Thursday, August 13, 2009

Developing the Leadership Within

THE AMERICAN ASSOCIATION OF MUSEUMS' 2009 Emerging Museum Professionals survey gives us a sense of how the museum field is meeting the needs of its future leaders. The survey rates the importance of nine professional development resources to this group and its related satisfaction with access to each of them. The resulting "gap" between importance and satisfaction thus becomes the point of the story.

The biggest gap is the ability of young professionals to access leadership opportunities within their own institutions. It's a gap that has grown significantly from the time the last survey was done just two years ago. Back in 2007, 55% of survey respondents ranked finding leadership within one's institution as very/somewhat important. That stands at 73% today.

But as far as these folks are concerned, they simply aren't being given the opportunities to challenge their leadership abilities. Why is that, especially when most museums are understaffed (and becoming more so)?

I think there are at least two factors at work. The first is that there is a long-standing general lack of really meaningful professional development planning in museums, large and small, that helps individuals set professional goals by working with supervisors (and others across the institution) to build capacity. The annual "evaluation" that so many of us have been involved with is more often about
containment than it is about development.

The second factor is, I think, a mindset that talent development requires heaps of money and time. And when institutional leaders aren't getting the professional development they need, they're most likely not going to turn around and offer opportunities to younger or subordinate staff. But, in the context of this survey, we're not talking about sending folks off to conferences, workshops and seminars; we're talking about in-house skill-building.

So, that leaves time. And making time to develop in-house leadership opportunities for all staff who want those opportunities does require a special institutional commitment that may require a radical shift in how people work or a few relatively simple tweaks that can open doors to new learning. The cross-functional team is a perfect example. Combining staff from various parts of an institution to work together on a project is not only an opportunity to cross-pollinate ideas, it's an opportunity to cross-train. Shadowing staff is another tried and true learning experience. Attending leadership or board meetings is another. And these just scratch the surface.

Developing leadership within the institution has its best chance of success when commitment to it flows from the top, but it can certainly bubble up in any number of ways at all levels. There are thousands of people who want to be challenged in their work; let's not turn a deaf ear to them.

Photo: office worker from bolandrotor

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