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Leadership, and Why You Need a SWOT Analysis (and a Personal Board of Directors)

Category: Alliance Blog
Picture of a detailed drawing with lines and images of how Anne Ackerson got where she is.

Recently, I was poking around on LinkedIn, and found a couple of short posts that caught my attention. One was How to Do a SWOT Analysis on Yourself (and Why You Need One) by speaker, professor, and author Andy Molinsky; the other was Why You (Yes You) Need a Board of Directors by speaker, author, executive and personal coach, and PayPal’s director of learning and talent development, Joshua Miller. Molinksy explores doing a SWOT analysis on yourself (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats, borrowed from the business world). Miller compares the roles of an organization’s board of directors to the roles of an individual’s board of directors—that is, to “inspire, motivate and challenge you to think beyond what’s possible.” Both articles (really, more like useful tip sheets) focus on self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and the power of professional relationships.

I shared these posts with one of my favorite museum colleagues, Anne Ackerson, executive director of the Council of State Archivists, and principal of Anne Ackerson Consulting. Anne is co-author (with Joan Baldwin) of Women in the Museum: Lessons from the Workplace; Leadership Matters; and Leadership Matters: The Blog. I wanted Anne to see these posts because I know, like me, she spends a lot of time reading, thinking, speaking, and writing about these topics (Anne contributed the final chapter, “Strategizing Me: Making a Personal Career Plan,” to the AAM book I co-edited in 2012 with Wendy Luke, A Life in Museums: Managing Your Museum Career; the chapter is reprinted in the March/April 2017 issue of Museum magazine). After sharing the posts, Anne and I met to talk about self-awareness, SWOT analyses, and having a personal board of directors (or what Anne calls a “career planning posse”).

Greg Stevens (GS): Before we start chatting about SWOT and having a personal board of directors, I’m excited about your new book with Joan Baldwin, Women in the Museum. Tell me more!

Anne Ackerson (AA): Thanks, Greg. Women in the Museum is a book published by Routledge that looks at issues of gender on the workplace side of museums. We’re talking here about issues of pay equity, access to advancement and promotion, what board rooms look like in terms of their gender roles, and making the correlation that boards really set the pace and the tone for leadership and how genders are treated in the workplace. We think there is a real disconnect between what museums purport to be (open to all and accessible by all), and what goes on at the back of the house in museum offices. In fact, there is a lot of discrimination that takes place that is either conscious or unconscious; it runs the gamut from micro-aggressions to outright felonies. We feel that gender equity is a critical component of elevating this profession.

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GS: You and I have talked often about this and the broader issues that face our colleagues who have chosen to work in museums, libraries, and archives. Those bigger issues are really what you and Joan tackle in Leadership Matters, in which you make a compelling case for the fact that the greatest resources museums have are the people who work in and for them, and yet we don’t always take care of our people enough. To make matters worse, we don’t always take care of ourselves as much as we should. I know I’m generally guilty of a profound lack of work-life balance; that’s why I was so glad to have your contributions to A Life in Museums. Yours is the closing chapter, and one of my favorites. Tell our readers about it.

AA: I was introduced to personal career planning about six or seven years ago. In preparing to think about it, I made this large, hand-drawn mind map. What the mind map helps you do is sort out various threads of a problem. In my case, the problem at that time was what’s next for my career. I was contemplating making a career change, and I really didn’t know where, what, how, or anything. The mind mapping process allowed me to literally draw out where I had been with my career, where I was currently with my career, and what might lie ahead. This exercise set me up for identifying strengths and weaknesses, accomplishments, and failures. It gave me a clearer picture to help me think about where I might want to go. I have kept it and sometimes show it to people, although it is as big as my dining room table!

GS: I’m looking at a picture of it now, and right in the middle of your map is a picture of you—looking dazed, surprised, alarmed, hopeful? I’m not sure…

AA: Hah! Maybe all of the above!

GS: In your chapter for A Life in Museums, you emphasize the importance of doing a SWOT analysis on yourself, and building a “career planning posse.” Which is why the recent LinkedIn posts made me think of you. I wonder if you might talk a bit more about your own experience with them.

AA: First, thank you for thinking of me! Yes, I do have experience with a “career planning posse,” as I like to call it, and doing a SWOT analysis on myself. My experience began several years ago when I got an email from a colleague who wondered since I do strategic planning for organizations if I had a strategic plan for my career. I wrote her back and said, “No, not really.” She reached out to a few other people, and none of them had a strategic plan for their careers. That was the beginning of us getting together as a group of five people (we call it “The Gang of Five”), whose commonality was that we were all consultants in the museum field, in one way or another, and that we all lacked a strategic plan for ourselves. Our first “assignment” was to come prepared to talk about our career and how it has evolved over time. I created my mind map in response to that assignment; some brought other kinds of visuals—pie charts, bar graphs, flow charts. We spent one-and-a-half days with one another. We talked about our careers and did a SWOT together on each other. From that, we drafted our first strategic plans for our careers and got input from everyone else.

GS: So, part of the SWOT was self-reflection, and part was peer reflections? Like a 360-degree assessment?

AA: Yes, very much so. While you’ll find articles like Andy Molinsky’s on how to do a SWOT analysis on yourself for building self-awareness, the fact that we did it as a group was quite powerful. I also think if you do a SWOT on yourself without the participation of trusted colleagues, you run the risk of going too easy on yourself or not digging deep enough. By bringing others into the exercise, you come away with richer information about yourself, even if it is not always what you want to hear. I still wince a bit at some of my weaknesses from that SWOT!

GS: Being able to pinpoint strengths, and/or weaknesses is critical. But I also wonder about how to tackle those external forces, those opportunities, and threats of the SWOT.

AA: An example from a member of our “Gang of Five” illustrates one of the more obvious challenges we face in the field: the lack of, and the steep competition for, jobs. This colleague had struggled to keep employed, even with contract work, and so has started doing more public speaking and is writing a book—not necessarily for the money, but for visibility and to get her name out there. In this way, she is trying to counter an external threat with an opportunity for increased employment by taking deliberate steps.

GS: I want to shift gears to Joshua Miller’s post on why you need a personal board of directors. What are your thoughts on this piece?

AA: I think this article is a really great one. It revealed some new ideas to me. Yes, I’m in a group of colleagues who have been together for a number of years, but it is a group that I’m part of, not one that I initiated; there’s a difference. What Joshua is talking about here is you taking the initiative to put together your own personal board of directors; you reach to gather people together to help you. That isn’t to say you shouldn’t or couldn’t serve on somebody else’s personal board of directors, but this is a key time when, in fact, it really is all about you; you are the object of this exercise. Beyond my current “career planning posse,” I don’t really have this kind of group, so I’m thinking that it might be time for Anne to put together her own personal board of directors. I like the way that Joshua has laid it out. I agree that you first look to people you admire, who inspire you, who can keep you on track and on point.

GS: I love your phrase “career planning posse,” and I love Joshua’s three criteria, posed as questions, for selecting your board: Who inspires you? Is there diversity? Who can you trust? I also like that he talks about the “spirited give-and-take mindset” of these relationships. Yes, it is about you, but it really is a win-win for everyone involved if each individual is gaining something of value from the experience.

AA: That’s exactly right.

GS: I’d like to close our conversation by asking if you have any sage advice for our colleagues.

AA: I would say that there are many ways to think about career planning. One way, if you don’t really care about planning, is to simply go with the flow; lots of people do that. On the other hand, if you are really interested in a meaningful career and getting out of it all the effort, time, and resources you have put into it, why don’t you make it the best it can be by doing a little strategic career planning? Knowing about yourself, either through a SWOT or a personal board of directors, is going to help you hone your career “edge.” I put a lot of stock in planning and writing things down. I think it’s important to articulate the vision for yourself, then figure out the steps to get there.

GS: Or, as you say in your chapter in A Life in Museums: “plan the work and work the plan.” Anne, thanks so much for chatting with me.

AA: Always a pleasure, Greg.

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  1. My colleagues and I take seriously our role as mentors to staff members who are at an earlier place in their career and this is a terrific resource for them (and everyone really, no matter where they are on their career journey). Thank you!

  2. Thanks Lynda! I totally agree about the role of and necessity for mentors where ever you are in your career.

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