This is an extended version of a March/April 2015 Dimensions magazine article in which we asked science center and museum leaders at all levels to send us their best leadership advice.
As a relatively new executive director, my style is to spread “passion” to each and every position in the museum. Every person needs to feel important and trusted in their field and know that I am there for any and all concerns that they may have. Listening is key. I happen to have two doors in and out of my office and they are always open to those who need me . . . there is no hiding! When you are truly devoted to your position, your staff and volunteers can feel the love, and the passion becomes infectious so they want to do great things for their museum.
Keep an open mind to new suggestions. My only request is to keep all comments positive. There is always room to change your mind but you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression. Lead with kindness and an energy that will not be forgotten.
Arlene S. Hawks, executive director, SciTech Hands On Museum, Aurora, Illinois
I think it’s important, as a leader, to never get so removed from the day-to-day operations that you start to assume what is happening and what your staff members need. Always take the time to poke your head into a program, walk the halls, sit through a ticket transaction—whatever it is—so that you can truly understand the needs of your team.
Lucy Hale, director of school programs, Perot Museum of Nature and Science, Dallas
Love ‘em and lead ‘em! Never forget that your staff members are people, not robots.
Eileen Best, console technician manager/ show presenter, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, San Diego
Focus on the strengths of your visitors and staff and let those play a significant role in your planning. When I focus on the strengths of our team, I am better able to help us take strategic risks that allow us to be innovative and keep the visitor experience fresh. We have to be willing to try things at edge of our comfort zone if we’re going to grow, and a strengths-based approach helps leverage opportunities that could otherwise be ignored.
Summer Brandon, director of education, ScienceWorks Hands-on Museum, Ashland, Oregon
Practice multitasking and learn from errors.
Ingit K. Mukhopadhyay, former director general, National Council of Science Museums, India
Listen to the advice of others. It’s important to develop the capacity of not only listening to what others explicitly say, but also observing what they do and how they react to the decisions and behaviors of others. If you can listen well enough, you will hear advice being given by others all around you. This places a leader in a position of presence that reveals what Steven Johnson refers to as the “adjacent possible,” the ways in which the present can reinvent itself.
Jonathan Feagle, executive director, Explorit Science Center, Davis, California
The best advice I can give to anyone leading a group of people is to emphasize teamwork. If you can transmit the concept and importance of team-oriented goals, everyone will feel part of any project no matter what their role is. Without them, the project won’t reach its full potential.
Carlos Apodaca, education services, El Trompo Museo Interactivo, Tijuana, Mexico
With anything you’re leading/managing/involved with in any way, you should spend some time actually doing it and getting to know it first-hand. The vice president of education should go on outreaches, present public programs on the museum floor, and orient field trip groups. Same deal for exhibits, facilities, planetarium, etc. Few things are as aggravating as a “leader” who tells people what to do, but clearly has no idea what he or she is talking about.
Jonah Cohen, outreach and public programs manager, the Children’s Museum, West Hartford, Connecticut
I feel that being a successful leader involves ensuring the success of your team by providing your team with the tools they need to complete their daily tasks. Open communication and daily coaching are important to maintain a solid work relationship with all team members. I use positive reinforcement by highlighting what they do right. Keep the environment friendly but professional. Be the example of what you expect from your team. Maintain expectations and hold everyone to the same standard, but treat all team members as the individuals that they are.
Cathleen Hubbard, ticket services manager, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, San Diego
Time for reflection pays off. Set aside time each week to process, strategize, and plan for experimenting with new methods and solutions. Build a strong network of colleagues whom you respect at other institutions. They not only can inspire and challenge you with new ideas but also can help refresh you when leadership seems lonely or tough.
Whitney A. Owens, vice president of education and guest experience, Great Lakes Science Center, Cleveland
I would say that good leadership means understanding the task, being enthusiastic about it, having well-thought-through ideas about how to accomplish it, and being confident enough to allow followers opportunities to express their ideas and thoughts. Ultimately, though, being a leader is being able to risk making the final choices and carrying out chosen actions in such a way that your followers feel like partners sharing your vision and enthusiasm.
Anne Hance, co-founder, board member, secretary, Explorit Science Center, Davis, California
Compassion and understanding are essential to leadership. When working with and guiding young high school and college students, it’s important to remember that they have many concerns in their lives, including school, family, college applications, etc. When they work at our institutions, it’s essential to establish a calm and nurturing environment. Our young staff members should feel comfortable asking questions during staff training and at any other time in our institutions. In an environment where questions are encouraged and mistakes are used as productive learning experiences, I have seen these young staff members flourish, myself included.
Carlos Romero, Design Lab experience coordinator, New York Hall of Science, Queens
Share credit with others. No project happens because of one person alone. Be generous and sincere with praise; be focused, honest, and timely with constructive criticism. When weighing a decision, have the right people at the table. Remember, good ideas can come from folks at all levels of the organization. Once you make a decision, own it and let others know why you chose the path you did. Surround yourself with smart people. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice from others outside of your organization. People are flattered to be asked and are more likely to come to your aid in the future if and when you need it.
Colleen McLaughlin, public programs manager, Natural History Museum of Utah, Rio Tinto Center, University of Utah, Salt Lake City
Find out what “super powers” your teammates have as soon as possible. Organize yourselves so that you can take full advantage of the extraordinary things each individual can do. Your staff will be happy that they can do what they are good at.
Keep your team well informed and listen to them and their suggestions. Staff members in the trenches need to know that they are supported and able to have a meaningful impact on visitor experience at any level.
Duke Johnson, education/exhibits manager, Clark Planetarium, Salt Lake City, Utah
Spend 10% of your time advancing your own education—reading blogs, newsletters, and books; visiting other museums; writing articles; presenting at conferences; participating in collaborative projects; and following your interests in ways that will expose you to fresh ideas and new ways of doing things.
Charlie Trautmann, executive director, Sciencenter, Ithaca, New York
In 2008, I moved to a public library, after years in informal science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education and administration in museums. My task was to create and integrate STEM capacity into library programs and services. Although welcoming, many staff members were apprehensive about STEM for a variety of reasons. Getting to know staff, listening, and observing their interests and programming styles revealed openings to offer natural connections for STEM components. The staff members have taught me an immense amount from their realm of expertise. Leadership is about partnership and working together to provide continually improving, broad-based opportunities to our learners.
Lynn Cole, interactive exhibits supervisor, Children’s Library Discovery Center, Queens Central Library, Jamaica, New York
There are as many definitions of leadership as there are leaders, and each most probably fits a particular situational or environmental perspective, with their own style and purpose. What doesn’t change is the need to inspire and entice people to follow on the chosen path. To that effect, my best advice would be: Make your leadership consultative, not necessarily participatory (most people want a voice, not a vote); make it clear (people cannot follow you if they don’t know where you are going); and lead by example (people cannot believe in you if you don’t seem to believe in yourself).
Cyrille Betant, director of finance, Exploratorium, San Francisco
I keep this quote posted in my office: “You can’t always control circumstances. However, you can always control your attitude, approach, and response. Your options are to complain or to look ahead and figure out how to make the situation better.”—Tony Dungy, Quiet Strength: The Principles, Practices & Priorities of a Winning Life
Fraser McDonald, manager, membership program, Canada Science and Technology Museums Corporation, Ottawa
My best piece of leadership advice is not mine, but came from a highly regarded source: Betty Bryan, a longtime leader at COSI. She had three rules for success at COSI (read: anywhere).
- Never leave home without breakfast. You wouldn’t get into your car to go to work without gas in the tank, now would you?
- Do not take things personally. It is not about you; it is about performance.
- If the day has not gone as it should, go home and work with your attitude. Sort it out; learn from what happened. You’ll come to work in the morning a better person for the experience. You will learn a lot about yourself at COSI, if you pay attention.
Jen Snively Cassidy, vice president of programs, COSI, Columbus, Ohio
A leader should be willing to be a worker at a moment’s notice. It is important both for your personal understanding of what makes your organization and staff “tick” and to help you remember where you started. I find that a day in the lab working with kids renews and refreshes me and reminds me why we do what we do. Whether it’s sweeping floors, stuffing envelopes, or meeting with a donor, every task helps move our organizations forward. This renewed perspective helps when making decisions or asking for money.
Michele Laverty, director, National Ag Science Center, Modesto, California
Make sure you have a map that matches the territory in front of you. What this means is that your understanding and perception of a situation (your map) needs to correspond with the actual situation (the territory). Without that, your own biases, ignorance, and error will creep into every action and decision.
Kris Kelly-Frère, exhibit developer, TELUS Spark, Calgary, Alberta, Canada
My best leadership advice came from my father when I first started working in the museum business. He noticed I was unhappy with an “executive decision” that I didn’t think was handled well at the museum where I was working. My father said, “Remember how you feel now, when it’s you on the other side of the desk.” Now in my own independent museum exhibit design practice, I always work hard to find out how my decisions will affect the people who will live with them every day as part of their jobs.
Paul Orselli, president and chief instigator, Paul Orselli Workshop (POW!), Baldwin, New York
You cannot be afraid of failure. You won’t always please everyone, but if you work your hardest and with the best intentions, that will speak for itself.
Tanja Schroeder, manager of volunteer programs and training, Reuben H. Fleet Science Center, San Diego
Lead by example. No one can respect or follow someone who does not practice what is asked of others. Be fair. One can accept outcomes, if one feels that the principle is applied evenly. Be consistent to the extent feasible. Inconsistency in practice and word produces confusion, frustration, and loss of time and resources. Value and uplift the worth of your employees. Praise goes a long way. Employees’ pride in their contributions is essential. Soliciting opinions, experience, and participation in the planning process creates buy-in. Leadership is about getting the job done. It is not about you. “Mean what you say, and say what you mean,” as the expression goes. Admit when you are wrong. Everyone is wrong sometime or another. No one likes a know-it-all. It is OK not to know everything. Let’s learn and work it out together.
Cassandra L. Henry, president, Science Spectrum, Lubbock, Texas