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Written by Elaine Heumann Gurian
As director of the Visitor Center, my job involved proposing an overall vision for my team, advocating for my division with other division directors, and making the decisions no one else on my team wanted to make. This included working jointly with division directors and Mike in creating the priorities of the institution and then promulgating them both internally and to the outside world. Staff often told me how glad they were that they did not have my job, that they liked their own much better. I, however, loved my job and could not believe that I was being paid to have so much pleasure.
Every Monday afternoon I went to managers' meeting with Mike, Phyl O'Connell (Administration) Pat Steuert (School and Education Services), and Jim Zien (Community Services). These policy-setting meetings took on the most difficult museum issues: budget development, grant allocation, staffing, personnel policy, relationships with community and board, and physical space development and allocation. Every member of the group could add to the agenda, which was the first order of business. Next, the agenda was divided by time so that all things could be covered. All participants believed they would get an even hearing, that the others in the room were worthy of respect, and that Mike would listen with care. Unbelievably, votes were never taken. A topic was discussed (sometimes it felt endless) until the whole group was in agreement. Utterance of the phrase "It doesn't feel like us" could immediately defeat a proposed solution on the table. Accordingly, that phrase was seldom uttered and when it was, it was done with care, because we all knew and had internalized the boundaries of our institution. We were not about to violate the integrity of our work.
The meetings were often heated but talk was never rude or accusatory. The four managers were not of similar personalities and had different cultural backgrounds. While we became trusted colleagues and friends through the process of working together, we probably would not have met each other in the outside world. But we knew that each cared for the betterment of The Children's Museum and the clients we served, and we all worked equally hard.
I was the most territorial, the most fearful and the most aggressive of the group. I protected my staff and my turf fiercely. Yet the others were no slouches in the patrolling of their own boundaries; they just had better etiquette in doing it. I always felt that I was the most ill-mannered and the most outspoken, as befitted my background as a New York City Jew and daughter of German-Jewish immigrants. Whatever manners I subsequently had, I acquired slowly at The Children's Museum. They served me in good stead for the rest of my working career when I chose to use them.
We conducted an annual review of institution-wide content, organizational structures, mission statement, and board relationships. We also spent considerable time on moving the museum into new spaces, supporting each others' personal work lives and aspirations, and of course, the budget with all its ramifications.
The managers' meeting began to take up the prospective annual budget six months before it was due to come before the board. It was an excruciating process that required creating a budget for your division, revealing it to each other, calculating the shortfall, hoping that managers would allow for some slack, bringing some more earned income to the table, estimating percentages of soft money, and revising the budget over and over until it was balanced. Then we would proceed to writing grant applications, creating a list of fund-raising possibilities that was larger than we could manage, and finally putting those possibilities in a priority order for which to then write targeted "walking papers" and budgets.