CEO Open Forum

Guest post by [Elizabeth Scott Shatto] [Heart of the Civil War Heritage Area]

Every day at SHA is rich and intense and Monday was no different.  Our morning session, led by Larry Yerdon, President, Strawbery Banke Museum, focused on Revenue Models and Financial Sustainability.  Using a daunting case study, we worked on how to prioritize a list of museum liabilities and suggested ways to convert the museum’s liabilities into income-producing assets. 

In the afternoon, John Herbst, President and CEO, Indiana Historical Society, challenged us to consider “Using the Visitor Experience to Reinvent a History Organization.This time our task was to define what the public would find “authentic” about our own institutions and suggest an engaging experience or program that that would flow from the site’s authenticity and also command a fee for participation.

Finally, four brave CEOs opened up an evening forum for Seminarians to ask about the challenges of leading history organizations.  The team included the two already mentioned, as well as Phyllis D. Geeslin, President and CEO, Benjamin Harrison Presidential Site and Debora Schwartz, President, Brooklyn Historical Society. The frank dialogue that ensued was funny, scary, sage, encouraging, and honest in a way that was both gentle and at times harsh (we are learning a lot about the power in such tension). 

I thought it would be fun to capture some of the nuggets that emerged from that discussion, but in keeping with our pact that, “What happens in Indianapolis, stays in Indianapolis,” (also known as code word, “Vegas”), the quotes from our discussion are not attributed.  Here are some snippets from the evening dialogue:

What CEO’s wish they knew before starting their first Executive Director position: “I wish I had better skills working with people”; “I thought I knew budgets, but could have used coaching in dealing with institutional budgets”; “It is important to know that people are capable of despicable, bad behavior – just because you are affiliated with something worthy doesn’t mean that something despicable won’t come out.”

In response to questions about trust: “You get a sixth sense”; “Don’t act in fear of the worst. Be confident you are doing the right thing”; “The famous Bill Alderson (well loved former SHA Resident Coordinator) said, ‘Never get yourself in a place where you can’t say good bye.”

About the fear of asking for money: “My palms still get sweaty”; “Make your first few calls with someone experienced;”  “Start with calls you know will have positive results”; “I find it hard when I have really become friends with donors, when I have grown to love them, yet I still have to ask them for $20,000 at the end of the year.”

Is there every downtime for a CEO? “When I go to the grocery store or run an errand, ‘I go out to swim in my donor pool’”; “Many more people know me than I know them”; “I need downtime and accept that sometimes I will be seen in my gardening clothes.”

On the subject of working with staff: “I don’t need to worry out loud, it doesn’t help the staff”; “[To get staff out of their silos and working together] hold hands and sing Kumbaya”;  “Create an expectation that people have to work together.  It will not work if people don’t cooperate and collaborate”; “There’s some people you can’t fix, so give them an opportunity to find other employment”; “I don’t like to fire people but I’ve never felt that I did the wrong thing.”

Important staff qualities: “Integrity, hard work, energy, excitement, ability to see the big picture and capacity to see beyond one’s turf”

Thoughts on museum leadership and family life: “Nothing is more important than your family”; “The field is more adaptable than it has ever been.”

What boards look for in a new director: “Often, the opposite of what they just had”; “A PhD is not necessary but it isn’t a liability”; “More organizations will be looking for someone with a business degree.”

How to stay motivated? “This work can be lonely…when you are alone the colleague you can call makes a huge difference”; “You are not your job.  Remind yourself, ‘I am a person and I am good at what I do.’”

A poignant summary: “What we do is servant leadership.”

Thank you to the CEOs who shared their accumulated wisdom so generously!


Posted on November 6, 2012, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I always suggest that new directors (first timers or not) keep a list of the surprises that present themselves. They are interesting to contemplate at the end of the first year. Also, I hope everyone works for a three year contract because at about the 18 month mark, if you are actually making the change you were asked to deliver, your board will want to fire you and you will likely want to walk. Both sides need a reason to stick.

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