Reflections on 400 days as a CEO

Every museum post i wrote, i had an idea of its possible audiences. I had a sense of who my find it useful. But now, i don’t know who that might be. So it’s part self-reflection, part the post i wish i’d had, a 400 days ago.

But here’s the biggest thing i wish i’d known: you can’t talk about it. Not properly. (I’ve been typing this paragraph for over a month — it’s why there wasn’t a ‘1 year a CEO’ post — in my head and on this keyboard.) Everyone who’s done this will understand. I think people who haven’t, won’t.

Anything i write here carries risk: how would an association member, staff member, a Board member, a volunteer, a partner or a funder react to what i might say? to the way i say it? to what i include and exclude? And because my highest responsibility is for the good of the organisation, that means i cannot share in full what i am doing and what it feels like. Which means i cannot help the reader taking on their first CEO role: after 400 days they might find themselves writing this and censoring the juicy stuff too.

So i can say some things. It’s a bit of an incoherent list, because of the gaps i’m leaving. You’ll have to guess or ask me 1:1. DMs are always open ;)

I’m also avoiding saying all the usual stuff about strategy and culture and all that. That’s been done. But, enough preamble, here’s what i didn’t know and don’t think i could’ve learnt except by doing it…

First: Accountability. It’s strange going from having a single manager to working to a Board: 11 bosses-who-aren’t. They hold ultimate power, but that power is a single blunt instrument. Most of the time they’re exerting influence: through wisdom and experience. It has taken me time to adjust to the different power dynamics inherent in this, and to use my Board members well as networkers, a sounding board, a moral compass, an expert. And in a way, to adjust to my own power (I’m taking advice, not instruction) and the consequences of that power. Which is that for all the times i may be right… I’m also going to be wrong sometimes. My goal is to reduce the ratio, of course, but in the beginning I found myself somewhat paralysed by the chance of being wrong. It soon became clear that indecision was worse. So i jumped back to leaders i’d had who’d characterised decisive action, and channeled their way of working. It surprised me who i found myself emulating — often those i hadn’t liked working for. But their adamant certainty was what in needed in the first six months, with twin pressures of COVID and a balance sheet not overburdened with gold. My advice? Thinking through ‘what would XXX do?’ is a really good way to assess options in VUCA circumstances.

The responsibility sits no-where else. It’s really easy — at times tempting — to just say ‘The Board want’ — but that’s an abrogation of the responsibility I hold. I’m the CEO, I’ve taken Board advice/approval as necessary, and now, right now, it’s my call.

And in a small organisation, if a thing isn’t being done and it’s important, i have no choice but to do it myself. I never thought i’d be searching for office accomodation or re-writing a chart of accounts. I knew this would happen — but I didn’t expect to love it. Constantly learning about new things and getting endorphin kicks from doing something i’d thought impossible, then coming across a problem the second (OK, third) time and just springing through it is a bonus.

(By the way, ‘are you up to the job of CEO?’ is a question that never gets answered. But if you have a curious mind, an energy to help people and fix stuff, and a purpose that drives you, then you’re most of the way there.)

Second: The Future. There’s so much written about vision and strategy blah blah. But what i wish i’d know is that the future is already here, nascent. Little whispers and clues from staff, Board, volunteers and partners, showed that the issue isn’t to define a future: it’s to see clearly the seed that’s struggling to grow, and just water it. Clearing the ground of weeds, stopping the naysayers with their shears, shining the light. I think about what’s important today, and there were people telling me about it last year.

But there were all sorts of voices when i started. Some of them were talking sense, some nonsense. I can’t say much here, for all the reasons, but the people who seem to be liked and who seem to want help you … may or may not be the right people to listen to. And those who come at you with frustration, or silence, or who tell you you’re wrong … might just hold the wisdom you need. Don’t judge by who defends the status quo and who advocates for change — it doesn’t matter which they do, it’s whether they reference purpose and hope in their arguments. Arguing to stay the same because it best delivers valued purpose is very different from ‘we’ve always done it like this’ or ‘yeah we tried that and it didn’t work’. Go towards the light that shows the way, don’t listen to the warnings that speak only of shipwrecks past.

Third, you aren’t your self. You’re always painted as other wishes you to be, or need you to be. This is all written about in CEO101 books and blogs. But I hadn’t squared the lack of peers into this. When i was part of a management team, we would support each other by triangulating conversations, by offering counsel on how stakeholder X might receive something. ‘Hey, she’d hear this better from you, could you talk to her before I do?’ As CEO I have no peers in the organisation; so my strengths and weaknesses all have sharp elbows with no-one to soothe the edges. Which has made me reticent about showing extremes, and brought me into a more consistent way of working. In my ‘What would XXX do?’ imaginings, i became very aware that all of those mercurial visionaries i’ve worked for were tempered by a 2ic that brought stability and calm. Or vice versa. In an organisation of 20 staff, I have to be neither and both.

No-one knew me. They (staff, members, volunteers, partners, Board members…) had no reason to trust or distrust me. Circumstances biased towards distrust as we worked through some necessary change. But that wasn’t really about me. ‘Me’ still exists, regardless of how I am perceived by others. And, the thing i’d wish i’d known, is that i didn’t have to take anyone’s version of ‘me’ as a truth. I always remember an old British Prime Minister saying that people who only did politics were terrible politicians and people; that to be great, everyone needed a hinterland. With something outside work, and friends outside this world to check me, to balance me, to make me more than a synecdoche for a CEO, I could hold all the masks that others needed to paint on me for their own reasons. The emotional cost of holding this is just a part of the job.

The fourth and final thing I’ll mention is on the extraordinary momentum of Business As Usual. I had a Board member say that ‘it took a previous manager over a decade to build this system, it’s going to take you more than a few months to untangle it’. That was great advice. Change (whether driven by positives like new funding) or negatives (COVID) or just things we don’t understand yet (how do we work partly from home, long term?) might be a gnat bashing a supertanker, a system that just won’t die. Or the old ways might flop and fold like a discarded shirt, so much so that you realise it was already dead. There’s no universal lesson here, other than to maintain and adjust your focus and your energy.

Remember all those action movies where the baddie turns out to have not died from the gunshot and gets up again for the final act? Business As Usual will do that. Be John Wick. Make sure it’s properly dead and buried — before it comes back and bites you again. But once the opponent is down — don’t look back, there’s plenty more things to do.

I know that whatever I build is a response to the terrain and context already in place. And that some of what I build will be (rightly? wrongly?) renovated by the next CEO. And that’s OK too.

How do i end? I suppose by saying it doesn’t end. It’s ongoing, it’s surprising and the only thing i’m certain is that a reflection in another 400 days will be something entirely different. I’ve got the notes of what I can’t write here. One of my team told me to box it up and publish in ten years. If the seas aren’t over our heads i’ll do that, but for the moment, deep storage is in the best interests of the organisation. (Sorry about that.)

If you have advice for me, I’d love to hear it. In the meantime: Onward.

Embracing purposeful goals, then developing people, culture and systems to better deliver. Formerly @acmi @museumsvictoria @railwaymuseum @NHM_London. he/him

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