Since being named executive director six months ago, I’ve become more interested in reading about non-profit leadership. But these books frequently annoy me. We don’t have departments; we have departments of one. I may be at the top of the organization, but there aren’t many layers between the rest of the staff and me. Various suggestions about how to lead often don’t apply to our smaller staff.
The other night, I was reading Delancey: A Man, A Woman, A Restaurant, A Marriage by Molly Wizenberg. It’s about the first difficult years of opening a new restaurant. Towards, the end of the book, Wizenberg reflects a bit on how they lead their staff:
We set a certain tone at Delancey. Articles in business magazines call it “workplace culture,” a concept so dull-sounding, so soporific, that you could use it as the basis for a lullaby. But Brandon and I spend a lot of time at Delancey, and we need it to feel like a pleasant place to be. And it turns out that even if you want a workplace that’s fairly unstructured and relaxed, it takes guiding, shaping and difficult conversations to get there. After a while, we came around to Susan the Oracle’s method of hiring, often choosing fed-up paralegals, ex-dancers, and part-time choreographers over professionally trained cooks. To do well at Delancey, you’ve got to like collaboration. The restaurant is small, and we don’t have a dozen bussers and interns to do the grunt work: everyone has to do their part, and sometimes more. You can’t keep score. You’ve got to take initiative, to do your job well for the sake of doing it well. In return, we’ll be game to hear your ideas, and to help you to learn what you want to learn. (222)
This is one of the best summaries I’ve ever read about the magic of working at a smaller institution. The primary reason I was able to rise through the ranks here is that my predecessor, Gary Smith, created this kind of workplace culture, and I’m certainly following in his footsteps. We’ve always been open to possibilities and ideas from wherever they come. “Other duties as assigned” is not only one of the most wonderful phrases in a job description, it can be the best source for ideas and stories.
I often tell young professionals to start out by taking a job in a smaller museum. You’ll probably get more opportunities to experiment and stretch your wings. I wish more museums had the same attitude as the folks at Delancey.
How do you shape the culture at your museum?