Director Turnover: Are We Sustaining our Talent?

January, 2002


If you are part of a museum that recently changed directors, you belong to a sizable club. The museum boom and the baby boom might be to blame for this turnover. Several capital campaigns have come to a close. Baby boomers are beginning to retire. Directors often choose to leave their posts at such natural transition points. If your museum's transition was smooth, consider yourself a fortunate member of the club. But, if your director change was dramatic, resulting in turmoil and wagging tongues, you are not alone.

Consider these news stories, all from the year 2001. Headline in a Midwestern business journal: Unhappy staff bolt museum: departures blames on new chief’s style. The story: discontent with a local new museum director hired out of the corporate sector has triggered the exodus of 13 out of 21 senior staff, a talent drain that some business leaders fear may damage this museum’s stature. Headline in a widely-read east coast daily:Museum of Rotating Chiefs. The story: a local museum is so dominated by its founding board that six directors have rotated through in fourteen years, the latest leaving after only three months on the job. Two stories appearing on the same day on different coasts about different museums: Leadership Shakeup at *** Museum; Museum CEO leaves to pursue other endeavors. Story in a southwestern newspaper a month later: another museum director has left after four years on the job due to frequent clashes between board and staff. The Board "suspects the director of sympathizing with philistines." And, front page news in a major western city:Museum Director resigns abruptly: Even wife is surprised. The director is quoted citing personal financial needs for his departure. A few days later, a political gossip column reveals a generous six-figure salary and positions a head shot of the ex-director next to that of a philandering member of Congress.

If museum directors have ever striven for celebrity status, recent stories such as these promise tumultuous, scandalous mismanagement and high pitched board staff blowouts. In a field as earnest as the museum profession, such coverage is very uncomfortable. In our quest to become more popular, should we simply rejoice in the fact that museum director travails are deemed worthy front-page news, capable perhaps of actually selling newspapers? Or, is this proliferation of headlines no mere sales strategy? Is a national crisis in leadership and turnover in the museum profession looming?

Some new data begins to answer to this question. In 2001, to assess training needs in the nonprofit sector, Compasspoint Nonprofit Services (San Francisco, CA) surveyed 1,072 executive directors of nonprofit organizations of all sizes in California, Texas, Hawaii and Washington DC. The researchers found that the average tenure of directors is three to five years. Compasspoint suggests two reasons behind such short tenure: lack of management training and/or nonprofit experience. Almost two-thirds of current directors participating in their study have no prior training in executive leadership, are performing the job for the first time, and/or are recruited from outside of their organizations. It is hardly surprising that a majority of directors reported long hours and high stress. More pointedly, despite their commitment to their organizations' missions, half stated that they never want to be a director again. The Compasspoint data foreshadow a serious talent drain for nonprofit organizations of all types.

The finding of short tenure, long hours and high stress mirrors University of Nebraska professors Hugh Genoways and Lynne Ireland's research for their forthcoming book on museum management (AltaMira Press: 2003). Most museum directors, Genoways and Ireland discovered, last less than four years at their posts. The authors suggest that museum management has become such a complex endeavor that there is a high burnout rate in our field. Practitioners from across the country echo their concern. "Having to constantly raise money and resolve so many ongoing financial and personnel pressures is wearing to the extreme," states Michael Hawfield, director of the Pratt Museum in Homer, Alaska. "There is so much pressure and expectation to be excellent at all things; it requires tremendous self-sacrifice," implores Terrie Rouse, former director of the African American Museum of Philadelphia, who resigned in summer 2001, "We need help."

What can we make of this disheartening state-of-affairs? How can museums continue to advance in society with such tumult at the helm? Are museum directors burning out? To gain some insight, I interviewed a group who has thought long and hard about the role of a museum leader: directors who have thrived in the museum field for fifteen years or more. I also interviewed successful directors who have left their positions, researchers, and executive recruiters. A labyrinthine story emerged.

One version goes like this: A museum director's job is extraordinarily demanding, and only getting more so. Yet, no matter what the data may say about high stress and long hours, a great many executives enjoy the challenge and are optimistic about their work. Bright and creative people who have the capacity to be leaders and want to be leaders fill museums. But, because museums have become so complex, there is no agreement on what qualifies a person to be in charge of a museum. Priorities shift constantly. This lack of clarity causes friction at both the staff and board levels. Some up-and-coming museum staff burn out of the profession entirely. For others who strive to move up the ranks, training, most especially in financial management and board relations, is lacking.

The board also plays a significant role. To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy, all happy boards are alike, but every unhappy board is unhappy in its own way. Board members may have different agendas from staff members, further complicating a museum’s priorities. In times of change (and for museums, those times never seem to cease), some boards blame the person at the helm than to consider the bigger picture. "I’ve seen superb directors get blindsided by a board for no reason," a history museum director told me, "we are all one rogue board member from potential ugliness." Boards fire directors, and rather than looking inside of their organizations, hire an outsider, either from another museum or from another profession altogether. Senior staff leave, some to become directors of other museums, even though they may lack executive training. The job of the director becomes even more demanding.

Of course, this scenario has countless variations and does not apply to all museums. There are other reasons why people leave or remain in jobs. Yet, I believe that three key internal issues -- organizational complexity, burnout, and tension around the hiring of outsiders -- diagnose the overall challenge we face in bringing stability to the position of director and the museum profession as a whole. It is important that board and staff acknowledge these three issues.

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