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The Three Types of Museum Career Change, and How to Navigate Them

Category: Alliance Blog
Three chairs, two blue and one yellow, next to a direction sign with arrows pointing two ways
Career change is on the rise as museums contend with disruptions in operations, increased turnover, and evolving norms and expectations. Here's how you can embrace and work with this change as it appears in your work.

I remember it clearly. My organization’s education department had just received a large gift to launch a new initiative. We planned to open a new informal learning center focusing on creative practice paired with research and evaluation for data-driven decision making. Because of my background in museum evaluation, I was tapped to lead the center. It would be a significant reset of my current clear and comfortable responsibilities into a role tasked with exploring the new, novel, and unproven.

My response to my supervisor, while I don’t remember it perfectly, was something close to, “No, thank you.” I politely elaborated that, though flattered, I was not sure about this change. “Would it be possible to keep my role as it is?”

I am sure you realize from your own experiences that my participation was not optional. My current role was evolving into something new, guided by a strategic vision bigger than myself. This change was in motion. We were past the “no, thank you” stage.

Luckily, I was fortunate to have a supervisor who understood my response was not based in a lack of interest, but in fear. What I was really thinking was not “no, thank you,” but rather:

  • This experience will be new and different for me.
  • I am not sure where to begin.
  • I am comfortable in my current role.
  • What if I am unsuccessful?
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My “no, thank you” was really a “this change is scary.” Thankfully, she heard what I was not saying and provided the support necessary to successfully transition me into my new role.

My reaction was not an uncommon one. Workplace change can be destabilizing for anyone. It’s also increasingly rampant, particularly in museums. In the current climate of an unresolved global pandemic, higher rates of resignation than usual, and several generations simultaneously navigating the same workplace with their own expectations and cultural norms, it’s hard to identify a museum workplace that isn’t experiencing change.

Career changes like these can evoke a visceral fear response, whether of specific challenges they may bring or the general sense of the unknown. To navigate them successfully, we have to do two things: recognize and move past our fear response, and embrace the reality that change is inevitable. How we manage it is the variable within our control.

Let’s explore a few scenarios of how change may arise in your career, and how you might successfully navigate through them.

Initiating the Change

In some cases, particularly when you are in a leadership position, you yourself are the change catalyst. You may decide to do something as simple as adopting a new space reservation system or as broad as undertaking a staff reorganization or docent training modification. Regardless of scale, your considerations and actions in these situations should be similar. As the person leading a change, your goal is to help your team see it as an opportunity, not as a burden or punishment.

As a first step, I encourage you to reflect on your impetus for change and how you can best communicate it to the team. Presenting data summarizing time and money saved through a new procedure can be an objective change motivator. Leading a change in vision, strategic direction, and organizational structure requires more than data, however. Be sure to welcome comments and feedback from those most affected by the change, which will humanize the decision and inspire broader collegial support. Their voices, ideas, and concerns can add tremendous value.

For example, when one colleague of mine was designing a new organizational structure, she found collaborating with her management team on the details brought unique insight and strengthened the implementation process. When another was looking for areas to modify or improve a pilot field trip program, she found feedback directly from the instructor to be the most valuable insight. While it is naïve to assume inclusion in the process will eliminate all dissension, transparency and broad involvement can certainly reduce it. Whether it is an official committee or simply a group tapped as peer supporters, change can be more palatable when we have a trusted guide.

Lastly, consider the timeline of change. Are you moving the needle incrementally or making sweeping revisions all at once? What level of pushback can your organization absorb? Will this affect employee morale to the point it disrupts business operations? While sweeping revisions can dynamically launch your organization into exciting new directions, the potential loss of support from staff and stakeholders may be untenable. Many institutions will be more successful moving slowly, bringing team members and stakeholders along at every step. Some types of change will need longer timelines than others. Combining curatorial departments that have been independent for forty years should probably proceed more slowly than installing software upgrades, for instance.

While these suggestions are helpful to those making the change, sometimes you are not driving the bus. The change is happening to you and around you without your input. What can you do then?

Experiencing Position Change

For some, experiencing change is exciting. Personally I love moving, for example. I relish packing and unpacking. I even like making new friends. For others, however, moving is their worst nightmare. Workplace change brings similar mixed reviews.

One example of a workplace change that comes from the outside is unexpected job loss, which many have experienced over the last few years of pandemic disruptions. This change can be so visceral and upsetting that it is ranked as one of the top ten stressful life events on the Holmes and Rahe Life Stress Inventory. Some incredibly helpful resources for navigating job transition can be found on the AAM website and thus don’t need restating here. Instead, we will focus on the impact of unexpected changes to your position while still employed.

Changes to positions, whether large or small, are a common occurrence in museums. They might be a promotion or lateral move, such as a change in title, an expanded scope of duties, or a transition to a completely new department. Or they might be an apparent demotion, like a reduction in your responsibility or a new layer added between you and your supervisor. Either situation can incite fear. Even changes that we typically perceive as positive, representing desirable career growth, can trigger “promotion anxiety” as we prepare to meet new expectations.

When experiencing an unexpected change in your position, reaching out to your network for support is essential. The right network can guide you on how to adapt to a reduction in duties with grace or coach you on newly added responsibilities. They can support you emotionally and tactically. Chances are at least one of them has experienced something similar. This is common advice, but the specifics of how best to connect are less often discussed. One approach is to start by creating three categories within your network: safe sounding boards, skill-building resources, and network-builders.

Safe Sounding Boards: A precious few can serve as confidantes, individuals with whom you may share all the details of your transition and readily ask for advice. Their discretion will allow for open dialogue to help navigate your new role, lift you up when discouraged, and highlight your strengths. For example, one early-career professional I know who was struggling with his supervisor’s new expectations commented that having a safe sounding board was critical to controlling his emotions and keeping them outside the workplace as he navigated the difficulty.

Skill-Building Resources: Colleagues from past and present who have a skill set aligned with your new role will be invaluable. Conversations with this category of supporters will focus on successfully executing your new position responsibilities. Your conversations will be less candid than with your sounding board confidantes, but sufficiently honest that you can get the support you most need. When evaluation and research became a stronger part of a past role, for instance, my network advised me on topics ranging from launching an Internal Review Board to the most helpful conferences to attend.

Network-Builders: These are individuals already in your network who can help connect you to people in their network who will be helpful with your new responsibilities. When I needed to locate a fabricator specializing in durable outdoor signage, for instance, I requested someone in my network connect me to someone in their network, who in turn connected me to the right resource in their network. These couple of emails were much more efficient than a blind Google search. And yes, the signs are fabulous.

This three-pronged approach has wide applicability, but it can be most critical when experiencing large-scale change beyond any personal prior experience. One example of this, for many, is a change in museum leadership.

Navigating Leadership Change

Welcoming a new supervisor can be challenging. It may disrupt years of consistency in everything from financial procedures to department organization. That easy rapport you had with your previous boss might be replaced with conversations that leave you feeling defensive and uncertain. You might see some freedoms walked back, or interim responsibilities reassigned. One curator I know, for instance, was nervous about what would happen when her supervisor’s vacant role was filled. She had come to enjoy the creative freedom she gained in the interim, and she feared she would lose these new leadership responsibilities.

Concerns like these are valid, and indeed may occur. But your reaction to them is the only thing within your control, and how you steward that new relationship will set the stage for future collaboration. Start by considering that your new colleague is harboring uncertainty too. Manage from the middle, reaching out to support a smooth onboarding and assist in navigating unique aspects of the organization. If established and popular procedures are called into question, leave defensiveness at the door. Instead, share objective data that supports their retention. Welcome the person into established team-building activities such as potluck Fridays or lunchtime walks. Most importantly, identify at least two ways this leadership change can benefit your career. This person may support professional development more than his predecessor, for instance. New procedures might streamline your workload. Note these down. When you are feeling uncertain, review them as reminders of the positive side of change.

So, we now have tools to better shepherd our museum through change, and how to navigate change when it happens to us. Is there anything else we should consider?

Speak with Poise and Positivity

Words are powerful. Whether you are the catalyst for a change or experiencing it outside of your control, being thoughtful about communicating your situation and feelings is important. As difficult as change can be, it’s important to think about what’s constructive to voice and what isn’t. Complaints and disparaging comments that resist change, rather than attempting to work with it, usually accomplish little for your career progress. Demonstrating flexibility and positivity not only makes for a more enjoyable workplace, but also highlights your leadership skills in change resiliency.

In a time where the news is filled with the unexpected, the one constant we can count on in any field is the presence of change. Museums are no different. As for that new initiative I was asked to lead, it was successful, thanks to the collaboration of a talented team. In fact, it ended up being one of my most impactful work experiences to date, and I have not answered any opportunity with “no, thank you” ever since.

When change comes knocking on your door, what will your answer be?

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