How leaders lead

I’m finally going to get off this current kick about leadership and vision… right after this post.  The past month has been so fruitful that I’ve generated piles of references that all bear on our work and I want to get some of the most germane out to you so I can move on.  Some of the most interesting reading I’ve done in the past couple weeks has all revolved around the qualities of good (and bad) leadership.

It’s not about you
Janet Carding from the ROM (@janetcarding) posted this tasty little tidbit from Scott Eblin (@Scotteblin) about one of my favorite attributes of a good leader; the ability to let go. Going from being the brutally competent doer of deeds to being the leader of a tribe of doers is a tricky adjustment that I’ve seen talented people mess up. Eblin, an executive coach, says,

 “To grow as a leader, you have to let go of being the go-to person and pick up the profile of being the person who builds a team of go-to people.

How do you do that? Here are some ideas.

  •  Allow and encourage your team to become an expert in the things in which you’ve been an expert.
  •  Raise your comfort level for letting go of what you’ve been doing and your team’s for picking up responsibilities by establishing regular check points.
  •  Coach your team to come up with its own way of doing things rather than giving your team the answers.”

This relates back to my earlier posts on leadership, because this ability to let go I think has everything to do with having a vision that’s bigger than yourself. When a leader has vision, it’s too big for any one person to implement, so letting go becomes a necessity if the vision is to be advanced.  This is how vision propagates. It’s big enough that there is room for lots of people to explore it’s corners, find out new things about it, and feed those findings back into the work of the whole tribe. And when I think about the people I consider to be exemplary leaders, one trait they all share is their pride in discussing what their staff are up to, rather than what they’re up to.

All three of these tips apply to pretty much anyone doing experience development work, regardless of your position in the organizational chart. “Relax, let go, and be a fluid communicator.” Is pretty sound advice for anyone doing exhibition development, as I wrote about before. As someone responsible for content development, I am acutely aware of the delicate balance necessary to encourage other team members to explore the content themselves, rather than having me be the only conduit. It’s easy to fall into being too controlling or too lax, but the results are so much better when you can bring the rest of the team along with you.

Talk, talk, talk
The Guardian recently ran a profile of Performances Birmingham, the charity that runs Birmingham’s Town Hall & Symphony Hall, and some of their practices that they’ve developed to keep a large staff feeling informed and empowered to do the work of the institution. They are:

  • Tell everybody the same thing
  • Give your team a voice
  • Never say nothing
  • Encourage creativity
  • Have fun on the job

The whole article is worth a read, so look at the specific examples they cite.  How well does your organization do in these five areas? Aside from “Have fun on the job” , all of these qualities would organically arise in a setting where a leader with vision, like the one described above, is working.  One can only let go by being an efficient and frequent communicator and a responsive listener. A shared vision encourages everybody in the room to be creative.  And the result of that, I’d argue, is workplace that is fun, without the need for mandated, official fun.

Managing well, rather than just managing
Eric Jackson had a very popular post on Fortbes recently that looked why people leave big companies. As an employee of a large institution (and someone who’s watched “Office Space”) I can resonate with most of these.

  1. Big Company Bureaucracy.
  2. Failing to Find a Project for the Talent that Ignites Their Passion.
  3. Poor Annual Performance Reviews.
  4. No Discussion around Career Development. (I’ve written about this before… 
  5. Shifting Whims/Strategic Priorities.
  6. Lack of Accountability and/or telling them how to do their Jobs.
  7. Top Talent likes other Top Talent.
  8. The Missing Vision Thing.
  9. Lack of Open-Mindedness.
  10. Who’s the Boss?

 The explanations of the reasons are well worth looking at, though they might be somewhat dispiriting if you’re working somewhere where these things are happening. You’ve been warned. The reason I include them in an otherwise upbeat post is because Erika Anderson followed up on this list with a further summation that boils that list down to one reason; “Top talent leave an organization when they’re badly managed and the organization is confusing and uninspiring.”  Her recipe for how to address these failings is interesting. Her two ways to keep talent are;

 “1) Create an organization where those who manage others are hired for their ability to manage well, supported to get even better at managing, and held accountable and rewarded for doing so.

2) Then be clear about what you’re trying to accomplish as an organization – not only in terms of financial goals, but in a more three-dimensional way. What’s your purpose; what do you aspire to bring to the world? What kind of a culture do you want to create in order to do that?  What will the organization look, feel and sound like if you’re embodying that mission and culture?  How will you measure success?  And then, once you’ve clarified your hoped-for future, consistently focus on keeping that vision top of mind and working together to achieve it.”

It’s really that simple. Not easy, but simple. Managing well takes work on the part of the institution, and it takes someone to articulate a vision.

The bigger picture
So how does this tie back into all the fascinating discussions taking place around digital technologies, technologists, and new media literacy and professional development? I think Rob Stein’s presentation at the Salzburg Global Seminar and his follow up, “Is Your Community Better Off Because it has a Museum?” are good refreshers on the bigger issues that these current debates reside within.

What is the value proposition of your institution? Can you answer why your community/ies are better off because of you? There are many ways new media and new technologies can help deliver value, but they all require you to A) have a clear idea of that value, and B) be structured in such a way that you can deliver.

Related Links:

Scott Eblin, “Want to grow as a leader? Let go of being the ‘go-to person”
http://smartblogs.com/leadership/2012/01/27/want-to-grow-as-a-leader-let-go-of-being-the-go-to-person/

Nick Loveland, The Guardian, “Arts organisations need to engage their own staff as well as their audiences”
http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2012/mar/20/arts-staff-engagement-internal-comms?CMP=twt_gu

Eric Jackson, Forbes, “Top Ten Reasons Why Large Companies Fail To Keep Their Best Talent”
http://www.forbes.com/sites/ericjackson/2011/12/14/top-ten-reasons-why-large-companies-fail-to-keep-their-best-talent/

Erika Anderson, Forbes, “Why Top Talent Leaves: Top 10 Reasons Boiled Down to 1”
http://www.forbes.com/sites/erikaandersen/2012/01/18/why-top-talent-leaves-top-10-reasons-boiled-down-to-1/

Rob Stein, “The Challenges and Opportunities of Participatory Culture for Museums and Libraries” parts I and II,
http://www.imamuseum.org/blog/2011/10/11/please-chime-in-the-challenges-and-opportunities-of-participatory-culture/
http://www.imamuseum.org/blog/2011/10/21/the-challenges-and-opportunities-of-participatory-culture-for-museums-and-libraries-part-ii/

Rob Stein, “Is Your Community Better Off Because it has a Museum?”
[http://rjstein.com/is-your-community-better-off-because-it-has-a-museum-final-thoughts-about-participatory-culture-part-iii/]

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2 responses to “How leaders lead

  1. I have always loved being a leader. It’s a honor to let go and let your team achieve their highest abilities. I call it being a witness to the greatness within.

    I am reading your posting about leaving large organizations. I can reflect on this having worked in one for 30 years before my work was no longer desired and now working in a small museum. There are huge differences but startling similarities. If leadership can not let go and trust it effects work no matter how large or how small.

    “Vision” as a word has always interested me. I think must of what passes as vision is not vision at all. In my mind, vision without leadership is not vision at all. It saddens me to have experienced and still experience leadership as an exercise in ego with no idea of cultivation of creativity, imagination, and self- sufficiency in staff.

    I miss being a leader. I miss seeing people thrive and making the conditions for them to surprise themselves with their own capabilities. I miss restoring creativity to those who have been bullied or diminished by truly bad leadership.

    Leaders need to embrace new models and not the models that limit the growth of their staff.

  2. Pingback: On Big Ideas | Thinking about museums

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