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What Boards and Leaders Must Do

November 19th, 2007

The literature on governance and leadership is not just exhaustive, it is exhausting. But as I have said consistently, most of it is not very helpful and the really outstanding literature based on actual studies rather than market driven (or hard left or hard right ideology) seems to be not often listened to. That can equally be said in respect specifically of boards of museums.

Increasingly boards have focussed on oversight of executive leadership and on performance indicators. The indicators used have concerned the past, attended only to activities that can be measured, are not leading indicators in the sense of suggesting actions which should be taken in the future. They lead to silly statements like the one I heard recently about what the Ford Motor Company should do: be more innovative and more efficient. Not only is this mere rhetoric, it is wrong. Japanese motor manufacturers and other manufacturers which have been successful use different methods in the design and on the assembly line. Like the people in Southwest Airlines they understand how people work best.

These performance indicators are also imposed from outside and therefore are resisted or used grudgingly. At worst of all they concern operational, not strategic issues.

Boards and executive leaders need to frame a statement of the unique value which the museum contributes and communicate that to every stakeholder, staff member, visitor and supporter. And that statement needs to be reviewed in the light of experience and adapted to changing circumstances. None of this means that every demand by every stakeholder has to be attended to: boards and executive leaders have to stand for principles which guide the way they operate and approach their responsibility. That requires an ethical stance, not a slavish following of the market.

Most importantly, boards and leaders must focus on what only they can do. That is maintain the closest possible understanding of trends in the industry and environment in which the enterprise works and constantly seek understanding of new opportunities both within the enterprise and without in the way the expectations of those who are intended to benefit might be better satisfied. For a museum that means understanding the nature of learning and the way people interact with the museum. All of these activities are strategic and all are difficult to quantify. Certainly they may lead to some outputs and outcomes which are measurable but they are not themselves easily measured.

And just as importantly it means constantly working to improve the way staff can achieve above average performance in scholarship, public programming and collection management as well as all the administrative, supporting, commercial and development programs. And it certainly means resisting every attempt by others to control the museum. In particular governments genuinely interested in the museum serving the public will ensure that best practice is pursued, not exercise control over every process and line item of expenditure. It also means, perhaps above all else, ensuring best practice in recruitment of board members and executive leaders.

There is something to be said, generally, for appointing scholars and content specialists to the senior executive position. But the alternative view that scholars are incapable of managing and that therefore managers (or administrators) are needed is insulting as well as dangerous stupid rubbish!

The best companies appoint senior executives from within the organization who know the business and the industry. Those executives are in place for a considerable time, unlike those companies which are poor performers. The same is true of museums. Like some other Government reforms, those concerning appointments of executives are wrong-headed if not dangerous.

Boards and executive leaders need a new agenda to replace their concern with oversight and financial management. They need an agenda which attends to the kinds of behaviours which other successful enterprises have adopted. Continue to essay.

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