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Are you looking for inspiration and ideas on how to positively impact your institution from the middle?
Tired of asking for advice and mentorship about starting new initiatives only to be given the institutional runaround? Feel a little like the light inside is dying? Look no further than this session! Get inspired by fellow mid-level or mid-career professionals doing great work and garner real-world advice from higher ups about being a leader when you’re not THE leader.
TIPS FOR LEADING FROM THE MIDDLE
"You must play the game, and you must excel at it
because your ability to understand and work effectively
within all these flawed systems is a critical factor in your
ability to change them."
-Vu Le of Nonprofit AF and Rainier Valley Corps
"Just say yes"
-Ellen Ferguson of Hugh and Jane Ferguson
“Trust your Struggle”
-Jessica Rycheal, The Underdog Co.
“Critique is an offer to collaborate”
Whether I am on the giving or receiving end, what
is my role in the solution?
BE YOUR BIGGEST ADVOCATE
● Greet your limits | Being able to rise from the ashes of your own demise is a powerful experience and a great
way to learn about yourself, what you can handle, when you’ve had enough, and where you shine.
● Start with what you have control over | Identify what you can actually change in your current role – whether
that’s one program, one event, one text panel, or even just your own actions. Make changes there. Then spread
it out to your sphere of influence: colleagues, similar programs, etc.
● Be aware of how your role fits into the overall strategic plan of your organization and/or department |
Everything you do should be supporting the institution’s goals. How can you make your work even more aligned
to what your museum is trying to do?
● Educate yourself | Become an expert on the changes you want to see made. Read books and journal articles.
Keep up with current trends. Get some additional training. And don’t be afraid to offer your knowledge when
the opening arises.
● Know your leadership strengths, and play to those. Know your leadership weaknesses, and build a team to
support you | If you know that you’re really good at something, seek out opportunities to shine at that. Cultivate
your strengths both in technical ability and “soft skills.” If you know that you struggle with something, build
accountability amongst colleagues to hold you to what needs to happen. Be upfront about things you need help
● Join an emerging professionals group | Take the time to research emerging or young professional groups in
your area. Think outside the box, too. The group doesn't have to be just museum professionals - you could look
into nonprofit, philanthropy, events, and even tech groups. Being around like-minded individuals can help you
learn new skills, and open new doors. Pro-tip: join a board and get some board service experience while you're
MAKE AN IMPACT AT YOUR ORGANIZATION
● Model behavior you want to see | By modeling behavior you want to see, you might inspire some change in the
workplace culture. Be responsive, provide assistance without being asked, or tell someone "good job." Think of
all the things you'd want in your supervisor and then do that for others. Good habits could catch on.
● Gently ask “why” and “what if” from a place of curiosity | Meet with your supervisor and ask questions about
institutional decisions – not to challenge the decisions, but to better understand how you can support them. If
you disagree with a decision or a method, borrow from innovative practices: ask “what if we did it a different
● You can’t always fix it in the room | If there’s an opportunity or challenge that appears in a larger group
meeting that you have a solution to, or a disagreement with, arrange a check in at another time to have a one
on one with your colleague or supervisor to bring your ideas. Sometimes a smaller setting is the right time to
bring a different perspective or perception. Bringing up “why” and “what if” at another time can help your ideas
● When needed, be a squeaky wheel | Let your supervisors and colleagues know about how you would like to see
your organization improve. Volunteer to participate in work-groups. Keep asking questions.
● The worst someone can say is "That's the way it's always been done" | Take the time to learn about your
workplace and why things are done the way they are before suggesting change. Understanding the "why" is
important because then you can problem solve for an alternative method and not recreate the wheel. Do the
research, gain some trust, and you'll be the leader a new idea in no time!
BE A TEAM PLAYER
● Make everyone look good, but especially your supervisor | You're probably thinking this is a weird piece of
advice, but honestly it was so helpful in my career growth. There came a point where I had to be really
thoughtful about my supervisor - why was she always flustered? Why was everything a priority? I began to
notice this behavior came from her supervisor. In order to take the pressure off her (if only a little), I asked what
I could do to help without being prompted, I looked at her calendar and thought ahead, and I took the time to
learn about things she was working on, so I could in turn being a resource to her. After awhile I was given more
responsibility and was able to oversee more projects.
● Don’t surprise your supervisor | If you see something that’s going awry – help your boss and the organization
out by pointing to a solution. It’s everyone’s role to make sure the values and mission of an organization are on
track. It takes a village of museum enthusiasts to make our organizations successful – everyone is a partner in
upholding the community.
● Volunteer your skills | There comes a time in every nonprofit professional's life where you'll need to wear many
hats. While we don't advocate for more responsibilities without pay, it can be good to ask for project based
tasks that will help you grow your skill sets. Interested in marketing? Ask the marketing department how you can
help them with an upcoming campaign. Interested in exhibit development? Talk to the team about helping out
after work (bonus if you can get your supervisor to approve shifting your hours to accommodate late night
● Don’t go up the ladder | Remember that people have good intentions and approach challenging conversations
with an open mind about where the other person is coming from. It’s an opportunity to learn from a colleague
and offer your perspective. “Going up the ladder” refers to inventing others’ intentions without directly having a
conversation that starts with, “can you tell me more about that?” or “what did you mean by that?”
● Take the invitation! | If you’re asked to be a part of the meeting a project – really be part of the meeting and
project! Offer ideas and remember that a productive meeting is inclusive when everyone contributes about the
same about of time. Help others contribute in an inclusive way.
Most of all: Remember why you started and know when to walk away… It’s hard but always an option.
● Ask a Manager, https://www.askamanager.org/
● David Gelles, Corner Office Column, New York Times, goo.gl/nLsSiy
● Jessica Rycheal, The Underdog Co., https://theunderdogco.com/
● Jim Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors
● Leadership Matters, Anne Ackerson and Joan Baldwin, https://leadershipmatters1213.wordpress.com/
● Lonnie Bunch, Flies in the Buttermilk: Museums, Diversity, and the Will to Change
● Margaret Middleton, https://www.margaretmiddleton.com/
● MASSAction Toolkit, https://www.museumaction.org/resources/
● National Emerging Museum Professionals Network, https://nationalempnetwork.org/
● Priya Frank, “Change Starts at Home: Inspiring Culture Shift and Centering Racial Equity at the Seattle Art Museum,”
● Richard Wright, Native Son
● Vu Le, "The game of nonprofit is flawed. Learn to play it so you can change it” goo.gl/QFhYKG
TIPS AND RESOURCES COMPILED BY:
Mac Buff, Manager of Family and Elementary Initiatives, Tacoma Art Museum
Kristen N. Mihalko, Senior Manager, Programs & Special Events, Balboa Park Cultural Partnership
Chieko Philips, Heritage Lead, 4Culture
Dana Whitelaw, Executive Director, High Desert Museum