Once in a while Leadership Matters gets a question about what to ask in an interview. You know, the fear you’ll draw a blank when the dreaded “What questions do you have for us?” makes its appearance. By that point you’ve already been asked what type of animal you would be if you could choose. You talked through lunch, but never with your mouth full. And, you’ve beaten back imposter syndrome and demonstrated you do in fact know something about being (pick one) a director, curator, educator, development assistant.
So there you are in interview mode. You love this museum. You’ve always loved it. But in your current job you feel like a cog in a wheel. Innovation is not in your job description. You need to figure out whether this museum, which seems to want you, encourages original thinking or not. So ask how an idea works its way from thought bubble to experimentation, and on to review and implementation.
For some museums and heritage organizations the answer is still the traditional top down response: Ideas come from the director, and her leadership group. Unless you’re applying for the director’s position, that may stop you in your tracks. You may also hear the word teamwork, but pay attention, teamwork is tricky, and what you really need to know is can the new kid on the block make change?
Teamwork should be an opportunity for diverse thinking and cross pollenization, but like your middle school history project, it can quickly devolve into disaster, crankiness and unproductivity. It is not a magic bullet. Creating teams isn’t an end, it’s a means, and like so much about leadership, teamwork depends on vision and a clear, concise articulation of goals. A signal that the museum interviewing you uses teams well will be hearing that someone far down the food chain is an active team participant. Another is watching your interview group for signs of sarcasm and eye rolling. But hopefully, you’re watching for that sort of behavior anyway.
Say they describe a year-long planning process that included participants from across the museum. Can you tell if the team worked independently before reporting back?Teams depend on trust and independence as much as leadership. They shouldn’t require the director or department head’s presence to function. They need a clear mandate and the independence to experiment and make decisions, and leaders, without even meaning to, can dominate conversation and squelch the back and forth where real creativity prospers.
You may not feel bold enough, but it’s fair to ask whether this is a staff (or team) that tolerates dissent. Healthy staffs know conflict about the work itself is okay. In fact, research shows the ability to argue about ideas (as opposed to personalities) generates more creativity. Needless to say, you don’t want to be part of an organization where conflict is personal or where the staff long ago gave up original thought because if the director doesn’t think something, it’s not going to happen.
- In any interview situation, the organization appears to have all the cookies, but you’re interviewing them too. Do not compound your current misery by taking a job where the staff is demonstrably unhappy.
- Look for signs that staff likes being together. Do they laugh?
- The interview is the sweet spot. Watch and listen. Are your interviewers listening to you? If you get evasive or rote answers in the interview, it’s unlikely things will improve.
- If you don’t get an answer to how innovation happens, that’s a red flag in itself.
Here is a simple truth: If you are a museum leader, you can tell your staff they’re a team any day of the week, but unless you make it mean something, the word “team” is just a random noun.
We think of teams as good things. They seem democratic. They flatten hierarchies. They bring people together. And, depending on how your museum or heritage organization defines victory, they’re sometimes winners. But if you have even a passing acquaintance with sports, you know some teams always deliver, and some never do, so it’s not about the name.
Recently I witnessed an incident where a department leader brought his team–his word not mine–together to plan a meeting of peer leaders. Although staff felt there was too little time to deliver a cohesive program, the leader wanted to push ahead. In the end, the event took place, and the leader ignored his team’s input, forgot to introduce or mention members of his staff, consistently interrupted others in their presentations, and made many believe they’d wasted brain power in planning for the event. Lesson one: Teams aren’t for everyone. As with so much in leadership, know yourself first. If teams and team work drive you crazy, you can opt out. We’ve all experienced the moment where–pick one–a board member, staff member, or volunteer misses a meeting and the chemistry changes. Discussion moves along. Decisions are made. Boxes are checked. If teamwork isn’t for you, let your staff plan. Go over the results with your assistant directors, make any changes you feel are necessary, and watch as they deliver the goods. Lesson two: Good teamwork, especially from the leader’s point of view, requires trust. Every time you authorize staff to act on your behalf, you say “I believe in you.” Say it enough, and they start to trust you.
Lesson three: If you’re going to lead a team, know where it’s going. In the scenario Leadership Matters observed, there was little understanding about why this presentation mattered, and if it did, why the team leader waited ’til the last minute to plan. If an event or grant application matters, be clear about why. Tell your colleagues why an event demands all-hands-on-deck, not because they’re dense, but because they deserve to hear it from you.
Teamwork doesn’t guarantee Nirvana. Productive teams often argue. Lesson four: Be prepared for push-back. Value your staff. Being willing to argue about something doesn’t automatically indicate staff hate each other (or you) or enjoy being disruptive. Instead, it may indicate they care about the museum and its programs. And yes, every team needs the one member who’s going to say the emperor has no clothes. Why? Because it makes everyone look at the question, project or event with new eyes.
Teams are about group, not individual, behavior. That’s why a soccer team practices drill after drill. Their individual skills are in service–literally–to the goal. Lesson five: If you’re a team leader, you have a role in helping the group do its best. That means for 30 or 45 minutes, it’s not about you. Instead, your role is to manage the team: To be positive and encouraging; To pull it back on task; To ask if things are clear and make sense; To make sure everyone understands their tasks; To ask the group to reflect on what they’ve done before pushing on to the next goal. And perhaps, most importantly, to decide what tasks are best left to individuals rather than the group.
Do you work in a museum where staff are referred to as a team? Is that a good or bad thing?