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

earth-day

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

peering

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