How Being a Lone Ranger Demands a Different Set of Skills
SMU Central University Libraries - https://www.flickr.com/photos/smu_cul_digitalcollections/4666519521/, No restrictions, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53258193
Have you ever traveled, returned to where you started, only to find it looks completely different from the place it was when you left? After being away from my job as curator of special collections for a year, I came back last month. I had stepped away to be an interim leader for a year while our team chose a new, permanent director. Despite COVID, it was by and large a great experience, challenging, yet full of learning moments, and an opportunity to do good. But my return to my old position as curator of special collections has made me think about what being a sole practitioner means.
Yes, I work in a large organization, but I'm the only person charged with caring for a campus collection of art, sculpture and art photographs displayed over half a dozen buildings, and stored in sometimes challenging conditions. So as I returned to my curatorial work, I began to think about what it means to work alone, what skills are necessary, and perhaps most importantly how sole practitioners are selected.
As we all learned from COVID, working alone puts you in the driver's seat. You set the pace, the agenda, and you prioritize. The flip side is that in setting the pace, the agenda and the priorities, when things go south, it's all on you, and that is stressful. Too many times to count, these pages have been filled with the importance of collaboration, of the creativity that results when people, even people who don't like each other much, team up and work together. Sparks fly, and that's good. Lone rangers don't necessarily have that interaction or support. Sometimes it can come from a task-oriented board or from volunteers, but in my observation that's rare.
As with anything--cooking, crossword puzzles, tennis--we get better with practice. Decades ago, one of the leading female leaders in the museum world mentored me. One of the things she tried to help me understand was that leadership demanded a different skillset than a number of other positions, and my life might be less of a muddle if I committed to one as opposed to many. At the time I was a lone ranger and a first director for a historic house museum. With decades of hindsight and a level of self-reflection my 20-something-year-old self didn't possess, I suspect she was also telling me that one of the huge challenges of being a sole-practitioner is that you need to be both a master of change AND a master of complexity. As a leader and a sole practitioner you're the star in a one- person show. You are development, external relations, education, exhibitions, finance, and curatorial all rolled together. That's not easy.
Lone rangers need to be generalists, good at many things, no in-depth knowledge necessary, but clearly we all have strengths. I play a lot of positions in my current job, as I did in previous sole-practitioner positions. There are definitely areas I'm better at than others. So if you're a sole practitioner or want to be one....
Know your strengths. Really know them. Have a plan B if you need quick help in a major topic area.
Do a gut-check. Are your values in line with folks who are interviewing you?
Be transparent about where you think your weaknesses are during the hiring process. Boards will advertise for a generalist, and smile about exhibits and school programs, but if what they really want is an advancement person, something you know little about, your relationship is doomed, and you will constantly feel as though you're being asked to bring someone a rock and their response is "No, not that rock."
If there are gaps in your content base, work to fill them in. Take the bookkeeping class for small business at the local community college; take an online class in exhibit design for small organizations through a regional service organization; meet monthly with other educators or teachers from neighboring institutions.
Create your own colleague group. Ask three or more folks you know or who you wish you knew better, how they'd feel about being sounding boards when things at work seem wonky. Will they read an email and respond or answer advice in person, on the phone or Zoom?
If you're hiring a sole practitioner....
Talk long and hard about what you and your board, feel your museum needs. There's nothing worse than hiring your one and only staff person whose strengths are internal-facing, when what you really want is an externally facing extrovert.
Acknowledge that if you're a sole-practitioner kind of place, it's likely the salary you're offering is low, and your applicants will be young, emerging professionals or else folks in their last chapter, who want an easy slide into retirement. Talk about how both demographics might affect organizational growth.
Few individuals possesses all the skills museum-land demands in one personality. Discuss how and whether your organization will invest in either professional development for your sole practitioner or growing the organization's staff or both.
Don't saddle a lone ranger with money problems you as a board are too lazy to fix. Have the finance discussion, and come up with a plan, and potentially a plan B, to sustain the organization before entering the the hiring process. If you can't sustain your collection, buildings, whatever, without an employee, it's not going to be any easier with one.
For better or worse, we've lived through the hottest July ever. Now museums are trying to stay open, and run programs while dodging the Delta variant. It's stressful. Be kind. Assume we're all doing our best, especially our sole practitioners.