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.