Taking (some of) the guesswork out

I’ve done both a Clore leadership course (a while ago) and the Getty Leadership Institute Fellowship (last year), so I often get asked whether these kinds of courses are worth doing. My answer? Definitely. There’s a syllabus, talks and discussions, and everyone carefully takes notes and has good intentions to review them and use all the tools and approaches they learned about on the course. But although the course content is thought-provoking and useful, it’s not the only reason I think that courses like these are worthwhile. Both the Clore and GLI were opportunities to reflect in a structured and supported way on what I wanted my career to be and to become, and what my strengths and my areas for development are. Both also meant that I got to know groups of other leaders in the sector through fairly intense shared experiences on these residential courses, and at different times since I’ve been in touch with people I met during Clore or GLI to ask their thoughts on something, catch up over lunch, or just to see how they’re doing. I’ve found it incredibly useful to be part of networks of extraordinary people who are at around the same career stage as me, that I can talk to about work- and career-related questions. Now that I’m nearing the end of my third month as a new Director, I’ve found it particularly invaluable to lean on some of them for advice and insight.

I’ve reached the point where I know I still have more to learn, but I can already see some areas where I want to make changes, and have started to do that. Given that there’s no immediate crisis or major issue to tackle, and things are basically running really well, I’m spending some time looking at areas where small changes now could either grow into big opportunities later on, or where sorting out small niggles now can stop bigger problems coming up later. I’m also paying attention to my key working relationships, particularly with my team. They are still getting to know me, and I’m still getting to know them, but it’s important that we work together with each other really well as we move into the final six months of a major project to extend and redisplay the main museum. To work out how best to do that, I turned to someone who knows me (flaws and all) from the GLI Fellowship, and who has a really different and complementary leadership style to me, Halona Norton-Westbrook (Director of Curatorial Affairs, Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. Halona has recently been working with a new interim Director so she’s got a particularly useful perspective. I asked her advice about a whole range of things, in a long and wandering Skype call. On the topic of building really strong working relationships with my new senior team she said something that at first sounded a little odd to me: don’t expect them to work it out themselves through trial and error, tell them how you like to work. It was odd at first because I already know that my team are smart and perceptive, so surely (I thought) they have worked all this out anyway? What kind of egomaniac sets out in a meeting how they like to work, as if it’s the rest of the team’s job to align with that? But Halona explained how helpful she’d found it when their interim Director had done this, because it had taken some of the guesswork out of things – on both sides of the conversation – so I took her advice and decided to try it.

The first step was to think about what to say, and how I would articulate things that seem so obvious to me. I thought about how I approach delegation and authority in key areas, about the amount and types of information I prefer to have at different stages of projects, and about how I typically run meetings. I wrote notes on these areas, as well as a list of the things that the team can always rely on me for, and just the process of writing this down was a useful self-reflection. It became even more interesting when I took my notes to meetings with each of the people in my senior team and talked it all through with them. To give just one example, in one of the conversations it became clear that a tiny moment of confusion the previous day had been down to the two of us being very similar in our approach to something as simple as having a meeting agenda in our heads (but not always writing it down). So often, misunderstandings come from people being more similar to each other than they realise, and this insight was so useful for me, as well as I hope for them. Overall, even if my team might have already worked out everything I said, it felt to me like it was useful to talk it through rather than guessing our way through these incredibly important workplace relationships. As well as strengthening the way we work together, I hope it also sets a tone of openness and trust, which will be what we’ll rely on (as well as lots of cups of tea and chocolate biscuits, which this museum team seems to run on) as we work together to open the Wardlaw Museum next year.

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