anyone who can provide constructive feedback. The museum world is a teeny-tiny place, so be nice to everyone you meet.
3. Be prepared to struggle.
The museum education field is not for the faint of heart, or people who want a 9-5 job. One of my mentors advised me that the days are long, but the years are short. The hours will hurt, you will get tired of the near-constant balancing act, and you might even question if you’re making an impact. Hang in there. Find your network (local, regional, or national). Share your vulnerabilities with people you trust. Delegate if you can. Most of all, document your successes and create a portfolio that illustrates why your efforts matter.
Since joining the Bruin family in May 2017 as the Education Manager at UCLA’s Fowler Museum, Allison Clark has welcomed hundreds of students to the Fowler, produced a three-day Teacher Institute for K-12 educators, and designed over 20 family programs for both kids and kids-at-heart. Currently, her work highlights the intersections of visitor-driven interpretation, inclusive storytelling, and professional development for the K-12 community and intergenerational audiences. Allison also serves on the Board of Directors for the Museum Educators of Southern California (MESC) in addition to committee appointments with the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) and the National Art Education Association (NAEA). Allison received her M.A in Art Education from the University of Texas at Austin and her B.A. in Art History and Anthropology from Rice University.
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.