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Story 11: Learning to Lead

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The Cavalry Arrives

Written by Mike Spock

Acknowledging to myself that working on a grand analysis and prescriptions might not be the real answer for the museum, I thought that an organization consultant could help, even make the difference. We didn't lack ideas, only the capacity for making them happen without going down in flames.

Bob Lloyd didn't hold much truck for organizational development (too touchy and feely,) but I persisted and decided to go ahead anyway. After poking around for a while I found a small firm, McBer and Company, Inc., and thought they might work. McBer management consultants David Berlew and Steven Rhinesmith seemed low key, respectful of what I wanted to do, and refreshingly un-doctrinaire. We liked each other. By inclination and aware of our very limited budget they suggested a simple approach: they would do some preliminary diagnostic work and then we would design an intervention where they would serve as my coaches while relying on me and the museum staff to do the work of reforming the organization. There would be no written report or presentations—just thinking, talking, planning, and deciding.

David and Steve met with key staff and board, one at a time, to probe the organization's issues and climate. Their initial guess was that they would have to dig to uncover everyone's true feelings and work to free up communication across the museum, a pattern they had seen in other troubled organizations. Instead, they found that feelings were near the surface and freely expressed. The problem was actually me. I was sending mixed signals and keeping everyone thoroughly confused about my motives and their roles. So instead of making the intervention a museum-wide exercise, we decided to shift gears and concentrate instead on helping straighten me out!

The four of us (Phyl, David, Steve, and me) gathered in front of an easel and pad of newsprint for a half day every six weeks or so. We settled into a fairly regular routine: in the first third of the meeting I reported on the results of my homework assignment and what it seemed to suggest; then we would discuss our options and reach decisions based on the insights uncovered in the homework; and finally, we would figure what to do next. Steve and Dave would teach us how to do the following round of homework before we met again.

But the first job was to figure out more specifically why my leadership was so problematic and how the staff was trying to deal with it and me. I was given a battery of psychological tests that probed my fundamental motives and approaches to organizations and life. The staff filled out an instrument that compared their perceptions of how an effective and caring organization should supervise and treat its staff against how the museum was actually doing it. The differences would be a measure of how far we were from the actual to the ideal and where the particular soft points on such issues as structure, communication, clarity, recognition, and rewards were. The specific issues would become the agenda for our reorganization and rebirth.

I had always thought of myself as a collaborative, democratic, open, laid back guy (although we didn't call it "laid back" in the '60s). Instead I was shocked to learn that I had very strong power drives and lots of specific ideas of where we might be headed and how things should be done to get there. Pretending to myself and everyone else that it was otherwise was terribly confusing, not to say anxiety-provoking, as people tried to figure out how to relate to me and how to get their work done. In my inexperience I frequently had only the faintest notions of goals and strategies, but I knew things weren't right when I saw them. I became famous for "Spocking" projects, giving almost no direction until things were very far along and then showing up and making gratuitous suggestions at the very last minute. I didn't realize until much later that I also couldn't put my dreams into words. It really was only in the process and then looking at the result that I realized what we were doing and where we were headed. It made me very attractive to follow but impossible to work for. And in my first troubled years, everyone worked directly for me, one way or another. There were departments and managers, but in the end everyone got their mandates, protection, and orders from me.

Going into my sabbatical, seven years into my administration, I really questioned whether I could go on directing The Children's Museum. Perhaps I was the classic entrepreneur who was great at getting things conceived and moving but had to step aside eventually for someone who would be a better manager. I felt we had built an exciting organization and hated to leave just as we were hitting our stride, even though I was causing so much pain and suffering. But perhaps it was the right thing to do. There would be other things for me to contribute, other organizations to invigorate. Maybe it was time to move on.

In one of our early sessions I posed this choice to David and Steve. Although they were quick to acknowledge that certain management profiles better matched certain organization needs and stages, there might be other ways to bring things into balance without starting afresh. For example, we could divide the directorship into two parts with my ceding most management responsibilities to others while I concentrated on the leadership half of my role. I would have to give direction, set standards, decide "what felt like The Children's Museum." I would have to become more self-aware and learn how to detect when I was wandering over the boundaries, messing with other people's work and sowing confusion. I had to stop Spocking. I had to play to my strengths and let others play to theirs—only better. I would have to give some things up. The choice was mine.

Although I did not have a lot of confidence that I could pull off a personal transformation, I was an eager student. There seemed to be an alternative to leaving the museum. I really wanted to give it a try.

We continued to meet, filling up, tearing off and tacking up pages of goals and options, diagrams of processes and structures, lists of tasks and assignments. Problems were identified. Research was taken on. Options were discussed. Decisions were made. I learned some neat tricks for analyzing the consequences of choices we might make.

I learned how to record the conversations and decisions on newsprint so that everyone in the room could monitor what was going on and progress towards meeting goals. I learned who to include broadly in generating and studying options, and the smaller group or the one person who would make the decisions. I learned to define tasks and responsibilities and follow up. I learned how to delegate—how to get power by giving hunks of it away. I learned how to charge people with responsibility, stay out of their way, and back them up. I learned how to become more self-aware, personally transparent, and frankly decisive. I began to think consciously about whether the key stakeholders were in the room, who was missing, and who else should be brought in for the decisions.

These insights and capacities came slowly, haltingly, over many years. But the first lessons were given and eagerly received around the easel and newsprint in the small McBer conference room. The very process we used, the types of decisions we made, the way we communicated within and beyond our sessions were all illustrated in the work of the consultation. At the end of 3 months I was in a new place and the museum was ready to test whether it could really change. We worked out yet another organization plan and structure that seemed to match each team's particular goals, tasks, and working style. Jobs were defined and firmly placed within the structure. People were offered the newly defined jobs. Some people left, a few new people were recruited. I ended my leave, we explained the new approach and how it would work during a staff retreat, and with a certain amount of healthy skepticism everyone got back to work.

Next: Celebration?