Remembering the Important Things: Applying Life-Lessons Learned at SHA
One of the most attractive aspects of our field is its assumed connection to good-will; the altruistic devotion to the betterment, the enlightenment, and the enrichment of those we serve through our organizations. In an all-about-me world, it is refreshing to think that people still selflessly rally around noble causes. I believe that at its core, our field is still selflessly devoted to noble causes—it is what we do. While the core of our work is praiseworthy, we who are leaders in the field know that it is… well… work. The shear amount of effort required to maintain our organizations is staggering and often exhausting. As well-meaning as we are as leaders, we can become consumed and burdened by the ins-and-outs of daily work and lose sight of the noble causes that attracted us to the field in the first place. The effects of this are often stirring, jarring, sobering. We may become preoccupied with business for business’ sake, or with building legacies and empires. We may lose sight of ourselves outside the workplace. We may fizzle out like a candle lit at both ends. How do we keep ourselves from such fates? We take time to remember what is most important in our work and in ourselves.
One of the most compelling sessions during my SHA experience was with Anne Ackerson regarding the importance of good mission statements. A good mission statement ought to point to an organization’s true north. The Henry Ford’s mission statement is a little long, but it is good… it defines, it gives purpose… it tells staff, partners, and guests why we exist… it speaks to what we do and what we will continue to do in the future.
The Henry Ford provides unique educational experiences based on authentic objects, stories, and lives from America’s traditions of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and innovation. Our purpose is to inspire people to learn from these traditions to help shape a better future.
The Henry Ford is a very large and complex organization with 2,000 employees working across five large venues: Greenfield Village, Henry Ford Museum, Ford Rouge Factory Tour, and the Benson Ford Research Center, and IMAX Theater. Over 400 interpreters engage guests with the Institution’s core stories across its venues. It is vital that this large group keep sight of mission on a daily basis. Every morning, groups of interpreters meet with their managers and supervisors across campus for daily briefings. I am thrilled to be able to meet with these groups on a rotating basis. Whenever I do, I recite The Henry Ford’s mission statement—not for trite or cheesy reasons—but because (as I remind my interpreter colleagues) our mission outlines why The Henry Ford exists, why we have jobs, why we tell the stories we tell. This group hears mission so often that many interpreters have it memorized… some even recite it along with me. During morning briefings, I often ask staff how their work on any given day fits into the mission. I am often very encouraged by the responses I hear. Such familiarity with mission helps each interpreter put his or her work in context with the larger organization, and reminds him or her of why it matters. As leaders in the history field, it is vital to remind ourselves and our colleagues why our respective organizations exist. This may be done simply by keeping mission forefront in conversation and thought. How long has it been since you looked at your organization’s mission statement? Do you know it? Does your staff know it? Does it impact your daily work? Without a noble purpose—a noble mission, and without examining that mission regularly, an organization is prone to fragmentation and its employees to disenfranchisement.
Finally, it is vital to remember personal core values and motivations that extend beyond the workplace. Another memorable session during my SHA experience took place on the last day of our three-week seminar. This session brought some of our class to tears…literally (readers, no laughing allowed)! Trina Nelson Thomas reminded my classmates and me that work is only one component of our very complex lives. As leaders in the field, this is sometimes difficult to grasp. We are often highly-dedicated people who give much of ourselves to our vocations. The history we interpret is very complex, and so are we. In order to maintain a healthy perspective in my own work, I have to remember that, in addition to being a museum professional, I love reading history (shocker); I am a music lover; I am inspired by rolling mountains, raging seas, and open fields; I love great meals and conversation; I covet the time I spend with wonderful family and friends; I take great joy in studying the theology of my Christian faith. I am so much more than my work. Keeping that in mind ultimately helps me perform more strongly in my role at The Henry Ford. What motivates you outside of work? What brings you joy and fulfillment apart from your job? As leaders we must remind ourselves that we are more than our museums… as much as we love them.
The field of history is filled with good will— with noble causes. As leaders in the field we will better serve these noble causes if we maintain perspective— if we remember what is most important. Keeping in the forefront of my mind the mission of my organization while taking time to celebrate myself as a well-rounded individual has helped me in this task. I hope that it may help you as well.
Ryan Spencer (SHA ’12), The Henry Ford