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Story 07: Managing the Organization

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Story 07 Introduction

Written by Mike Spock

Museum colleagues were always surprised to find that we were generally workaholics with a professional polish. The informality of our culture and our hippie way of dressing belied our generally middle-class values of reliability, forthright honesty, attention to detail, and the absolute trustworthiness of keeping commitments. We opened the museum on time, came to work early, stayed late, and accounted for every penny. We carried calendars, kept meeting appointments, answered phone calls, and wrote highly successful grant proposals. By the prevailing business standards of the day, we were a very well run and efficient organization though we looked very funky.
— Elaine Heumann Gurian

...In continuing the candid self-examination of your papers they raise issues of concern for me about my relationship with you. How much autonomy is really being offered? How much freedom (within job description limits) would really be made available [to] me and in turn to my staff? What do you really do with decisions or manners of work behavior that are not in your style?

Becky Corwin and Pat Steuert had warned Elaine that my reputation for fuzzing the lines of responsibility had haunted everyone well before the Director's Project (my "sabbatical" where I decamped to a temporary office in the Institute of Contemporary Art for some thinking time). And the subsequent McBer and Company intervention only confirmed that, in spite of my proclaimed conversion, boundaries were something that still needed work.

Finally, there was more than a little skepticism that I could really learn to think and behave in new ways. Was my pre-McBer ambivalence about delegating decisions and obscuring my intentions hardwired and not really amenable to change? Everyone predicted I would continue to be a handful. So Elaine's frank and revealing questions said much about the organizational challenges that would probably continue and the risks of throwing in her lot with me at The Children's Museum.

Somehow I convinced Elaine that I could manage my impulses, that she would truly be in charge, so she accepted the appointment. Within her mandate—drawn from the notion of a client-centered organization—Elaine would oversee the development and management of experiences for visiting families, school classes, and even the neighborhood kids, who hung out at the museum and insinuated themselves into the lives of the staff. But for some months after I offered her the job, Elaine thought it was useful to remind me and her crew that she was in charge of the Visitor Center, of her team, and of the decisions they would be making.

I have to add that Elaine was never anything but a great collaborator. It wasn't as if her caution signaled that she was going to be a wall-builder or create silos and not let anyone else in. Elaine was always thoughtful and generous with the other managers and their divisions, and she communicated that attitude in turn among her own people. Although the Visitor Center was her place and its team was her team, she took to heart that The Children's Museum was everyone's common purpose, and we all shared the same values and goals. This collaboration expressed itself most clearly in the weekly managers meeting where we brought our concerns—division-wide, museum-wide, and from the world at large—and moved our agenda forward. Planning, budgets, issues that were gnawing away at us—even our family crises—were fair game for the managers group.

Elaine ultimately acknowledged that for the most part I had stayed within my boundaries; she eventually felt quite comfortable that the Visitor Center was actually hers. And in spite of my mixed signals it turned out that everyone—staff, managers, board, and community—was actually looking to me to lead the museum as a whole. There was more than enough left over for me to do after I "gave away" the Visitor Center to Elaine, Administration to Phyl O'Connell, Community Services to Jim Zien, and the Resource Center to Pat Steuert. And they were much better at managing their turfs than I was anyway.

Everyone ended up contributing to the turnaround in leadership and management. You will see in Elaine's story that we had to invent processes and tools that allowed us, through tight but creative management, to survive and prosper in a quite unconventional organization without sacrificing our deeply held values. But Elaine, having drawn the boundaries in those initial conversations, taught me a lot of what I needed to become an effective leader in this strangely non-hierarchical organization that we were creating.

Next: Managing the Organization