Monday, April 28, 2008

Leadership at a Crossroads

This is the first of a series of several entries about sessions at the American Association of Museums Annual Conference. I'm here in Denver: beautiful city, great restaurants, and interesting sessions. I find myself making all kinds of notes, so these entries represent my informal reporting and first thoughts stimulated by sessions I'm attending. The first session I attended was on leadership stories, moderated by Michael Spock, formerly director of the Boston Children's Museum. It's a rare thing to hear a director talk about his mistakes, and what he learned about them, and that's what he shared with us. Increasing deficits, board revolts, and staff who described him as the main problem. As he put it, "I was sending mixed signals and keeping everyone confused." After working with an outside consulting firm, and the hard work of board, staff and Michael himself, they managed to get some organizational clarity and turn the museum around. What made the difference?
  • Placing the director's motives and vision in the open
  • Distribute leadership
  • Creating a client-centered institution
  • Common values
  • Inventing tools that allowed for delegation
  • Leaders learning to be tough, nimble managers
  • Value experimentation and admit mistakes
I've been a director and know how hard those changes are to make in any institution. And in Spock's talk, along with the other presenters, it was clear that being a director means being able to look deeply at yourself, at your own skills (and lack thereof), motives, and areas to improve--and to embrace the challenge of making that change.

Maureen Robinson, a board specialist, talked about the "velocity of leadership." As she put it, directors need a lot of nurturing, but we're going through them like Kleenex. The patience of the Children's Museum board, while Michael Spock learned to be a leader, is rarely, if ever, shown to directors today. I became a director in my mid-twenties, right out of graduate school, and I still think of those board members at the Delaware County Historical Association, whose patience and wisdom gave me the time and space to learn.

The solution, from her perspective: learning to change behaviors of both directors and trustees. Tops on her list for directors: stop hiding from your board. Share information, work to create knowledge and understanding on your board, and don't just create a small cadre of board members you deal with. When I became a director of the first time, and my organization had never had a director before, I soon learned that it was wholly to my benefit to devote some time at each meeting to a discussion of museum-related issues. That board became my first audience, and when a board member, a local postmistress, asked a foundation director about intellectual control of a proposed exhibition--I knew I had the beginnings of success. But she also mentioned one of the hardest things to do--particularly in a small museum--which is distinguish between your self and your role.

Trustees--what can you change? Hire the best person for the job, work to make that person successful, pay competitive salary and benefits (perhaps the hardest), encourage learning, see the task of running the organization as a partnership and create an effective and engaged board culture. That will be different for every board, but boards seem to work best when board members both like and respect each other--and the director.

Tom Downey of the Denver Children's Museum is a devotee of Jim Collins' book, Good to Great (now on my reading list). A lawyer turned museum director, he described himself as unburdened by experience or skill," when he started the job. As a leader and manager, he views his role as, literally or figuratively, every day, asking his direct reports, "What can I do to help you do your job better?" He's the bottom of the pyramid rather than the top. He also recommended determining how to spend time on the hard decisions, and not the easy ones. Of the easy ones he says, "It is far better to make a wrong decision today a right decision six weeks from now."

I'm not necessarily big on leadership theory, but the frankness of these leaders, and their illustrations directly from their own careers took the session from theory into the realm of practical knowledge. It seems to me that the ability to have a conversation--to be able to speak clearly about your own motives, hopes and vision for the organization--and to listen with purpose to others--will go a long way towards making a good director.

Photo: Miners talking at Labor Day Celebration, Silverton, Colorado, 1940. Photograph by Russell Lee, FSA/OWI Collection, Library of Congress

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