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!

Two Years

I’m still not completely sure how I feel about Facebook’s memories that pop up unexpectedly in my feed.  Over the last two weeks, four of them have been about what I was up to two years ago.  I’ve never had Facebook hone in on a year quite like that before  But how on earth does Facebook know that was such a turning point in my life?

Two years ago, I was in an Indianapolis hotel room, alternating between a comfortable bed and a very uncomfortable couch with my roommate, Natalie.  Luckily, we became friends almost immediately (which certainly makes sharing close quarters easier!), and now, two years later, I certainly count her among my closest friends.

Graduation Day at SHA
Graduation Day at SHA

We were attending SHA (Seminar for Historical Administration), a three week professional development experience organized by the American Association for State and Local History.  When Gary and I first began talking about the possibilities of me becoming Executive Director, I knew I needed to somehow broaden my experience and prepare a bit more.  SHA seemed like the best, most practical choice.

When I arrived in Indy, I was Interim Executive Director.  But after a rather disastrous executive board meeting, I wasn’t sure if I would ever lose the word interim.  In fact, my thoughts at the time were to get through SHA and Candlelight, and in January, I would start looking for a new job.  Today, I’m most definitely Executive Director with the full support of my board.

Two years ago, I sensed that the neighborhood around us was changing.  Vogel Alcove had begun construction on their new home at City Park Elementary, and I knew that there could be a good partnership there.  DHV’s property at 1610 S. Ervay had been placed on the market, and there was almost immediate interest.  We had certainly worried that it would sit for months, if not years.  During SHA, I spent a lot of time talking about the future of these two redevelopment projects.

Last Thursday night, I accepted the inaugural Community Partner Award from Vogel Alcove for our ongoing partnership.  Not only are we doing practical things, like sharing parking and mulch, the kids are using our museum regularly.  There are twice a month, curriculum connected field trips.  I presented on this partnership at AASLH in September and have been asked to write an article about it for The Public Historian. We’re currently working on a major grant together as well.

As for neighborhood redevelopment, two years ago, I was excited about 2 new neighbors.  Today, five major redevelopment projects (all in historic buildings) are set to begin construction soon.  Two of these are new cultural non-profit friends.  Talk is beginning about a new cultural district for the city.  Very soon, we will no longer be surrounded by big empty buildings.  DHV will no longer be an island.

Two years ago, I lamented how difficult it is to have our voice heard, since we’re a small museum in a very big city.  Last year, I led efforts to get Dallas ISD field trip funding reinstated for science and social studies.  We were successful.  By building better relationships with the city’s elected leaders, we got $45,000 to repair three leaking roofs.  Through efforts that I’m a minor part of, overall city funding for the arts has increased each of the last two years.  This has resulted in another $20,000 for our operating budget.  And just the other day, I was complimented by a new board member for the role the museum is taking as we participate in the current swirling conversations about the future of Dallas.

Two years ago, I knew I had a great state and local network, but really didn’t know people nationally.  This past summer, I was able to visit with two SHA friends during trips.  And at this point, AASLH conferences can only be described as marathon slumber parties.  But it’s not just SHA friends that have become part of that network–though those SHA friends are the best part of that network.  We may have shut down a bar one night.  In our defense, the bar did close at midnight, which seems early.

I can’t give credit to all of the good things that have happened in my career and at DHV to SHA two years ago.  But I do know that SHA helped build my own confidence in my leadership abilities.  I know I gained new tools to analyze and react to new opportunities. And, perhaps most importantly, I gained some pretty amazing friends.  I’m the first of my museum educator peers to take the big step into leadership, and I was feeling pretty lonely–the museum world definitely looks different when you’re the boss.  Two years ago, I found my people for this stage of my life and career.

So, I guess I should forgive Facebook for continually reminding me of where I was two years ago.  It was a good place.  And I’m in an even better place today.

Notes to Self

Just returned from Louisville, where I was attending the annual meeting of the American Association for State and Local History.  And before I get back involved with the day to day of running Dallas Heritage Village, here are a few notes to myself I’d like to make for next year’s conference in Detroit.

  • Don’t agree to present at two sessions.Yes, both were important topics (advocacy and partnerships) and it was an honor to have two sessions accepted. However, I didn’t get to go to a session that wasn’t my own until halfway through day 2.  And I know I missed good things.  Two sessions also meant that the prep work for the conference was a wee bit more intense.  On the bright side, both session were well attended and we got lots of great comments.  So it was totally worth it, but I would have liked a bit more flexibility in my schedule.
  • Don’t begin the conference with a sleep deficit.  It’s unlikely that I’ll have a college reunion the weekend before ever again.  However, because I’m one of those people that likes to see as much of a city as possible (and I knew I had two sessions!), I decided to make sure that I arrived early enough on Tuesday to do some exploring of Louisville.  Alas, that meant a 7:45 a.m. flight departure.  By the time I got to Louisville, all I cared about was lunch and a nap.  Instead of exploring, I dozed and watched old episodes of Friends and Modern Family.  I should have just caught a later flight.  Sleep is gold during AASLH!
  • Remember the SHA pin!  This is the only time where it makes sense to wear it, and by God, I earned that pin!
  • Pack snacks.  I was a good girl and got up for breakfast twice.  But as the conference exhaustion set in, I probably would have been happier with a granola bar and in room coffee.  Instead, I skipped breakfast and was starving.  Usually, I do this.  Not sure why I didn’t think about it this time around.
  • Bring the travel neck pillow.  I bought mine years ago in anticipation of a long flight to Hawaii, but I haven’t taken it on a trip since.  I hate carrying it, but it would have been so wonderful to have it yesterday for the flights home.  Because I was sleepy!

And here are a few things that I was smart about, and that I probably shouldn’t forget for next time.

  • Pack multiple options for layers.  This was possibly the coldest conference I’ve ever been to.  In some rooms, you could feel a temperature drop of 10-15 degrees as soon as you walked in.  So grateful that I had more than one sweater, because there wasn’t ever a time that I wasn’t wearing some sort of layer.
  • Carve out time for special friends.  My first AASLH was in 2008, and I really didn’t know anyone except a few friends from Texas.  2012 was slightly better, but I still spent most of my time hanging out with neighbors.  And then I went to SHA in 2013, and I suddenly had a national network.  I have one special friend in particular, and we made sure to set aside some time just for us.  Of course, she also brought her adorable baby with her, so there may have been an ulterior motive of baby snoogling on my part.
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The SHA 2013 Class was well represented–and this isn’t even everyone who came!
  • Bring a small purse.  I hate overpacking, but having a small bag for evening events (rather than lugging the giant conference bag) was really nice.
  • Take one official, offsite tour.  I spent Wednesday in Frankfort and it was delightful. You have a bit more time to explore an institution than during an evening event, and you’re more likely to get some behind the scenes scoop.  I adore behind the scenes scoop.  I’ll probably never get to eat lunch in a Governor’s Mansion again, but that was definitely a perk.
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I don’t think we’re used to this level of fancy at conferences.
  • Don’t be afraid to shut a bar down.  You can sleep when you’re home.