Saturday 13 March 2021

Adventure and Responsibility - an interview with Kimberley Stephenson for the journal of the Australasian Registrars Comittee

The really beautifully designed Journal

My thanks to Kimberley Stephenson, Collections Manager at the Southland Museum and Art Gallery, who interviewed me for the leadership issue of the Australasian Registrars Committee journal. This was the second time Kimberley and I have worked together like this - she also interviewed me when I was the director at The Dowse, and it was interesting to see how I'd changed (mellowed out a bit, maybe? grown up a little?) between the two roles.

Also interviewed in this issue are Jenny Harper and David Reeves from Aotearoa, and Caroline Martin and Kim McKay from Australia.

In the past you have described leadership as your happy place. What is it about taking on leadership roles that inspires you? In what ways has it helped you grow as an individual and as a museum professional? 

Years ago, when I’d just joined Hutt City Council as director of The Dowse Art Museum, the HR team there did a personality exercise with all the managers: one of those ones where you look at a long list of motivations and pick the 20 that describe you best, then narrow that down to 10, and then to 2. The two motivations that came out for me were ‘adventure’ and ‘responsibility’. 

And I think that still really holds true for me: leadership roles give me the opportunity to learn, grow, push myself, be scared; and also the opportunity to care, improve and be committed to the wellbeing of something bigger than myself. So I don’t know if I’m “inspired” by leadership roles, but I do find them deeply rewarding. 

 I think the key way leadership roles have helped me grow is in self-awareness. The first time I became a people manager, my whole view on the workplace changed. With every move that I’ve made sense then – every new level of responsibility I’ve taken on – the more deeply I’ve come to understand that people just don’t think and behave exactly like I do, and the more I’ve tried to bring the best out in myself to bring the best out in my work with others. 

What is one thing that you know now that you wish you had known at the start of your leadership journey?

It’s that leaders are making it up all the time. For example: the morning of this interview, something happened at Te Papa that’s never happened before. It wasn’t major, but it was very unusual, and I had no previous experience in making the decision I had to make. So, I just did my best in the moment with the information I had available to me and the advice I was given. 

 So, that’s it. People – leaders - are sitting at their desks, or in meetings, or on the phone and they’re making it up every day. You think you’re the only person doing it, but you’re not. I used to be scared that people will find this out, but the more people I have talked to about this, the more times I’ve found it’s a shared experience amongst leaders. 

 And I think the deeper truth inside of this is that often when you feel like you’re making things up, it’s because you’re doing things that haven’t been done before. You’re actually inventing in these moments. You’re bringing all your hard-won knowledge and experience and perspective to bear on the issue, and you’re inventing your way through it. 

What are three qualities that you associate with a good team leader, and why do you think they are important?

Honesty, kindness and ambition. Be honest with yourself, and with others. Be kind to yourself, and to others. And have ambition - a sense of what you want to achieve as a leader, and what you want to help your team achieve. 

In what ways do you think our sector could nurture those professionals who are more reserved, but have amazing leadership potential?

I think as team leaders and people developers, we can support more expressions of leadership – it’s easy to fall back on the people who are more extroverted, happier overtly taking risks, faster to speak in public contexts. 

At the same time, people have to find it in themselves to be leaders. It’s not about self-aggrandisement. It’s about having a cause you know within yourself needs to be fulfilled. And from that certainty, you can draw the energy to stand up, speak out, put yourself forward. 

In your experience, what skills have you found most valuable in building effective relationships - both within an organisation, and with the wider communities that we serve? 

Time. It’s not a skill, but no relationship grows without it. The skill is probably making the time in busy schedules and busy heads to truly stop, listen and share. 

The world we operate in as museum professionals is constantly changing. Is there a particular aspect of change within our sector that you are particularly passionate about and why? 

I’m in this game because I’m excited about all the change. But if I was to look forward to the end of my career, and ask what I’d want to be remembered for, it would be for making opportunities for people; for giving the support and creating the openings for others that I’ve been so lucky as to receive myself up to this point. 

What did you learn about yourself as a leader as the result of the Covid-19 national lockdown? What learnings did you take away from leading a team though this challenging time? 

I think all leaders over that time learned a tremendous amount about how they and other behave under pressure. I listened to a really useful podcast under Level 4, which talked about how when placed under stress, people tend to over-express one of two innate tendencies: to cope by controlling, or to cope by retreating. I definitely fall into the first category, and I got a great lesson in how that can be helpful when channelled correctly, and can be really annoying and stress-inducing for others (including the people in lock-down with you!) when it’s not. 

I also learned about letting down my guard with my team. Under Level 4 and 3, there were a couple of days when I woke up just feeling so sad. Debilitated by sadness. That’s such a foreign emotional space for me. And so I learned to just tell my team what was going on, and to trust that they wouldn’t feel let down or disappointed in me. On those days I struggled to perform, and the gift I received from my team was the permission to take care of myself, while they took care of the museum. 

And finally, my lock-down mantra: assume best intentions. It works pretty well in normal life too.

Saturday 23 January 2021

A short note on recruiter experiences

Thinking about the recruitment process recently, I've on three poor experiences I've had, and one stand-out one:

In about 2017 a museum leader role here in Aotearoa came up that I went for. I was shortlisted, and took a day off work to fly and meet the recruiter (that wasn’t required, I did it off my own bat and at my own cost). The recruiter proceeded to tell me I looked "too young" to be a credible candidate, and I should come back when I had some wrinkles. I nonetheless made it to the final three candidates, after which  the recruiter would call me occasionally, say things like "Just checking you haven’t done anything silly, like get married or get pregnant". It was one of the most patronising and overtly sexist encounters of my working life.

Around the same time, another museum role came up. I was approached by the recruiter to provide my CV and (although I was luke-warm on the position) I did so. I made it to the longlist, and the recruiter rejected me with the feedback that they thought I was insufficiently experienced, and really need to “go somewhere and get a really good failure under my belt". I felt at the time that this was risible feedback - how do you build a failure into your career path, to prove you can rebound from it? And moreover, what employer could in good conscience let an employee fail at the level this recruiter felt was necessary for me?

In 2019, a recruiter asked me what my career goal was, and I said Chief Executive of Te Papa. The recruiter asked me what I was doing to build for that goal, and I outlined it. Then they sat back and said to me "Look, I’m going to be honest with you: there are two things that from my experience are going to stand in your way of achieving that goal. One is that you present as young, and the other is that you’re a woman". And while in this case I don't believe sexism was at play (from the recruiter, at least - they were reflecting back to me the outcomes of the system they were familiar with), I was infuriated that my (perceived) age and gender were seen as fatal flaws. And even more infuriated that as a educated, privileged Pākehā woman, my chances were still likely to be much better in this context than others'.

So much for crappy experiences. My great experience was with Russell Spratt at Jackson Stone, who was the external recruiter for my current role.

At the end of our first interview, Russell asked me what I felt stood in my way of getting the role. And I said – because of all this conditioning, all this feedback I’d received on being too bubbly, too enthusiastic, too young-looking – that my biggest concern was that I just didn’t look like what people expect a CE to look like.

Russell talked me off this ledge. He gave me the reassurance - speaking as an expert who spends all day doing this - that pictures of what "leaders" look like are changing. He helped me me realise that I’m not alone, and also that at a certain point in your career, employers either want you for all you bring, stand for and radiate outwards – or they want something else. It’s both deeply personal (entirely about you) but also de-personalised (it’s not that you’re not likable or not good enough, you’re just not what they need right now). It was a bloody invaluable piece of mentoring and increased my confidence hugely.

For the last couple of years, I've told people those crappy stories, and I've discouraged them from using the recruiters I had those experiences with. I've probably (if I'm honest with myself) indulged in a little bit of "revenge is a dish best served cold" behaviour rather than given the feedback to the people who were concerned. 

Just recently, I've started looking at this in a different way. Recruitment is one of the most important things you do as a leader. It's absolutely fine - useful in some circumstances - to enlist external support. But it's your responsibility to set the tone for the recruitment, and your expectations of the experience your candidates should have. If candidates have a crappy experience, that rests with you. 

 So think really hard next time you do a piece of recruitment – what’s the experience I want to create for people who go through this process?

Sunday 17 January 2021

A short note on cover letters

My interest was really piqued this week by this question on Twitter

Here's some advice I've got for cover letters, based on reading hundreds over the past 10 years. I should note that when I recruit, I've always done all my own shortlisting - I don't delegate to HR, recruitment companies, or use AI tools to parse applications. So my system is probably a bit old-fashioned and personalised.

One page is fine

At Te Papa, we're now regularly receiving 100-200 applications for vacancies. Every one of those applications is read by a human being. My own preference is a 1 page cover letter and 3-4 page CV. No letters of reference, no work samples, no certifications for the first application unless explicitly requested. 

At The Dowse, I was reading applications as attachments to email (opening all the bits of an application all in the different formats they were provided). At Te Papa, we use software called Springboard which does enable you to print out applications, but I do everything online. I set aside a morning or an afternoon and I put my head down and push through. I try to value every application (and I take breaks when my concentration is flagging) but anything you can do to help me grasp your unique offer easily is much appreciated. 

One page helps me see everything in one go, and with retention when I'm reading heaps.

Remember that links may or may not function in your cover letter or CV (depending on the format I'm looking). I will usually only follow links once I'm down to a shortlist. If you tickle my curiosity/memory, I'll probably google you. Some people immediately jump to social media to research applicants, I personally don't.

Say why you want the job

You wouldn't believe how many people forget to put this in their cover letter (or even talk about it much in an interview). I hope for all applicants they're in the position of being able to apply for roles they care about. In my own case, I believe museums are special places, and I want to see applicants who share that feeling.

My basic format in my own cover letters:
  • I'm excited to see this role advertised because <your connection to this type of work and/or to this organisation>
  • My experience and skills are well suited to this role <high level matching to role description>
  • I'll bring these personal qualities to the role 
  • Working here would mean <this> to me
Do your best to find out who to address the letter to

I do genuinely appreciate when someone addresses the letter to me. if it's not apparent from the ad, contact whoever is doing the recruiting and ask who to address the letter to. I won't discount anyone who writes 'To whom it may concern' or 'Dear Recruiting Manager', but this is the first thing I'll see in an application and it puts me on the right footing.

Get some help

For my last two job applications, I've had friends who I've worked with in the past workshop my cover letter. Describing yourself through the eyes of colleagues rather than from your own perspective can help you be bolder and more focused in your cover letter.