by Peter A. Arthur-Smith, Leadership Solutions, Inc.®
“Ability is what you’re capable of doing. Motivation determines what you do. But attitude determines how well you do it.” Lou Holtz, former football coach at William and Mary at North Carolina State: BrainyQuote.com, April 2017.
An April 2017 New York Magazine presented a thought provoking leadership article about Tom Campbell the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Director and CEO. He took over nine years ago from his predecessor, Philippe de Montebello, who had been in the leadership role for 31 years. Succeeding a top leader after such a long period is always a tough act to follow; especially as such long-term leaders often leave behind “soft-experienced” leadership teams. Perhaps this is because they’re not overly interested in developing a successor. It’s rather like making the decision to write a will after a long life.
To what degree Campbell was insufficiently prepared to take over from de Montebello is open to conjecture. The magazine article pointed out, ‘… a board that installed a director
with no executive experience and gave him as much rope as his powerful predecessor.’ Campbell took over eight years ago when the Great Recession was raging, so he had his plate full from the get-go with a steep learning curve ahead of him. As they say in baseball, ‘It’s one thing to be batting in the practice-net, but it’s quite different to be in the batter’s-box; especially in major league games.’
According to the article, the hugely endowed museum was losing money fast during early 2017 and Campbell’s resignation had also revealed alienation of staff, questionable “branding” activities, and pushing for major expansion without the funding to support it. Assuming these factors to be true, one can only reckon that he wasn’t drawing upon the various people around him to identify and rectify these significant calamities. Against that backdrop, he had brought in record attendance, although that attendance surge did not bring the income to offset the shortfalls.
A demise like this is hardly new in high profile organizations. Legendary leaders like de Montebello often starve their top-tier leaders of key decision-making exposure and do not welcome strong leaders around them second-guessing their vital moves. Boards of directors in cases like this are also culpable because they tend to sit-back and let the “lion” make his plays and continue in that mode when the “newbie” takes over. A large shift in wisdom also occurred when the former CEO retired because long-serving board members retired or passed-away – de Montebello was 80 when he stepped down.
When Campbell took over in 2009, under the enormous economic pressures of the Great Recession, he apparently allowed a significant number of experienced staff to take early retirement packages. They clearly took their institutional memory with them. The story goes that he brought in new outsiders who likely gaffed in some key marketing and design assignments, and ‘hired some fresh deputies who placed barriers between him and his core curators.’ It seemingly brought comments like, “He didn’t spend enough time having curatorial lunches,” as was his predecessor’s style.
Curators are clearly a key core constituency in a museum both in terms of expertise and motivation, and even more in terms of attitude – see opening quote. Leaders are required to shape attitude, especially with regard to teamwork, in order to draw the very best from their vital people resources. Executives need to think long and hard about their prime constituencies and then court and orchestrate them accordingly. Campbell apparently missed the mark in this regard and so his critical teams helped allow his demise – wittingly or unwittingly.
So what might Campbell have done differently to prevent this likely erosion of team support from occurring? Giving a smart person like him the benefit of the doubt, he may well have addressed some of these forthcoming suggestions. But the question would then be: Were his moves sufficient? Did he pursue them aggressively enough? Let’s take a look at our suggestions:
» Starting with the curatorial lunches – These were seemingly a historical draw with his predecessor. Lunches, done with the right flourish and spirit, are often used by executives during good times to connect with their people. Ironically, when tough financial times arrive, too many enterprises drop such habits just when they are desperately needed to shore-up morale. There are many ways to drum up an economical lunch, but many executives seem blinded by their changed financial circumstances. Clearly those lunches were missed at the Met.
» Avoiding favoritism – Campbell allegedly had a distinct passion for the Met’s digital group. Although he was thought
to have brought some real advances to this area, he apparently alienated his curators by making their expertise mystique too available to the masses. His particular attention to a female staffer, who ran the online publishing team, brought him unfounded accusations. Also, ‘…conservators felt ignored while newcomers were busy optimizing their user experience.’
» Ignoring vital constituencies – Not only did Campbell sometimes appear to ignore his curators and conservators, it was also indicated that he didn’t include his revamped board enough. His inherited Board members – those who didn’t retire or pass-away – had grown somewhat detached during his predecessor’s reign. He allowed that to continue, especially when making major decisions like the new wing investment. It would appear that he didn’t brief or involve them enough in this major decision, until the flaws and economic pitfalls came into public view.
» Capturing their imaginations – With a museum, not only is it essential to ‘capture the imagination of your visitors’ but you also have to ‘capture the imagination of your key players.’ Pulling your key teams together, especially during tough financial times to help you make tough choices, is an imperative pre-requisite for effective leaders. This is especially true when those people are intelligent, discerning individuals…like curators or conservators. Ignoring your people, particularly when making tough calls that affect them, is almost tantamount to committing suicide.
Hence , for leaders who are intent on engaging and involving their core teams, it is critical to avoid the likely pitfalls that the inexperienced Campbell fell into. The unfortunate part for him is that he is now contaminated. Hopefully he learned from making some of his missteps, which will make him a much better leader going forward. But will he get the chance?
He may not get another top drawer opportunity for some years to come, since interviewers generally stick with perceived winners – even though some winners get lucky. There’s every reason to believe he will do a much better job of orchestrating any teams going forward. If he does, some future organization may greatly benefit from his belated, enhanced team wisdom? Are you adequately preparing your aspiring leaders for future key roles or will they have to make the same mistakes that Tom Campbell made…to everyone’s disadvantage?
To learn more about team leadership, talk with: