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A New Agenda for Boards and Executive Leaders

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 ideology) seems to be not often listened to. That can equally be said to where museums are specifically concerned.

Briefly, boards seem to focus on oversight of senior management and particularly address financial performance, partly because they consider they are accountable and that the increasingly prescriptive legislation requires them to be personally likely to be held to account should financial performance be other than squeaky clean. That business, lobbyists for which are influential in this area, is itself often far from accountable or transparent, let alone responsive to its stakeholders, seems to be ignored.

Governments, where they have control over museums, seem unable to recognise that whilst the (non-financial) outcomes they seek are not unreasonable, they do not have to specify the processes and require frequent detailed reports to obtain those outcomes. Indeed trying to do so likely through centralised control will produce worse outcomes than if they did nothing. The same can be said of boards and their relationship with executives.

In sum, none of these behaviours of board or governments are likely to lead to the outcomes they seek and do not constitute best practice as found in successful, high performing enterprises.

Mykonos, Cyclades, Greece (More)

In summary boards need to understand the industry and environment in which the museum operates, the opportunities which could be sought and the experience which visitors to the museum and users of the museum”s services and programs expect and enjoy as well as what might enhance those experiences. None of this is likely to be achieved simply by application of general principles about governance alone. As Jeffrey Sonnenfeld said, the best boards are characterised by the way in which members work together and how decisions get made.

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. This is what Michael Porter said at the 100th annual meeting of the American Association of Museums. And that statement needs to be reviewed in the light of experience and adapted to changing circumstances. Last, 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.

The clear implication of this is a conversation involving the people in governance and leadership, not one mediated by facilitators. If those involved have difficulties in talking with each other in an environment of trust then overcoming that is the first issue to be addressed. (I have dealt with this elsewhere.)

In the agenda below I list specific issues to be focused on by the board alone, the board and executive management together and executive management only. The outcome of addressing each issue will be an indicator of likely success or otherwise.

The consistent assumption is that the focus of all discussions is the nature of the business ““ the mission statement – already clearly defined (and reviewed regularly), the resources of the museum and the environment in which the museum operates. The mission statement is a statement of unique value which sets the museum apart from others in the difference its programs and offerings make to people”s lives. The assumption is that whilst the board indicates the areas with which it wishes to be concerned it makes clear that it is delegating to executive management sufficient authority necessary to do all other things appropriate to the mission and consistent with the charter/enabling legislation.1 (This is “a work in progress”.)

It is not the sole function of the board to hire the CEO and fire them if they do not perform and nor is it the principal function of the board to raise funds any more than oversighting the financial performance of the museum is. Fundraising is a function in which the board and the CEO must be involved but it is best done by a group reporting to the CEO. Auditing of performance, of financial issues but also ethical conduct such as acquisition and disposal of collections, is a critical function which must be carried out by people other than the executive who report directly and separately to the board. I do not deal with those issues further.

The functions outlined for the board should be the principal concern of the board when it meets; other matters can be dealt with at each meeting by drawing up a list of items and resolutions to be adopted without discussion unless challenged. There is nothing new in this though time and again boards spend time trying to work out how they can have a more meaningful agenda.

The principal function of the director/CEO is to lead; although leadership is a function which can be performed by people at all levels, leadership by the CEO is unique.

In the list below I mean by the word “review” receive reports, consider their meaning, adequacy and appropriateness, etc and formulate the next steps.

The Board

It is common for the board to approve the strategic and business plans of the museum, documents drawn up by the executive management. It is worth noting that some of the best performing museums (and other enterprises) do not have such documents as a foundation for their planning but instead focus on vision and values. (If plans are to be prepared they must involve management and staff: it is participation in the planning that brings people together and develops cohesion and shared commitment.)

The Board and Executive Management

Executive Management

As all of these are behaviours characterising the more successful of organisations, it follows that the extent to which they are practiced is a form of leading indicator. This contrasts with the usual performance indicators, as already explained.


1, This essay is based in part on a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Museum Management and Curatorship which in turn derives from an essay commissioned by the Getty Leadership Institute (GLI) for the convening, “˜A Tribute to Stephen Weil: Making Museums Matter, 2006” at the University of Victoria, BC, Canada September 11-13 organized by Joy Davis, Program Director of Cultural Management Programs. The financial support of the GLI for travel is acknowledged.

2,Some recent articles on governance are reviewed elsewhere on this site and an essay on governance deals particularly with major issues which complements this essay.

3 In “The New Work of the Nonprofit Board“ (Harvard Business Review Sep/Oct 1996, p 36), Barbara E. Taylor, Richard P. Chait and Thomas P. Holland write, “Too often, the board of a nonprofit organization is little more than a collection of high-powered people engaged in low-level activities. But that can change if trustees are willing to discover and take on the new work of the board. When they perform the new work, a board’s members can significantly advance the institution’s mission and long-term welfare. Doing the new work requires a board to engage in new practices.”

4, Articles on and debate about issues of governance can be found at the Getty Leadership Institute’s site under the Compleat Leader.


1. John Carver, Boards that Make a Difference: A New Design for Leadership in Nonprofit and Public Organizations” (San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1990, 3rd edition 2006).