Hearing Darren Walker and Other Thoughts About Texas

Dina - Darren Photo

We’ve just returned from Austin, Texas and AASLH’s annual meeting that brings history museum folks together every year in a new spot. The skies were blue, and the location in the center of the University of Texas campus beautiful. What’s not to like about sitting with coffee and colleagues in a beautifully-planted courtyard between sessions? But one of the best moments was hearing Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation.

This amiable, relaxed, yet powerful conversation was a tone-setter and a metaphor for the way the field has changed over the last decade. There was no lecture, no powerpoint, no white guy behind the podium. Instead Walker chatted with Dina Bailey,  CEO of Mountain Top Vision, and an interviewee in our Leadership Matters book. Walker is a slight man, warm and funny, but someone who knows where true north is. His view of history is nuanced, and his approach to the human race generous. “We all romanticize and mythologize our narrative,” he said, “because we need to do that. How do we talk about the journey without demonizing the choices that were made?”

Asked what quality is needed for today’s leadership, Walker had a one-word answer: courage, adding that there are a host of disincentives to leading with courage, but because the risk now is greater than ever, now is the time to speak up, speak out, and be bold. He suggested that even 20 years ago the American narrative was more straightforward, less complex, but less honest. He sees today’s national narrative as more oppositional, making leadership difficult. “Great leadership is about bridge building,” Walker said, adding, “It’s much harder to build a bridge than a wall.”

He urged the audience to speak up and speak out. “Progress won’t be made unless we get uncomfortable. Our boards can be very comfortable with privilege and prestige.” He believes what we need from boards today is people comfortable with justice, equity, fairness, and opposition.

When Bailey asked him if museums should be neutral, Walker responded with a story, remembering when a Ford Foundation board member asked him why the Foundation supported artists making political art. Walker’s response was that art has always been political to some degree or another, and it’s naive and dishonest to believe otherwise. “Privileged people and institutions don’t like change,” he quipped, adding that privilege becomes a collective around the board table.

Walker talked about the fact that it’s possible to succeed without humility or curiosity because success insulates people from the hard reality of truth telling. He cautioned the audience that sometimes it’s necessary to engage with board members in a way that helps them realize they are speaking from privilege. “Trustees want to do right,” Walker said, “but we all bring our own bias and limitations.” He urged the audience to meet people where they are, and for museum leaders to remind their boards that they are there not just to preserve but to innovate.

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One sobering note before we close. As part of the AASLH Conference we presented a panel discussion with four interviewees from our book, Women in the Museum, and just as we did at AAM, we asked the audience for a show of hands indicating who had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Almost the entire audience raised their hands. Nationally, one in three women experience workplace sexual harassment, and over 71-percent don’t report it. Isn’t it time the museum field took Darren Walker’s advice and stepped up, spoke out, and showed some courage in protecting and supporting its female employees? 

Joan Baldwin

Photo by Wyona Lynch-McWhite

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Intent vs. Impact

Shaw Quote

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.

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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.

Joan Baldwin

 


Twin Thoughts: A Postscript on Salaries and Disruption in the Berkshires

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As we predicted last week’s post generated some lively thoughts. Since not all our comments are posted on the blog itself, in the spirit of change coming from the bottom up, we thought we should share a comment with you. With the writer’s permission, here it is:

I am in the process of writing a grant, or as we say, I am playing the hunger games. The request is for a FT staff position and the salary I am requesting is $33,000 plus health and life insurance, total compensation package approximately 40,000. I am requiring one year of experience (internships count), but I am not requiring an MA because I believe doing so has made our field less diverse and less equitable over the past 25 years. When I showed the job description and salary package to a colleague, her reaction was “Wow! That’s a lot of money.” When I explained that it was just over the soon to be minimum wage of $15 hr, she just said, “Oh.” We all need to stop thinking that an MA is required to work in a museum (or a library). We need to invest in the next generation, believe and act on the belief that less than minimum wage is unacceptable, for anyone.”

What would happen to the museum field if more people did this? No, one individual’s act won’t change the salary crisis, nor will it deal with the gender pay gap, but if even a quarter of museums opened their doors to newly minted college graduates, let them test the water, mentored them, advised them, would the field be worse off? Might it be more diverse as the writer suggests? Might emerging professionals be better off understanding the field a little bit before investing in graduate school?

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Given our location near that hotbed of artistic happenings known as the Berkshires, we would be remiss if we failed to comment on the fracas generated by the venerable Berkshire Museum’s announcement last week. If you’ve been on vacation and cut off from news, the Museum disclosed plans to sell 40 paintings to increase endowment and make capital improvements. Needless to say, the news release sent shock waves through the museum world. While the Berkshire Museum isn’t alone–the Delaware Museum of Art did something similar in 2015 when it sold four paintings–monetizing the collection isn’t usually a board’s first or even second choice when it’s desperate for money. To date, the Museum received a letter from the American Alliance of Museums and the American Association of Art Museum Directors. Their joint statement included this line, “One of the most fundamental and longstanding principles of the museum field is that a collection is held in the public trust and must not be treated as a disposable financial asset.”  The Museum’s director responded in The New York Times by stating, “The fact is, we’re facing an existential threat, and the board chose the interests of this institution over the interests of these national professional organizations.”

What puzzles Leadership Matters is the same question we asked about Tom Campbell’s exit from the Metropolitan Museum: What was the board thinking? In that instance we were curious whether the board had given Campbell free rein, and then woken up to see the museum tipping toward financial disaster. Did something similar happen in Pittsfield, MA? What is the board thinking?

But more importantly the Berkshire Museum is not any nonprofit organization. It’s a museum. When current board members agreed to serve–and serve is an operative word– did no one tell them that a position on the Board, meant they were joining not only the Berkshire Museum, but the larger world of museums through AAM and AAMD? How did they get the idea that ignoring standards of accepted professional and ethical practice wouldn’t matter?

This situation is eerily reminiscent of Walter Schaub Jr.’s resignation from the Office of Government Ethics. At the time Schaub told National Public Radio, “Even when we’re not talking strictly about violations, we’re talking about abandoning the norms and ethical traditions of the executive branch that have made our ethics program the gold standard in the world until now.” Remind you of anything? How about we replace the words “executive branch” with the “America Alliance of Museums”? In other words, the Museum hasn’t done anything illegal, but its board chose to disregard the field’s ethical boundaries.

While we can hope some gazillionaire raises his hand at Sotheby’s, buys a painting or two and donates them to another museum, the Berkshire Museum’s pending sale seems like a train that’s not going to stop. But before you get too smug that this sorry state of affairs would never happen at your institution, we suggest there’s always work to be done. This is probably a teachable moment. When was the last time your board familiarized itself with terms like “fiduciary” and “duty of care”? Did they receive or are they reminded of AAM’s Pledge of Excellence or AAMD’s Code of Ethics regularly? Is it worth discussing that museums and heritage organizations don’t operate in vacuums, but collectively agree to abide by the field’s ethical boundaries? That is an obligation, not a choice. Like so many other things–political office, for example–you can’t only follow the rules when they suit you. The museum field is the wonderful, complex place it is today because we collectively agree to serve our public. So let’s do the best we can to protect the objects, living things, buildings, and sites entrusted to us.

Joan Baldwin

 


What Does Knowing Your Organizational DNA* Mean?

 

Organizational DNA

*Organizational DNA is a metaphor for the underlying factors that together define an organization’s“personality” and help explain its performance.

In a few weeks Anne and I fly to St. Louis, MO, for the American Alliance of Museums annual meeting. We arrive early, however, because the day before the meeting we are teaching in AAM’s Getty Leadership and Career Management Program. Anne will speak about career strategies, and I’ll speak about self-awareness. In both cases, we’re talking about museum leaders as individuals, but these ideas also apply to organizations.

You’ve all read about or participated in strategic planning, but how about self-awareness? And more particularly, how does self-awareness apply to your organization? Does your organization know who it is? Really? Or does it only know who it isn’t? Are you not the flashier art museum across the park or not the sophisticated science museum down the street? Does knowing you are not an outdoor site really tell you anything? Maybe what you need to know is your organizational DNA?  Because just as it helps to understand yourself in the museum workplace, it also helps when an organization knows itself in the museum marketplace.

Last week we saw a job advertisement that made us–as proponents of organizational self-awareness– leap for joy. It was listed on on Idealist.com. It’s for the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization that celebrates those who fought in the Revolutionary War. To join, you must be a male descendent of a commissioned officer of the Continental Army or Navy; however the Society is more than a membership organization. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., it also maintains a library and a house museum, both open to the public.

To be honest, based just on its name, the Society of the Cincinnati might not be our choice for the most open, transparent, authentic museum organization, but that is biased thinking, and this is a pretty extraordinary job advertisement. Clearly, this organization is comfortable in its own skin. It knows exactly who it is. And it wants you to know too, and it is respectful enough of you, as a possible applicant, that it doesn’t want you to apply if it isn’t the place for you. Read the announcement. Even if you’re not a Revolutionary War scholar, who wouldn’t want to work for an organization that writes, “We aren’t looking for clerical support or a general office assistant. We aren’t looking for someone who simply likes history or enjoys writing. We aren’t looking for someone who just graduated from college with a history degree and knows a lot about some other historical time and place…….This isn’t an internship. It’s a serious professional opportunity for someone with the right historical knowledge, writing and editing skills, creativity, and problem solving ability.”

Like a self-aware person, the Society of the Cincinnati knows itself. That knowledge allows it to be open and authentic about what it needs. What if more organizations wrote job advertisements like this one? What if, instead of the opening paragraph describing the museum, followed by a paragraph saying they need an individual with a graduate degree, at least five years of experience, who is creative, a team player, and who can walk on water while multi-tasking, and oh, is also a social media whiz, organizations described who they really are and what they really needed?

An authentic ad doesn’t have to be unprofessional or sassy. It just needs to be clear and truthful. And to do that, you need to really know your organization. That doesn’t mean that if you’ve worked there since 1980 you automatically know it. It means you have to pay attention to the way it behaves, the decisions it makes, and the people it hires.

Don’t know your organizational DNA? Here are some things to think about and do:

  1. Ask questions and listen. We know a new museum leader who’s spent his first hundred days working and learning in every department on his site.
  2. Read your organizational history. Even if it was written ages ago, look for the organizational truths that remain.
  3. Talk with your board, especially if you are new. Do they align with what the organization says about itself?
  4. Try to identify your organization’s intangibles: How do staff behave at work? What is considered the “right” way to behave at work? Does your organization have an ’embrace-all’ attitude for the public, but a staff that is bastioned and siloed?
  5. Write down the organizational truths you encounter. Discuss them. Test your theories with board members and colleagues.

It may take a while to come to consensus, but once you do, you can put all your organization’s writing to the test, and make sure it really speaks to who you are. Then maybe you can advertise for the individual you really need as opposed to the one-size-fits-all version.

Joan Baldwin


Museum Leadership in Trumplandia

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If we were sitting in a darkened theater, watching film of the last 10 days we might actually laugh because some things seem so absurd. There is an Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass quality to what are now known as “alternative facts.” But we aren’t in a movie theater; this seems to be life as we’re getting to know it. So with that in mind, here are some bullet points about museum leadership in Trumplandia.

  • Know your community. Embrace them all. Even the ones you as a leader might not easily befriend. Don’t preach to the choir. Be the place–whether through programming, exhibits or education programs–where everyone is acknowledged as someone who matters.
  • Know your collections. If you are master of a collection that reflects generations of white privilege, turn it on its head. Think about the work of Titus Kaphar and invite your city’s artists, photographers, and people to react to your collections. Find a way to say we may be the result of privilege, but as an institution we don’t behave that way.
  • Know your staff. How can you preach institutional open-mindedness if the staff break room tolerates cruel remarks or inequity. Make sure your institutional culture models how you want your museum to be in the world.
  • If you haven’t addressed your HR policy in a while or, God forbid, you don’t have one, use this moment. This is a world where the White House tells some of its staff to “dress feminine,” so make sure you have defined, know, and believe in your institutional policies. And while you’re at it, review your museum’s values statement.
  • Think about your Internet Use Policy. If you don’t have one, you have work to do. This is a time where change can happen in the second it takes to press the return button on a keyboard. How do you want staff to separate their work selves from their online selves?
  • Based on what you know about your community, collections and audience, talk with your board. Understand and internalize how political and engaged it wants the museum to be. Think about where and how you can push the envelope and what that will mean for you, your staff, and your institution. If you are active with social justice or political organizations separate from your museum, and are likely to be photographed, quoted or interviewed as part of your volunteer work, consider sharing that information ahead of time.
  • Be self-aware. Consider the necessity of self-editing. Which is more important to you: your right to free speech at a museum event or enraging a potential donor who doesn’t share your views? When in doubt, channel your inner Michelle Obama, and remember, “When they go low, we go high.”
  • Last, museums are such marvelous places. They can and should reflect their communities. Be the place that offers quiet in a world of tumult, welcomes everyone in a world of identity checks, treats its staff with kindness and equity, provides facts not alternative narratives, and encourages curiosity and engagement. Here’s an example for all of us from Cornell University’s Olin Library. Without taking a position, in the clearest possible language, it makes its point.

If there ever was a time for museums, heritage organizations, zoos and botanical gardens to push mediocrity aside and be the best they can be, this is it. Let us know how you are coping and changing in 2017.

Joan H. Baldwin


Making Decisions Transparent

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This week I want to pick up an earlier thread and talk about transparency and decision making. My workplace is involved in a search for a new head. We were told several months ago that because of the nature of the field {independent schools}, that the search would be a closed process. It is being conducted by a search firm and a committee composed of board members, faculty and staff. Nonetheless, the rest of us have had numerous opportunities to meet and comment on past heads of school and our hopes for the future. One of the principal complaints by many who met with the committee was the insular nature of the outgoing leadership. Decisions were made by a close-knit group and handed down to everyone else. The closed-door process left everyone else free to fill in the narrative. And narratives, whether created at museums or schools, whether about policy, personnel or change, take on a life of their own.

Which brings me to transparency. I want to say at the outset that not all decisions need to be transparent. In fact, it’s not the decision making that needs transparency. It’s the ramp up to making the decision that should be open.

All leaders are deciders. That’s the nature of the game. But here’s the deal: Are you a leader who shuts your door, paces the room, and emerges with a decision? Or do you closet yourself with a few trusted colleagues and then let them spread the news? Perhaps you meet and talk with staff and then shut your door and think? Is your staff comfortable discussing thorny problems with one another? Do you speak with all staff members who may be affected by a decision? And last, do you think of decision-making discussions as learning opportunities for staff? Because they really are. Think about it. Here are some things a staff or department, who talks together, learns:

  • to trust one another.
  • that decision making is a process.
  • what the goal of the process is–which may not be the goal of the entire staff or shared by the entire staff.
  • respect for minority viewpoints.

Another payoff of inclusiveness during decision making is voices rarely heard may help your organization save money. For example, if you’re selecting software and only involve IT and department heads, what happens when the folks who actually use proposed software tell you it won’t work and why? And last, and this is also the leader’s role, by talking it through, a staff learns how to work with a decision even when it didn’t go the way they hoped. And it’s you, the leader, who sets that tone although it’s likely easier when a majority of the staff have participated in the process. And what does your staff expect on the receiving end of a transparent decision making process?

  • a leader who hasn’t made up her mind, who comes to the problem in question ready to learn.
  • a leader who respects her staff’s experience.
  • a leader who is willing to guide the process so all voices are heard from.
  • a leader who is open about the goals and parameters of a given project or decision.
  • a leader who really listens.

If you work at a small to medium sized institution, altering your decision making strategy may not be very difficult. You likely meet with most of the staff for major decisions anyway. If you don’t, you may want to ask yourself why you don’t. If you work at a larger museum, changing the decision making process will involve getting departments and/or trustees, who may not work together often to engage with one another. The results though are elegant. And because Leadership Matters is constantly nagging you, our gentle readers, to read outside the museum world, take a look at this decision-making matrix from University of California Davis.

As always, let us know what you think. We’ve had almost 17,000 views since 2013, and we’re honored to have you all out there thinking and talking about museum (and your) leadership.

Joan Baldwin