It’s time to talk about toxic loyalty

“I’m miserable in my job, but I can’t leave until I finish this major project in two years.”

“I keep thinking that my next boss will be better.”

“I feel terrible about leaving my staff behind in this terrible situation.”

We probably all have a friend that has said something like this. And for those that aren’t in the museum field, the answer often seems so obvious: the job or institution doesn’t love you back. Take care of yourself first. Just leave. And yet, so often, museum colleagues hang on to jobs, not because they can’t find something else. Not because they need to stay in that area for family or financial or other reasons. They stay because they feel some sort of deep loyalty to an institution. They stay because of a passion for the field or the subject or the work. Sometimes that loyalty is rewarded, but often it just becomes a trap. In a recent conversation about this big issue, a friend and I hit on another way to describe this situation that occurs far too often in our field: toxic loyalty.

Think about it. That loyalty keeps you tied to a place. It keeps you from thinking objectively about your situation—or if things at the institution can ever become better. It paints you into the corner of thinking that even though you’re absolutely miserable, you are the right and only person that can hold that job. It’s another way to layer on guilt as issues and concerns pile up.

In the meantime, you’re not considering other options. You’re not polishing your resume. You’re not looking for the kind of place that will appreciate you and your talents and your skills.

Lately, I’ve had this conversation with far too many colleagues. But each time I say the words “toxic loyalty” they pause. They get this look on their face. And they realize that they’re slowly poisoning themselves with this mindset. Loyalty is supposed to be this wonderful attribute–a thing that you want in your staff. But what if it isn’t always a good thing?

So, let’s bring this phrase into the museum lexicon. Is your loyalty to your institution helping you as an individual? Or is it hurting you? Is that loyalty the warm, fuzzy feeling it should be? Or something else entirely? Do you have a friend or colleague that needs to hear these words to shift their thinking?

We spend a lot of time thinking about how to make workplaces better, but I believe we also need to remember that it’s okay to say “There’s not a darn thing I can do to make this any better, and I need to move on for my own health and sanity. And the institution will probably carry on as it has before, with or without me.” Sometimes, we have to put ourselves first.

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Four Years

Today is the fourth anniversary of the board vote. You know, that board vote. The one where I was no longer Interim Executive Director and became President and Executive Director of Dallas Heritage Village.

Here’s how I shared that news on facebook:

This afternoon, I’m having a lot of fun deleting the word “interim” from various places. More official announcements to come, but today I was named President/Executive Director at DHV. Never dreamed of this when I began work here almost exactly 10 years ago.

And in some ways, it’s still hard to believe that I’m the boss. . . and I’m actually pretty good at this whole executive director thing. On the way home tonight, I got a little choked up, thinking about how things have changed and how I’ve grown into this position. And maybe I wouldn’t be so nostalgic on this anniversary if it hadn’t been a rather unusual day to begin with.

Once a year, my friend Jenn Landry and I head to Waco, Texas to speak to the Baylor University Museum Studies students. This whole thing began when my predecessor, Gary Smith, asked Jenn and I to come talk to his capstone class as a “here’s what life looks like halfway through your career.” Jenn and I first met during the infamous SHA and she moved to Texas in 2014. So, I’m thinking that our first visit to Baylor for our song and dance was in 2015.

What’s so great about this particular experience is that a large part of the three hour seminar is us just telling our career path story. At this point, it might be fun for me to tell Jenn’s story and for her to tell mine–because I’m pretty sure we can do that. We’re a great team, because we come at leadership from slightly different angles (her from collections/archives, me from education), and she’s had to balance a husband and a kid, while I’m footloose and fancy free. Sorta.

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Jenn and I at a play last summer about another strong Texas woman, Ann Richards. And a perk of her new job!

When Gary stopped teaching the class, we were super lucky that a fellow SHA alumni, Kim McCray, took it over. And she decided that we were still a pretty good piece of the class. The past two years, the class has been early in the morning, so Jenn and I drive down the day before. This gives us time to also catch up with colleagues at the Dr Pepper Museum and stare in awe at how Waco has changed after Chip and JoJo.

Though this has become routine, it’s also pretty special. As museum professionals, we don’t often take the time to stop and reflect. Last year at this time, Jenn was in a pretty dark place professionally. And now, she has a job that she is perfect for and has the opportunity to do some really cool things. About halfway through the class, I realized that today was the 4th anniversary of being named ED. And it was just one of those moments where I paused. And in my head, I just thought WOW. So much has happened in the last four years, and yet it doesn’t seem possible that much time has passed.

Later in the class, I said something that is hard for a lot of us women in leadership to say (and of course, because I am female, I later explained that this is tough to say): There could not be a better leader for DHV at this particular moment in time than me.

I have grown into this position in a way that I think only one person would have fully predicted: my predecessor, Gary Smith. And so when I got home tonight, I told him that. Because sometimes I think we forget to thank the people that believed in us before we believed in ourselves.

This evening, we had a happy hour for a departing staff member that we really hate to see go. But he’s ready to try a new adventure and is heading to Denver tomorrow morning. We had such a good time, laughing, telling stories about odd visitors and odder former staff.

This has been a pretty stressful few months, with lots of changes and big projects pending (and not moving at the pace I would prefer.) But today was a day that I was reminded how lucky I am–to be in a job that I love, with amazing opportunities around every corner, and a team that cannot be beat.

So yes, I got a little teary on my drive home. Because it’s been four wonderful, long, complicated, full years. And I still can’t believe how my life and my museum have changed. Some days, I still have imposter syndrome, where I’m convinced that the real boss is going to come around the corner and tell me what to do. But those days are fewer and fewer.

So thanks, Gary, for saying “What if you take over running this museum in a few years?” And thanks to the family I gained through SHA. They understood why I broke down sobbing on that last day, convinced that I would need to start looking for a new job when I got back home. But I think they also knew that things were going to be okay. And thanks to those board allies who also knew I was the right person for the job and pushed that appointment through. It’s been four years, and I’m finally starting to feel like I know what I’m doing.

Except when it comes to llamas.

 

 

(don’t worry. I’ll explain that at some point!)

The joys of data

It’s nice to be proven right.

Way back in 2010, back when I was the Director of Education and Gary was still running things, Dallas Heritage Village went through a strategic planning process. The recession was crushing us, and we knew we needed to make some dramatic changes. We made a few key decisions that have really shaped our work over the past several years:

  • Focus on customer service and visitor experience. Unlike some museums, we have actual people on the grounds that can talk with visitors and get those personal interactions that Colleen Dilenschneider has talked about as being so key to visitor satisfaction. (though we made this decision a long time before she had a blog).
  • Start making some changes to our exhibit buildings. More interactive opportunities. More information.
  • Focus on being family friendly. This idea seems to terrify most history museums, but we felt we had the right mix of facility and staff to make this work.

When I took over in spring 2014, participating in Visitor Counts was high on my project list. I knew some of the things we were doing at DHV were special, but I hadn’t realized how special until after attending SHA. Things that had become second nature to us were met with looks of surprise from my colleagues. But how to share that with the staff and board? Many still had the mindset of “poor little DHV.” After all, when you have facilities like the Perot Museum of Nature and Science as your neighbor, we do pale in comparison. But what if we stopped comparing ourselves to other Dallas cultural institutions that had budgets 10 times larger? What if we had comparisons that made sense and actually told us something?

Visitor Counts, an AASLH program, provides a standard survey, data analysis and benchmarking against other participating museums. Though it’s pretty affordable in the scheme of things, the $5,000 price tag was steep for us. After careful planning, we applied for a grant from the Carl B. and Florence E. King Foundation. The grant was for visitor experience overall–increased frontline staff, supplies, salary support for the manager–and the Visitor Counts survey.

DHV St Patricks Day 2013

We started our survey in Spring 2017 and got the report in November. I talk more about our results on DHV’s blog. Some quick highlights:

  • Survey respondents love our staff and volunteers.
  • They want more details and more history. And the buildings where we’ve made dramatic changes (the General Store) are cited as one of the top “better than expected” items.
  • Our visitors are significantly younger than at other participating museums–and more likely to have children with them.

Though we have no “before 2010” data, I can’t help but think about what our rankings would have been before we started making those institutional shifts. We still have a lot of work to do (yep, visitors definitely see the deferred maintenance issues), but it really does appear that we’re heading in the right direction–a direction initially set several years ago.

As I was sitting in an ugly hotel conference room in Nashville, learning how to really analyze and understand our report, I had a moment where I thought to myself: “In a few years, we could look back at this project and realize it was another pivotal moment for this institution.”

But first, we have some more work to do. Onwards and upwards, but now with data!

I don’t know where to start

 

When people ask me: “What’s going on at DHV?” my standard reply has become: “Where do you want me to start?” It’s partly a joke, and partly a way to gauge what they’re actually interested in (or if they’re just being polite) and partly the honest truth: I just don’t know where to start.

A few days before Christmas, we sent out the following email:

It’s been a remarkable year at Dallas Heritage Village–and we’re so glad you were a part of it. Here are just a few of the magical moments that our volunteer photographers captured in 2017.
What memories will we make together in 2018?
Ninety donors made it possible to create this giant replica of the first official Dallas flag. We raised it for the first time at Sunday Social, and it flew over Dallas Heritage Village through the summer. Watch for its return in 2018. Photo by Lois Lehman.

 

Waylon and Willie made their carriage-pulling debut at Old-Fashioned Fourth. Of course, Nip had to help show them the way. Photo by John Lehman.

 

The Robert Kam Playhouse arrived in its new home this summer. Robert Kam was a longtime volunteer at DHV and lovingly restored this playhouse at his home in East Dallas. Thanks to his family and friends that provided the funds to move and restore it–and preserve his legacy. “Before” photo by John Lehman. “After” photo by Lois Lehman.

 

Our fall exhibit, Neighborhoods We Called Home, wouldn’t have been possible without these fabulous partners. From left to right: Debra Polsky, Dallas Jewish Historical Society; Melissa Prycer, Dallas Heritage Village; George Keaton, Remembering Black Dallas; Evelyn Montgomery, Dallas Heritage Village; and Juanita Nanez, Dallas Mexican American Historical League. Photo by Bud Mallar.

 

In September, the former Law Office reopened as The Parlor, a preschool play space. We’ve been thrilled to welcome our littlest visitors in this special space. Special thanks to our program partners at Vogel Alcove and our funding partners: The Institute of Museum and Library Services, The Hoglund Foundation, and The Thompson & Knight Foundation. Photo by Drew Timmons.

When I put this together, I reflected a bit on the past year. There is a reason why I’m tired–and why my staff is tired! We’ve gotten a lot accomplished this year, including several projects that were literally years in the making. Almost everything in that email (except the Dallas flag) took over a year from inception to completion. I first had the idea about the Parlor back in 2010!

And, of course, there’s all the things that have been going on behind the scenes that aren’t reflected in any charming photos quite yet.

They include:

  • A new master site plan, that includes turning a significant portion of our property into a public park
  • A reorganization of our staffing structure–no more hierarchical tree, but instead more of a Venn diagram.  We’re still working out the kinks.
  • Preparing to embark on a new interpretative plan in 2018
  • Many, many conversations with our neighbors about pending developments and ways to work together
  • Completion of the Visitor Counts survey–and beginning to absorb the findings. This study will go hand in hand with the work on the interpretative plan.
  • Lots and lots of grant writing–and strategizing for grants. Funding is still a real issue, though we managed to cut our operating deficit in half this year

In 2018, I’ll begin my fourth year as Executive Director–and I still feel like I’m just getting started. There is so much to do and try! I’ve also come to realize how much of this work is a long game.  Every time I get impatient, I try to remember that. But patience is a challenge, especially when you’re waiting on developers to start construction. Or funders to give you an answer.

I know I need to write more and share more about what we’re attempting, but finding the energy is a real challenge. And it’s also a challenge to figure out when to share–there are a few things we’ve been working on over the past several months that I just can’t share yet! So, I’m here and I’m thinking and trying to decide when to think out loud. Thanks for listening.

Of Beer and Neighbors: Welcoming Four Corners Brewing to the Cedars

On Friday, I had the most meaningful beer I’ve ever had.

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Most of you know what’s happening in the Cedars. Back in 2014, a lot of major buildings on Ervay (one of DHV’s borders) changed hands–with significant redevelopment plans. Promises were made with projected opening dates of 2016. All of those buildings remain quiet for a variety of complicated reasons.

Months after that initial flurry, Four Corners Brewing announced they were moving from their original location in Trinity Groves (West Dallas) to the Cedars. This was a different kind of development plan–an established business expanding–and though the last announced, they’re the first to open.

I don’t remember exactly when I first met Greg, one of the co-owners, but I remember how I approached that first meeting. Meeting new potential partners can be a little like dating–the main purpose is to get to know each other. You don’t want to reveal everything on that first date. What if your special brand of crazy shows too early? My goals for that first meeting were pretty simple–I really just wanted them to know who we are, that we like beer, and determine their timeline. Of course, I had lots and lots of other ideas. After all, I love craft beer almost as much as I love museums. But it seemed a little too forward to put all that out there on the first meeting.

But then Greg and I got to talking. I learned that he had volunteered at DHV as a kid back in the 1980s. I learned that he was already thinking about ways we could partner. So, I pretty much shared all of my ideas at the first meeting. And I don’t think I scared him too much, since we’ve kept talking.

Of course, with any construction project, there are delays. Their original opening date was supposed to be in March. But when the tap room opened for the first time on Friday, I was there. And I had a beer. And it was delicious.

But it’s not just about the beer. The completion of this project is such a clear articulation of the vision so many of us have for the future of the Cedars. They took an overlooked, historic building (it was originally the stables for the Ambassador Hotel across the street), beautifully updated it, and created a new community gathering space.

Last night, we hosted a DHV members happy hour. Many familiar faces were there, but by far, the most important person there was Ruth Ann. She’s one of our founders and has been involved with us for over 50 years. Ruth Ann graciously declined a beer, but she just had to see what our new neighbors had done with the building. She ended up chatting at length with Greg, both about the business and the neighborhood.

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Greg, one of the co-owners, chatting with Ruth Ann. Past chair Don is also listening in.

As we were chatting, she said to me “I’m so amazed at what you’re doing. You’re just one of the most clever people I’ve ever met.” And I turned to her and said “I don’t know, Ruth Ann. You’re pretty smart too. You saw what the museum and this neighborhood could be all those years ago, when there was absolutely nothing.” I guess our mutual admiration society continues.

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Trying to ride the wave of all this neighborhood redevelopment is exhausting. Sometimes it is frustrating. It certainly requires a lot of patience! But the last few days have reminded me why we keep going. If the presence of Ruth Ann at a brewery on a Tuesday night doesn’t speak volumes to the faith and loyalty our supporters have in both the museum and the neighborhood, then I don’t know what will.

And it continues. Tonight, I had drinks with another neighborhood partner, also giving new life to a fabulous historical building. It will be an unprecedented partnership, one I can’t talk about quite yet. But it’s yet another reminder of how naturally collaboration comes to our organization. The difference now is geography. Finally having neighbors–and our mutual desire to work together–will transform the museum in ways that were beyond my wildest dreams when I took the Executive Director title 3.5 years ago. I think we can all drink to that.

My New Mantra

After my initial shock about the results of the election wore off, one of my first thoughts was that my job was going to get a lot harder. And sure enough, the idea of eliminating the NEA and NEH was put forward pretty quickly. I’m still waiting to see how changes to HUD and other social service programs will impact the ever-growing homeless crisis. Who knows what public education will look like with Betsy DeVos at the helm. Will field trips and informal education take another nose dive?

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I wasn’t able to attend the Women’s March in Austin, but we went to the Capitol that Saturday night. And a “We can do it” pose seemed appropriate.

But there are deeper issues at play too. In an administration that cares little about historical context, how much harder will we have to fight to prove that history matters? After an election where misogyny won, how much harder will it be as a female leader?

Overall, I’ve been pretty lucky in this job and haven’t had too many overt examples of sexism. But I keep waiting. When we were knee-deep in the homeless crisis last year, I had my guard up for personal attacks–that luckily never came. In meetings with developers where I’m often the only woman at the table, I prepare myself for mansplaining. And though there are occasional odd looks. I think it’s more that I said no to someone used to only hearing yes rather than the fact that I’m female.

But I continue to worry and prepare. Nothing about the administration’s first weeks inoffice have dissuaded me about my current fears. But at least now, I have a mantra–new words to give me strength.

She was warned.

She was given an explanation.

Nevertheless, she persisted.

There is so much work to do and so much to just be sick about. In a few weeks, I’m heading to D. C. for the American Alliance of Museums Advocacy Day. And I worry–what will the mood in D. C. be in another few weeks? How will we be recieved? How do we talk about the threats that seem to be coming from all directions?

I’ve been known for my stubborness for most of my life, so I think I know what I’ll do–I shall persist.

Lessons from Fair Park

It seems everyone in Dallas is talking about Fair Park right now. And it’s not just the usual fried food anticipation that comes with every State Fair season. A few weeks ago, an old friend asked me on Facebook “Will you explain the Fair Park issue to me like I’m five years old? I don’t really understand what’s going on.” My response: “The Powers That Be want to fix something and are surprised that other people also have thoughts.”

I’ve written about Fair Park here before.  In the 9 months or so since that post, I continue to be deeply concerned about the future of Fair Park. I also continue to be deeply concerned about the lack of understanding in the community about how non-profits work.  But lately, I’ve mostly been fascinated.  This whole mess has more than a few lessons for non-profit leaders.

(For those that aren’t local and want to catch up, I highly recommend checking out the stories by Robert Wilonsky or Jim Schutze.  There are so many nuances to this whole situation, and they have already explained it as well as possible.)

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Lesson #1: If you know that there’s a contentious issue coming up at a board meeting, don’t try to limit the discussion.  Back in July, the Park Board was all set to discuss the management agreement with the foundation. When they arrived that morning, the agenda had been changed at the last minute and limited to just six items. Five Park Board members walked out.  There was no longer a quorum, and the meeting ended.  It was a powerful reminder that boards do in fact have power–and there should be a power balance between the ED/Chair and the rest of the board.

Earlier this summer, I presented something to my board that I was expecting to pass with little discussion. Instead, there was a lengthy discussion, a second discussion a month later, and an email discussion. Ultimately the proposal passed, but certainly not on the timeline I had envisioned.  But you know what?  That’s okay, because it means my board is doing their job. No non-profit leader should ever expect everything to sail through, especially on really big decisions.

Lesson #2: Stop underestimating the power of social media. If this transfer had been attempted even 5 years ago, I think it would have been a smoother road. People just weren’t as active and engaged and informed as they are today–and it’s all through social media. There are twitter accounts solely dedicated to this issue. Hundreds of people have shown up to meetings about Fair Park. By all appearances, this has caught quite a few people completely off-guard.  Back room deals, the bedrock of Dallas politics, just aren’t as easy any more.

Lesson #3: Take every opportunity you can to explain non-profit mechanics–and how you serve the community. There has been a lot of vilification of non-profits on social media over the last several months. Many assume that non-profits aren’t held accountable for their actions. Though there are certainly some accountability issues in the current management agreement, people don’t realize that non-profits are accountable in a thousand different ways–to board members, the public, funders, partners, etc.  And people also don’t realize how many management agreements the city already has with private non-profits. We’ve been in a management agreement with the city since the 1960s.

Lesson #4: If people are accusing you of not being transparent, change your actions. There are many, many things that baffle me about the current situation. The board of the foundation has yet to meet, but they’re presenting to the city a management agreement and a budget. This just seems totally backwards to me.  Board members are fiscally responsible–shouldn’t they have some input?  They should have been meeting for a year before they ever introduced a formal contract to the city. And yet, no changes are being made.  Instead, threats are being tossed around that this must be voted on in September–OR ELSE.  And so people are deeply worried about various shenanagins. As they should be.  It’s just baffling.  Also, here’s the funding chart that was presented to the City.

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If I had presented that to anyone, I would have been laughed out of the room and out of the job.  And perhaps that’s what frustrates me most about this whole situation. It appears that they’re being held to an entirely different standard than other non-profits. And that’s bad for all of us.

The worries continue about Fair Park. But at least it’s another opportunity to learn how to be a better Executive Director. Just do the opposite of the folks trying to take over Fair Park.