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.
This post is a two-parter. First, it’s about saying what you mean. This is a big deal for museum leaders who often think they communicate clearly, only to find, when things go wrong, how lame their skills are. But whether you occupy the fancy office and go to lunch with trustees or not, you still need good communication skills. Here are five things you need:
- Be a good listener: Say you’re a curator. A colleague asks why boxes in your storage area are stacked close to the heating pipes. There are 1,000 ways to answer the question from “All our storage is inadequate and this is the best of many bad choices,” to “This is temporary while we empty another area,” to “Gosh, I was so anxious about the mold I found last week, closer to the ceiling seemed like a good thing.” But what if you don’t hear the question? What if what you hear is an attack on your skills as curator and your personal worth? The answer you give in that situation is likely to be different, less helpful, and since you feel personally attacked, may escalate a fairly innocuous situation.
- Don’t withhold information: Sometimes we don’t say what we mean because we’re locked in a silent power struggle with a colleague. That person may be struggling too in which case only a minimum of information gets through. Remember, work is work. You all serve the museum, heritage or arts organization. Focus on what the other person needs, provide the best answer you can, and surprise, surprise, your next interaction may be different, but in a good way.
- Do not babble: Do not go down conversational rat holes. Channel your inner Hemingway. Be simple, concise, and specific.
- Try to check your ego at the door: Great communicators make everyone else feel like they’re the only people in the room. Why? Because they communicate with authenticity and care. Try pausing for a moment or two before answering a question. Reflect on whether the question is about you and your skill level or whether it’s about the collection items next to the ceiling.
- When you’re wrong, say you’re wrong: If you snapped at the curator about the boxes, we hope you’re self aware enough to figure out what happened and apologize. Conversely, if you’re the curator, who responded as if you’d been slapped rather than as if a concerned colleague also cared about the collection, apologize. Don’t wait. Don’t write absurd narratives in your head about why this isn’t the right time to talk. Just do it. A real apology offered human-to-human builds trust. There’s no better ingredient for workplace communication.
And now to getting better at what you do: There’s likely a book waiting to be written on the perfectionism found in museums. It casts a pall over everything, putting dampers on experimentation and innovation because staff feels there is no room for risk. The results of too much perfectionism are often spectacularly mediocre.
We here at Leadership Matters constantly harp on reading widely so here are two very different articles. The first is from Outside Magazine on Getting Better. Yes, it’s about exercise, but it’s also full of stuff that applies to life without spandex and a water bottle. Learning to manage challenges, to break work into manageable chunks, to put the cell phone aside–those are skills that apply in the museum workplace just as much as the gym. And for a completely different voice, here is writer Jamaica Kincaid with advice on how to live and how to write. She too advocates less cell phone time and more focus. She’s also about learning how not to write crap, and she advocates not taking yourself too seriously. She is a writer after all. She lives on her imagination.
You are museum, humanities, and culture folk. You spend time trying to make art, living things, and objects speak. You need your imagination too.
Here in America’s Northeast we’re at the peak of the long days. That’s more time to pause, think about more skillful communication, and get better at what you do. Use it. Get better.
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.
It’s mid-June and it’s time to talk Women+Museums again. As many of you know, Anne Ackerson and I are writing a new book to be published by Left Coast Press in 2016. You can read more about the project by here. Because of that project, we’ve dedicated one post a month to all of you–men and women alike–who consider yourselves feminists and/or want to think, read or learn more about gender and the museum workplace. If you’re bristling at the use of the word feminist, the point of this post is to talk a little about gender and language.
Perhaps you don’t think you’re a feminist. Perhaps it conjures up visions of angry, shouting women who left home without shaving their armpits? Maybe not a picture we in the museum world want to align ourselves with? And yet, ponder this: As background for Women+Museums I’ve been reading a great deal and one writer who strikes a cord is Roxanne Gay, author of a collection of essays called Bad Feminist. In an article in The Guardian which you can find here, Gay quotes Kathy Bail’s succinct definition of feminists as women who don’t want to be treated like crap. Actually Bail and Gay use a slightly more descriptive word, but you get the idea, maybe meaning that being a feminist in 2015 doesn’t have a lot to do with the way you dress or whether you wear make-up , but whether you are ready to stand up for those who aren’t treated equitably. Like those who make 77 cents to the male dollar. See how much baggage eight letters can carry?
Understanding some of the facets of the word feminist brings me to the actual point of this post and that’s another freighted word:”soft.” As in soft skills. Soft skills, in case you let your Harvard Business Review subscription lapse, are the ones long associated with women. These are skills like collaboration, the ability to read social cues, empathy, inclusion and intuition. They are often possessed by women and were once marginalized–think Mad Men’s Joan Harris and Peggy Olsen–but somehow the pendulum swung the other way and those soft skills are now the stuff of the new leadership even though they come with the girly label “soft.”
Here’s what we know about those “soft” skills. Once upon a time companies, and museums too, were interested in hard skills. At the leadership level, they wanted people with a demonstrated understanding of content who could also manage money. Typical leaders were sometimes double-degreed former curators with a gift for reading spreadsheets. Leaders learned content in graduate school and depending on what decade of the 20th century we’re talking about, sometimes learned the money piece as well. Hard skills stay the same from job to job. If your specialty is the Civil War, you can go to a number of Civil War museums and put your knowledge to use. Of course, your board might discover that while your knowledge is encyclopedic and your money management skills fantastic, that your interpersonal skills are dismal. And that’s where the “soft” skills come in.
They are, in fact, the womanly skills of interpersonal relations. And with the flattening of hierarchies, they are increasingly important. Whether we like the girliness of the word “soft” or not, women utilize them far oftener than men. People in business started to notice this a while ago. In a 2010 McKinsey Global Study the company reported that 72-percent of executives believe that there’s a direct connection between a business’ gender diversity and its financial success. And among Fortune 500 companies those who promote women to executive positions have a 69-percent higher return than those who do not.
So….I have a two-fold question for all of you out there in museum land: First, knowing this, why do the oligarchs who select men as CEOs and Presidents for museums with budgets over $10 million, and, in a profession that is 45-percent female, why are we women not better at valuing the soft skills we bring to the table? Last, let’s stop calling them “soft.” Let’s call them core leadership skills because that’s what they are. Let us know your thoughts about language, about the workplace, and about gender.