Story 07: Managing the Organization

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Mike's Template for Hiring

Written by Elaine Heumann Gurian

Part of Mike's success came from his penchant for hiring gifted, quirky people who were relative novices in their professional accomplishments though not necessarily young in age or experience elsewhere. Most of us had never had a chance to shine before, and our self-confidence was not fully formed. He delighted in the rough and tumble of vigorous discussion, and he was never committed to just one route to get to a desired outcome. He had a big vision but left implementation to others. As long as the institution progressed in the right direction, he was happy to have his staff act independently. He was even-handed, even-tempered, and modest. He liked strong, opinionated people as long as they were civil to each other and fully professional. He did not like intransigence. All the people who worked for him had to be willing to lose an argument gracefully and embrace the direction decided upon after a full and fair hearing. I fit exactly into that template.

Many of us had considered ourselves outsiders in our childhoods. Many were unaccustomed to succeeding, to being praised, to being encouraged to try new things. Part of my team (myself included) referred to themselves as "orphans" though we all had been raised by parents. But we were used to being thought of as odd, misfits, and nothing had prepared us to be in an environment where we were liked for who we were and where encouragement was part of the supervision.

Every supervisor hired people using the same emotional profiles Mike used. New hires were selected for optimism, inventiveness, passion, and a kind of fearlessness, not recklessness. Most were not hired because of their deep professional experience. While they had done good work in a number of arenas, their reputations did not precede them. All managers took pleasure in watching their staff grow, acquire new skills, and become more self-confident. Most importantly, every single person employed at the museum believed that they could learn something useful from each other.

There were a few people who had been at the museum a very long time and were much older than the majority of the staff. These five or six "old timers" were all dedicated to the adventure of the new. They were models of good sense and cheerfulness, and gave some ballast to the exuberance of youth. I never heard "we don't do it that way" from any of them. They were like good "Aunties" and "Uncles."

Our backgrounds were very different from one another. Some folks were married, some single, some divorced, some gay. We represented a mix of cultures and racial backgrounds, and had been raised in different geographic locations. Some were immigrants, some first generation, and some came from blue-blooded founding families. We originated from different economic classes and from both urban and rural settings. Our schooling was different. Many had gone to public school while a fair number were private school educated. Some (including Mike and me) had struggled in school, though almost all had university degrees of some level.

Given how different we were from each other, one would have thought we held diverse world-views but it turned out not to be so. The staff was mostly adults in their twenties and thirties, mostly women, mostly parents, and mostly left wing politically. More often than not, each person was an activist working in some cause, and we volunteered at a wide range of organizations. The men and women alike were devoted to ecology, feminism, peace, disarmament, civil rights, and economic, gender, and homosexual equity.

The majority of the staff also shared similar definitions of work, humor, politics, children, aesthetics, adventure, and equality. Because we shared similar values we did not have to overtly articulate our basic assumptions to each other. Much of our work was carried on in a world of unspoken, internalized understandings. "It doesn't feel like us"—a mantra often used—was broadly understood to mean the idea under discussion should be rejected because it would violate some important shared value.

Our work environment was unlike most of the "real world" where different world-views operated simultaneously and often antagonistically. I have often thought that our aspiration for a world of peaceful integration in the face of diversity was at variance with our own internal homogeneity of outlook. We did not have to integrate much of anything. I believe that we succeeded because we were fundamentally much alike despite our diverse histories. Our accomplishments and our limitations might have come from that fact.

Next: The World Around Us