Monday, October 7, 2013

What I've Learned from Working with a For-Profit Company

Tomorrow, I head off for another trip to Rome working with Context Travel, a company that's been a client for the past year.  It seems like a great time to share what I've learned from working with them.  Context is based in Philadelphia and they "provide an in-depth alternative to traditional tours. We are a network of architects, historians, art historians, and other specialists who organize walks in 21 cities around the world—and counting."  Actually, I think the number is at 25 or so by now,  all of which except the newest, Amsterdam, I've visited in the past year.  (and by the way, if you're traveling, check out their walks!)

My consulting with them has been framed around ways to develop and share tools for better walks for both docent managers and docents (the scholars who give the walks).   But as you might expect, although the work--professional development--has many similarities to the work I do with museums,  I think the way the company operates provides some useful lessons for all of us in the non-profit world.  Here, in no particular order,  a few things I've learned from the owners, Paul Bennett and Lani Bevacqua, and their tremendous staff working in Philadelphia,  London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, Istanbul and Shanghai.
Storytelling matters in every aspect of work that engages the public.  Like museums, Context walks are, at their best,  magnetic experiences.  That means it's not just a litany of facts, but a clear, compelling story.  But it's not just the walks that are stories--it's every part of the work. Everyone on staff is asked to be a storyteller, in all sorts of ways--from tweet-sized storytelling to longer blog posts.  What would happen if we asked everyone in our museums to think the same way?

Everybody can pitch in but everybody can solve problems.  From the rotating 24 hour emergency phone to too many other tasks to mention,  staff feel free to ask, across the globe, for help when they need it.  But everyone also knows that they are empowered to solve problems as they arise.

Make a decision and move forward.  My first real work was at the staff retreat last year and at dinner the first night, Lani asked what I thought of it.  I ventured some suggestions that I thought would help focus the work.  The next day those were tried out.  Not the next month, not after a committee studied them,  not the next fiscal year.  The next day.  It's been great to work with a client who listens to an idea (some considerably more complicated than meeting management) and says, "okay.  let's do it."

Always be scanning for the newest, free technologies that can make your life easier. When I began with the company, we Skyped;  now it's Google Hangout.  Why the change?  I suspect it's because it's easier to put in the calendar and click right through.  Still free.  But if a new tool doesn't work for you, move on.  Don't continue to invest time and money (remember, the tool is free--don't make it costly).

Focus on what really matters.  The company pays attention to lots of metrics,  but the one that impresses me the most is client happiness.  I'd love to see more museums think about not just what our visitors and our communities might be learning,  but how happy--not just satisfied, but how happy-- we make them.
And finally, as befits the company's Roman roots,  I've learned that any meeting is made better by beginning with espresso or ending with an aperitivo.  Thanks Paul, Lani, Carolyn, Whitney, Sara, Liz, Petulia, Lily, Courtney, Genevieve, Sophie, Ceylan, Ramona, Natalie, Jessica and Martina for a great year of learning around the globe!


Unknown said...

What a lovely blog. It's so great to get a view of us from the (sort of ) outside. Thanks for all your insights!

Unknown said...

Really enjoyed this piece -- with lots of good reminders: empowering employees, proactively moving forward -- great stuff! Especially love measurement of client happiness. What metrics do they use to tell whether or not their clients are happy?

autorack said...

I think each person could be learn from their circumstances, but the most important lesson could be taken experience from the success or fail peoples.