Written by Wendy Ng & Rachel Trinkley
When you’re regularly working 10-hour days doing everything from implementing strategic initiatives to signing timesheets, how do you manage to be a leader in those circumstances? Ask any exempt staff (1) and they’ll no doubt share stories of being overworked, under-resourced, and despite the best of intentions, feeling overwhelmed and less than effective. Given this reality, beyond your personal conviction and will power to do a good job, what makes a great leader? What supports do leaders today and tomorrow need to be successful? What strengths and skills can museum educators bring to leadership roles?
These questions guided an interactive session we led at the National Art Education Association Annual Convention in March 2015. During the session, colleagues shared the qualities they believe make a great leader. If you think about a great leader from your own life, you’ll probably recognize many of these same qualities including:
- has vision
- is innovative
- is a great listener
- speaks the truth
- is courageous
- accepts and learns from failure
- is strategic when fighting battles
- knows when to follow rather than lead
- models behavior for staff
- brings others along and empowers others
- is a chief storyteller
From there, we split into groups and tackled the top three leadership issues we face, as chosen by those assembled:
- developing and supporting staff
- institutional culture change
- making change at your level
Since we believe in the power of collective minds, and know that there are incredibly smart, capable people in our work, we endeavored to develop solutions or, at least, resources and places to begin. Here’s what we learned…
Developing and Supporting Staff
Build time into our practice, as individuals and as teams, for reflection. Given the theme of the convention, use Design Thinking to test, prototype, and create solutions as staff through an iterative process. Books recommended were Coaching Skills for Non-Profit Managers and Leaders and Managing to Change the World.
Institutional Culture/Climate Change
Create interdisciplinary teams and use Design Thinking to create solutions. Change takes time and is an investment – you’ll need to weather storms and stay more than two to three years at an institution. It takes courage to run with it, create a space that doesn’t exist, and ask forgiveness later, not permission. Flip authority within by trusting others with the reins.
Making change at your level
Whether you are a volunteer, intern, part-time staff, full-time staff, or a director, hold yourself to high standards while knowing your limitations. Modeling change versus talking about change is more impactful. Awareness of change leads to more collaboration, which leads to growing success and less discouragement, which generates more ideas. The book Tempered Radicals was recommended.
As we reflected on the outcomes of that session recently, we realized the values, challenges, solutions all still feel relevant to us. When we talked about our current environments and work realities however, some new questions and challenges emerged:
- has vision – what if others on your team don’t share that vision?
- is innovative – what if others define innovation differently?
- is a great listener – what if others aren’t listening to you?
- speaks the truth – what if others don’t want to hear it?
- is courageous – what if your courage backfires?
- accepts and learns from failure – what if failure negatively impacts your job or career? What if others in your institution don’t value failure?
- is strategic when fighting battles – when does strategy become political and personality-driven?
- knows when to follow rather than lead – how do you follow when there’s a lack of trust?
- models behaviour for staff – what if staff are not receptive? For example, emerging and mid-career professionals tend to prefer flat rather than hierarchical organizational structures compared to more senior professionals.
- brings others along and empowers others – what if they disappoint?
- is a chief storyteller – what if it’s a story others aren’t ready to hear? What if your story is competing for airtime, or there’s no one to hear it?
Perhaps these questions, or similar versions, have emerged in your setting as well, whether quietly or loudly. How do leaders tackle these very real, messy issues? What sources of strength, knowledge, or wisdom can we mine to support both ourselves and others?
We invite your thoughts and responses to these and other questions — add to the Comments below, or share your questions via social media.
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 The U.S. Fair Labor Standards Act determines many employment standards, including who is or is not “exempt” from overtime pay. Many museum workers are exempt from overtime pay due to their work duties.
About the Authors
WENDY NG: Manager, Learning at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada, where she oversees School Visits, Traveling Programs, and the Hands-on Galleries. Previously, Wendy worked at the Art Gallery of Ontario as Coordinator, Elementary School and Teacher Programs, and other museums in Washington, DC and London, England. She holds a BFA and BEd from York University, a MAT in Museum Education from George Washington University, and is certified by the Ontario College of Teachers.
RACHEL TRINKLEY: Director of Education for Explore! Children’s Museum of Washington DC, a new children’s museum being developed for the nation’s capital. Prior to joining the museum, she worked at the Freer|Sackler Galleries, Smithsonian Institution, and at the Columbus Museum of Art (Ohio), where she managed the docent program and served as Assistant Director of Learning. She holds a BA from Saint Mary’s College, Indiana, and an MA in art history from Ohio State University.
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Header Image: PopTech Flickr photo, “2010 PopTech Science and Public Leadership Fellows,” CC BY-SA 2.0 license, no changes made to photo.
4 thoughts on “Supporting Leaders of Tomorrow in Museum Education Today”
Great, insightful post and a much needed contribution to the persistent question: how does leadership emerge? One of the lacuna of the cultural, and specifically, the museum sector is the fact that there aren’t many mentorship programs for mid-career professionals. Training, internship and study-work programs are geared toward students or recent graduates. Most mid-career professionals hone their skills and knowledge by attending conferences and workshops, but that’s clearly not enough, as professional development takes place through an equal exposure to knowledge and practice. A good leader would recognize the need for continual development among her staff and institute exchange programs with other institutions to support learning.
Thanks for the comment! I couldn’t agree more that if we want to keep mid-career professionals in the field, investing in coaching and their development as leaders and managers in the field is essential – and something not easily accomplished at a conference. I’ve been enjoying Joan Baldwin’s discussions on this (https://leadershipmatters1213.wordpress.com/) and there are lots of others talking about it too. Basically we need to invest in people! Maybe board members can be good resources for identifying and making available more diverse sources of development?
This post and associated article may be of interest in this context: Successful Museums – An Anniversary Tribute to Stephen Weil (http://desgriffin.com/2015/12/stephen-weil-tribute/) and If Museums are to be successful (http://desgriffin.com/effective/steveweiltribute/). There are other posts and essays on http://www.desgriffin.com.
Thank you for sharing, Des! I actually attended the Stephen Weil symposium in Victoria, BC back in 2006 on behalf of the GW Museum Education Program. When looking at the four criteria for assessing museums as articulated in Weil’s “immodest proposal”, one could also apply those criteria to assessing leadership skills.