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Story 11: Learning to Lead

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Sidebar: Personnel Policy Committee

Written by Mike Spock

We were in the trough of a massive postpartum depression after opening the new museum at Museum Wharf. We could see it coming, and we were all braced, at least intellectually. But that didn't make it any easier to deal with the sourness at a time when we should have been bathing in congratulatory good feelings.

The hardest part was the flood of anger that seemed to underlie our depression. In the drive to the opening we had pushed aside all the problems and slights that would have distracted us from our main task. We just didn't deal with them. And now we had to.

Folks were wondering if perhaps this would have been a good time to find a new job. Among the galling issues was that staff didn't think pay and promotions had been handled equitably. In fact they knew that they hadn't been! And of course, the managers thought of themselves as extraordinarily thoughtful and even-handed.

I spent a fair amount of time wandering about and talking to staff, one-on-one and collectively. The issues were everywhere.

We began to think the problems might go away spontaneously, especially as folks got a little rest and recovered from the round-the-clock pre-opening pressure. But, in spite of our defensiveness and denial, the managers realized they had allowed themselves to focus on getting the museum built, moved, and opened. Other things, like regularizing salary systems, would have to wait even though the museum had become a much more complicated organization in the process with more jobs, staff, and things to do.

I don't remember exactly how the Personnel Policy Committee (PPC) came about, but we decided that it should take a very high priority and should involve all the staff stakeholders at every level and in all departments.

Each department was responsible for electing a representative to the committee, and all four managers (Phyl O'Connell, Pat Steuert, Elaine Heumann Gurian, and myself) were also fully engaged. About a dozen folks came to each biweekly meeting. Committee members did the homework to get ready for the next meeting.

In our first meetings we agreed that getting a more or less objective list of job hierarchies based on some form of job descriptions was in order before we could create a rational list of jobs and salaries.

It took a lot of detailed work and some contentious meetings to tackle one issue after the other. Committee reps brought issues back to their departments for review; policies and systems were adopted by staff and in some cases by the board. Solid changes began to pile up. The committee members and the folks they represented began to see that their efforts were making a difference.

Because reps were elected for staggered terms, in a few years the majority of the staff had a chance to sample and make contributions to PPC work. As a result, almost everyone got a sense that most policy decisions had both positive and negative consequences and that tradeoffs had to be made in coming to resolution in making tough policy. It was a wonderful training ground for us all.

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