Advice for CEOs from the NCMC Annual Meeting

Earlier this week I had a chance to attend the annual meeting of the North Carolina Museums Council in Wilmington.  It was incredibly beautiful weather in this historic port town and I had a great time meeting colleagues (some who were fellow graduates from the University of Delaware and others who had mutual friends in my hometown—small world!).  The conference attracted just over a hundred people, which is very small compared to the national meetings I usually attend, and when I arrived, I wondered about their value to the field.  By the time I left, I saw that they fill a special niche:

  • provides connections that are vital for aligning advocacy efforts, strengthening tourism, and sharing resources at a local level
  • provides training for people that are unable to afford to attend a national meeting (such as graduate students) or cannot travel out of state (which is becoming increasingly common in government agencies)
  • sessions are often more practical and focus on a single topic (e.g., how to create an interactive museum exhibit using Raspberry Pi, how to use journey mapping)
  • sessions are smaller (one to two dozen people) and shorter (45 minutes) which give speakers a chance to try out new ideas in a more informal setting.

I also found that participants share many of the same challenges and offer the same wisdom found in larger conferences, On Sunday, I was invited to speak at the Leadership Forum and started by asking a few questions so we could get to know each other better.  I often find that executive directors and CEOs are in isolated positions, rarely able to discuss their biggest challenges with their boards or staff.  When museum associations offer these types of forums, it’s a rare opportunity to discuss vital issues with their peers. Just listening is as valuable as providing a solution because you realize you’re not alone.  Here are a few things I collected during our conversation:

A. What are the three biggest challenges facing you as a leader at your museum?

  • Support:  Getting support from decision-makers (e.g., elected officials); Facilitating support from board and/or staff; Funding; Retaining good staff (salaries are not competitive); Volunteer recruitment and retention.
  • Managing priorities: Trying to stay focused on the major goals while tending to daily issues; Balancing work and personal responsibilities; Too few staff to do everything we want to do.
  • Organizational culture:  Building an organizational culture based on shared or core values; Ensuring everyone on staff is passionate about the mission and share this with visitors; Siloed departments or territorial staff.
  • Engaging audiences:  Engaging underserved audiences; Interpreting diverse topics and helping visitors see themselves in the museum’s interpretation; Maintaining relevance to our audiences and community; Competition for visitors’ attention (e.g., movie theaters, smartphone apps, social activities); Changing format and perceptions of museums.

B. What is an important thing a new CEO should know about leading a museum but is often overlooked or underappreciated?

  • Financial management (e.g. preparing budget, analyzing financial reports)
  • Fundraising
  • Balancing what you need to do with what you want to do.
  • Effective communication skills.
  • Importance of interpersonal relationships and people skills
  • Navigating politics (both internal and external to the organization)
  • Recognize that things always take longer than expected.
  • Ability to identify potholes/landmines.
  • Value of civic organizations (e.g. Kiwanis)
  • Value of professional organizations and professional development (e.g. NCMC)

C. What is one piece of advice you’ve received about leadership that’s stayed with you or had the greatest benefit or impact?

  • More is caught than taught (you’re more effective through your actions than words).
  • Easier to beg forgiveness than ask for permission (suggested with hesitation and reservations)
  • Don’t use your education as a weapon.
  • Fly the birds (take risks).
  • Value the wisdom of the collective (check ideas with others before implementation).
  • Don’t ask others to do something that you’re not willing to do yourself.
  • A few strategic deaths will resolve most problems (I think this was aimed at issues rather than people).
  • Be persistent.
  • Can’t ever say “thank you” enough (with the suggestion of sending a thank-you note at the end of each week to someone who may have been underappreciated or overlooked).
  • Focus on just 1-3 things to do each day (can’t really do much more).
  • Pick your battles.
  • Don’t forget you’re the director and won’t make everyone happy.
  • Find your cheerleaders.