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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Balancing Act: Organizational Structure

A few weeks ago, a friend texted me: “Did you have staff turnover?” Honestly, I’ve been waiting for that question. We all know how much gossip there is in the museum world–and we all notice when organizations start posting lots of openings. We have been posting a lot of job openings over the last six months–and we’re not done yet. It’s been a combination of planned restructuring and people just deciding to move on. It’s meant things have been crazier than usual, and some staff are temporarily taking on work loads that are heavier than I’d like. So, what exactly are we up to?

Last summer, I sat down with a small team to start thinking about our budget. Like most organizations, personnel is the largest chunk to consider. Were we spending that money in the best, most efficient way? Were we getting the job done with the positions we had? We know we need to grow our staff (and suspect that growth is coming with our changing neighborhood), but we also know that can’t happen right away. But was there a way to position ourselves in such a way to make that growth smoother?

As a smaller, cash-strapped organization, sometimes our job descriptions just don’t make sense. The best example of this is probably our Administrative Assistant. When she was hired, her primary job duties were to take care of field trip reservations and provide some light admin help to our Director of Sales. We quickly figured out that she was awfully good at social media, and so we bumped up her hours a bit and gave that task to her. She’s doing a great job at both, but when she moves on, how will we find someone that can do both?

Thinking about this particular position got us to thinking about all of our positions. So, we made a giant list of all of the key functions that have to happen in order to keep the museum running. And instead of grouping them by the people currently doing the jobs, we grouped them by the actual function. Should our curator with a shiny PhD be spending time calling plumbers?

As we began re-crafting job descriptions, I began to also think more about the actual organizational structure. We had a very flat structure–a long line of people without much below them. There had been several issues over the last few years where some staff weren’t chatting with their colleagues before making key decisions. Though we are small, it seemed like we weren’t talking to each other enough. I wanted some sort of symbol that better indicated how we were all working together towards the common good–the visitor.

What I ultimately came up with is far from perfect, but it’s closer to the way I think we need to function. Instead of several departments of one or two, we have three departments: Engagement, Advancement and Operations. The chart is set up like a Venn diagram, with myself and the board at the center. We still have a reporting structure in place, but there’s also a team leader for each department that may or may not be the person everyone reports to on that team. (A good example of this is Engagement–the Educator is the team leader, but both she and the Curator report to me.) I also added some other teams that aren’t on the chart, but still need to meet regularly: Exhibits and Facilities.

staff
A few DHV staff members and our city council rep at the moving of the Blue House last week.

None of this is fully implemented, because we’re not fully staffed yet. And we’re taking our time to hire these new positions–we can only train so many folks at a time. We’ve rolled this out in two phases, so we were able to stagger the announcement of new positions. Essentially, we took one FT position, split it into two part-time positions. And then we took two other PT positions and reshuffled them. So, same number of people, but balanced in a different way. As we rolled out these changes, we talked first with impacted staff and told them they could apply for the new position, but their position would no longer exist after a certain point. By the end of this year, we’ll have more new faces than we’ve had in quite some time.

A few weeks ago, we hired one of those brand new positions–Membership and Marketing Manager. She comes with a broad nonprofit background and already seems to be fitting in well. And on Monday morning, we’re having a meeting because she has four pages of ideas and it’s time to chat about them. Which is exactly why we’ve made all these changes–new brains. new ideas as we continue to move the past forward.

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.

Inside Out

Often, when a new director begins, change becomes the word of the day.  When I assumed the title in March 2014, our external world was changing rapidly.  Much of my time and energy was spent in keeping up with real estate transactions and learning how to speak developer.  That’s not to say I didn’t know that some things probably needed to change internally as well.  But some changes had begun a year before, and we first needed to let the dust settle.  In addition, we had some infrastructure changes to complete, including a new website and switching our accounting to QuickBooks.

It’s funny what happens when you’re able to look at your financials a bit differently.  We were in the midst of revising our Strategic Plan, where we put the visitor experience as one of our three priorities.  In a conversation with Claudia, our business manager, she very gracefully pointed out how little we were spending on our frontline staff.  Our budget didn’t match our strategic plan.  With a few other changes to our finances, we were able to move our money around.  How could we make the most of our frontline staff?

At the same time, there have been long simmering issues with our frontline staff that have bothered me almost the entire time I’ve worked at DHV.  Some ticket office rarely left the ticket office.  Some history educators didn’t feel comfortable touching the computer, even to clock themselves in.  Administrative staff and frontline staff rarely interacted.

Scheduling was also a real challenge.  The way our history educator staff were scheduled and budgeted was based on building.  So, if our farmstead history educator was out for a week, there wasn’t anyone that could step in and work at that post.  Turnover in the ticket office positions was high, and part of me wondered if they just got bored.  All of these issues collided last summer, and we decided to completely restructure our frontline staff.  Here’s what we did (after many meetings and conversations and a bit of hand wringing.  Change can be scary.)

  • Abolished the “Ticket Office Staff” and “History Educator” positions.  We created one position: “History Host.”  We also standardized the hourly rate so that everyone is making the same amount.
  • Abolish seasonal staffing (previously, history educators weren’t scheduled in February, July or September due to low attendance).  Instead, staff are scheduled based on visitor attendance history.  For example, after looking at numbers, we realized that July was a decent month for attendance–and very few people were on site to help those visitors.
  • All History Host staff are required to be “certified” to work in at least two posts.  For new hires, one post must be the Ticket Office.
  • All administrative staff (including myself) are required to spend at least 5% of their time in direct visitor service beginning on February 1.
  • All staff must be able to give tours of our two signature homes, Millermore and Sullivan.

We began implementing the changes in the Fall.  We held a series of training sessions in various building posts.  In January, we did an all staff training of Millermore and Sullivan.  And last week, we held an all staff retreat to talk more about customer service and how to share all this knowledge everyone now possessed.  We used a few points from The Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums to guide our conversation.  But the main purpose was to learn from each other some of the key skills needed to best serve our visitors.  A few volunteers joined us as well, and we’ll likely do a volunteer retreat later this spring.

So, how is all this working?  Well, I’m the boss, so they sure don’t tell me everything.  But I do hear a few things through the grapevine.  Our frontline staff that have made the transition with us are enjoying the variety.  Not every day is exactly the same.  Even though administrative staff weren’t required to head out to the grounds until this month, several worked on the grounds during busy school tour days last fall.  Staff now have more flexibility in their hours–if they’re able to work more, we will probably schedule them for additional hours.  Generally, things seem to be going pretty well.

It’s too soon to tell what kind of impact all of this might have on visitors.  Like many small museums, we just don’t do enough evaluation.  I’m hoping that we’ll be able to afford AASLH’s Visitors Count program in the next year or so, and then we’ll begin to have some data.

I completed my first shift in Millermore a few weeks ago.  It has been ages since I’ve spent that much time talking to visitors, and after 12 years of working at DHV, this was my first standard docent shift.  It was a fairly busy Sunday, and I had an absolutely delightful time talking to visitors.  It was fun to figure out different ways to tell the story (I might have started my tour upstairs), as well as see what trends emerged during the day.

Millermore

Long term, I think this could be transformative for the museum.  If we’re all interacting with visitors, we all might have some great ideas.  And by leveling things a bit, those ideas are more likely to move across the lines that are inherent in any organization with multiple staff members.  I’m feeling pretty good about these changes.  But you might need to ask me again after my first 700 school kid day. . .