Sunday, December 31, 2017

When 'Busy' Isn't Good Enough

On the eve of a new year, lots of you (myself included) are thinking about the shape of your lives and careers in the year ahead. Taking my own Strategize Me advice, I like to reserve New Year's to reflect on my past accomplishments and map out a plan for the coming year.

The year just ending was overflowing with work commitments: a full plate of employee and consultant responsibilities, a new book, co-developing a new museum studies course and trying to teach it, trying to be present with colleagues and friends, struggling to be creative and interesting and interested -- well, the list goes on and on.

It's easy enough to chalk it up as a busy year. What's struck me as I attempt to catalog my 2017 accomplishments is that I get no satisfaction from being so busy.  Busy-ness does not equal quality; it doesn't begin to describe depth (or even lack) of commitment. It fails the authenticity test.

I'm tired of being busy, of describing myself that way as my pat answer to anyone's query about how I am or what I've been up to. Because, of course, 'busy' is not really an answer. And we're all busy.

I want more than just putting one more brick in the wall. The challenge for strategizing me this year is to find renewal and meaning.

I hope that's your challenge, as well.

Happy New Year.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Why You Need a Personal Board of Directors

Today I'm meeting up with my career planning posse. We call ourselves the Gang of Five and we've been meeting periodically for about six years to share our career challenges and aspirations, our plans; seek and offer advice, support, and the critique as appropriate. The Gang is my personal board of directors, who collectively and individually I can call on when needed. As a result, I've advanced my thinking about my career journey, if nothing more than to make it far more intentional.

Earlier this summer, I got to talk with my friend and colleague, Greg Stevens at the American Alliance of Museums, about career planning. The result is this interview, published at Alliance Labs. Greg is a terrific proponent of career planning and development -- not surprising since he's the Director of Professional Development at AAM and the co-author of A Life in Museums: Managing Your Museum Career. Whether you work in museums or some other type of cultural institution, check out the book -- you'll find it packed with great insights and advice.

Now back to a personal board of directors.

This group of people that you invite to help you make strategic decisions about your career needs to be a mix of people who can see the landscape from a 30,000-foot level as well as offer on-the-ground advice for navigating it. This isn't the group that gathers after work to moan about work over a few drinks. That may eliminate your grad school BFF and it almost certainly eliminates family and those whose emotional connection to you sways their perspectives about you. For more thoughts about 'strategic' network building, read Herminia Ibarra and Mark Lee Hunter's "How Leaders Create and Use Networks."

A personal board of directors can be all about you and your career. In the Gang of Five, we're about each other's careers as much as we're focused on our own. We've helped each other with job searches, resume review, sorting out employee conflicts, and cheering on the various publishing projects three of us have been involved in (as well as comparing notes about publishers).

The point is you don't have to chart your career moves in a vacuum, nor should you (and I ought to know, since I spent a good part of my career doing so).  I still rely on my own counsel for many career decisions, but knowing I have four colleagues I can call on who know my career aspirations well enough to ask tough questions and offer some creative and sound advice is like having that extra blanket on a cold night.

Friday, June 2, 2017

The Parallel Universes of Nonprofit Work

I've been following some of the running commentary in a couple of Facebook groups that cater to nonprofit leaders, both veteran and emerging. I'm glad to know there are active and supportive fora where folks can vent their frustrations and celebrate their accomplishments. We all need a safe space in which to do just that.

The venting focuses almost exclusively on workplace issues -- you can probably guess them -- lousy pay, crushing hours, troubles with subordinates, trouble with board members, ethical dilemmas, general frustration with the pervasive notion of scarcity to which many nonprofits cling. While the members of the Facebook groups represent a teeny fraction of the actual nonprofit workforce, I believe their challenges are widespread and probably growing as the number of nonprofits continues to expand.

These challenges aren't new, although increased external scrutiny and competition have made them more pressing, more in-your-face, and no longer avoidable.  Taken together, the nonprofit sector lives in at least two parallel universes:  the lofty, mission-driven world of doing good and the pernicious world of scarcity where board and staff leaders lack the foundational knowledge or the discussion/planning space to grow healthy, prosperous organizations.

The disconnect between these two universes is wide and growing. And we need the entire nonprofit ecosystem (individuals, institutions, professional associations, graduate programs, etc.) working together to close the gap by making nonprofit workplaces as great as the public benefit they say they provide.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Nonprofit Board Resolutions for a New, Uncertain Year

I've written about resolutions for nonprofits before (see the infographic and read more here), but this year -- especially this year -- nonprofit boards will be put to the test in the face of civic dissonance, uncertain government support for education, arts, history, and science; and the continuation of dramatically shifting demographics.

So, here's my short list:

Know your organization's mission cold and I don't mean memorize the mission statement.  I mean deeply and fully understand the impact your nonprofit makes to those who benefit from the work you do. Understand how you meet the need, how you excel at doing so, and why that's important.  Be able to tell the stories about your organization's impact to anyone.

Get up to speed on what real governance is all about.  Set goals and success measures, exercise oversight, consider the future (a lot), strategize pathways to success, and keep at it.  Good governance is intentional and sustained.

Be the partner your staff leadership needs and wants. Ask what you as a board and as individual board members can do to help staff leaders. Listen. Act together.

Understand that constraints often lead to creative solutions. It's easy (and lazy) to bemoan the lack of resources. Frankly, no institution ever has enough. So, figure out how to use constraints to your advantage.

Know that you are not alone. Almost every nonprofit in the US is considering its options in the face of the next four years. We're traveling the same road, meeting similar, if not the same, challenges along the way.  Reach out. Share information and knowledge. Work together.

We're part of a big, beautiful nonprofit sector. Let's all work together.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Welcome Back

It's hard for me to believe I've let my blog writing lapse for so long and to my many readers I apologize for that. It's not that I haven't been writing, because I have, just in other fora. The last year-and-a-half was taken up with co-authoring a new book, Women and the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace, which will be published next spring by Routledge.

Gender equity for all women is on my mind. Hardly a day goes by without seeing or hearing a story on this topic, but there seems to be little movement toward positive change despite the attention it's getting. Lest you think gender equity is a symptom unique to under-resourced nonprofits and old-school for-profits, I'm here to tell you that it plagues every sector from Silicon Valley to higher ed to Hollywood and, oh, yes, it's alive and well at your friendly neighborhood cultural and social welfare organization.

A group of colleagues and I recently published A Call for Gender Equity in the Museum Workplace. I hope you read it and share it, no matter what sector you hail from.

So equity is in my sights and I'm mixing and remixing it with larger and broader discussions about race/racism, inclusion, identity, and accessibility. These are conversations I see taking place across the museum, library, and archives professions, and the energy fueling them is passionate, unapologetic, determined, and urgent. I am quietly hopeful that cultural nonprofits might become the equitable workplace model for others. It will take lots and lots of work, but the work begins with a growing chorus of voices. Will yours be one?

Friday, May 8, 2015

Three Most Important Nonprofit Executive Director Soft Skills

If you were asked to narrow down the list of executive director qualifications to the three most important, which ones would you identify? Would the list consist of soft skills, hard skills, or some combination? Would your list be based on the great ED you are or one you've worked for, or would it be your wish list for the ED you haven't been fortunate yet to work for? 

This was an assignment in my recent online class in leadership and administration for the American Association for State and Local History. I asked the class to review three-five advertisements for museum directors and analyze what these listings intimated about the organization’s past experience, current focus and goals, and future aspirations. Then, I asked the class to identify what they consider to be the three most important qualifications they would look for in a director. (Okay, so there's more than three if you dissect my three big groups.) 

Soft skills outnumbered hard skills, although demonstrated museum/nonprofit experience is right up there on the list.  We'll focus on the soft skills in this post; hard skills later.  Here's what the class said: 

Passion, Vision and Creativity 
"Museums need innovative and ambitious thinkers willing to try new things while being careful to not lose sight of those ever-important priorities," wrote one participant.  Another wrote, "Willing to carry out the values and vision of the organization."  Others cited a passion for the museum's discipline (science or history, for example) or special focus (Impressionist art or American arts and crafts). But this is not just about the objects; it's about connecting the dots. In that vein, one wrote, "Passion about the relevance of history to modern life." 

Effective Communication 
How many times have we seen this is a position listing?  When you think about the sheer number of people museums and their leaders interact with, communication is not just about speaking and writing in whole sentences.  This is about being able to build bridges at the staff and board levels, among audiences and within the community; to articulate a vision and purpose in ways that inspire individuals to get involved; to understand different groups and how to talk/work with them and a willingness to keep staff informed; and to negotiate and be able to reach consensus. 

I was surprised at how many times this attribute was cited as a top qualification.  This contribution from a class member says it all:  "I think that a good leader should always be open to the possibility that they might be wrong, or at least be aware that there might be alternative ways that something can be viewed. Be cognizant that you can always learn something new from anyone. First and foremost remain open to dialogue and differing points of view and always listen to advice given. You don’t have to follow it, but just listen, it just might be worth it. And don’t tell anyone to do something that you wouldn’t be willing to do yourself."