High-performing organizations, for-profit or non-profit, law firm or museum, public or private, thrive and expand or shrivel and die by certain timeless principles:

  • Articulate a clear and crisp firm vision.
  • Make darned sure everyone in your firm, from top to bottom, knows what it is and could recite it without cue cards.
  • Respect their professionalism, dedication, and commitment and get out of their way.
  • Deliver “exceeds expectations” client service.

Let’s get specific.

Magnetic goes into some detail in case studies of six museums. Here are those institutions and the quick descriptors for what values the authors believe they stand for:

  • The Philbrook Museum of Art: “Build core alignment”
  • Conner Prairie Interactive History Park: “Putting guests [clients] at the center”
  • Chrysler Museum of Art: “Serve first. Lead second”
  • Children’s Museum Pittsburgh: “The power of ‘yes'”
  • Natural Science Center of Greensboro: “Become essential”
  • The Franklin Institute: “Building trust through high performance”

We’ll explore the Chrysler in some depth. And no, this selection from among the six is not random. I believe the case study of the Chrysler contains the most directly relevant lessons for law firm land and the leaders of law firms in particular. And, full disclosure, I’ve visited the Chrysler myself and talked briefly about its evolution with the director, Bill Hennessey.

Founded in 1933 as the Norfolk [Virginia] Museum of Arts and Sciences, the Italian Renaissance-style building in The Hague neighborhood of central Norfolk was expanded and renamed the Chrysler Museum of Art in 1971. That same year, it received the 30,000-piece art collection of Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., son of the automotive corporation founder. Chrysler served as the museum’s president from 1971 to 1980 and as its chairman until 1984. He was, by all accounts, patrician by nature, an art connoisseur with a discerning eye, but not necessarily a man of the people.

The Chrysler is one of the leading art museums in the Southeast. [A New York Times art critic called Chrysler the most underrated American collector of his time.] Among its permanent holdings are works by European masters like Tintoretto and Peter Paul Rubens; Impressionist painters Mary Cassat, Edouard Manet, and Paul Cezanne; and contemporary artists Edward Hopper, Jackson Pollock, and Andy Warhol. The Chrysler also has one of America’s preeminent collections of art glass, including outstanding works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, as well as one of the world’s largest collections of American neoclassical sculpture.

In 1997, the trustees hired Bill Hennessey as the Chrysler’s sixth director. Hennessey is a witty, genteel, somewhat quiet and thoughtful man. His style is anything but that of the stereotypical, larger-than-life art museum director or corporate CEO. Hennessey focuses on meeting the needs of the staff and the museum’s guests in a way that provides them with security and support while at the same time freeing them to explore and take action. This philosophy, perhaps more than anything else, has proven to be charismatic in its own way.

When Hennessey arrived, the museum was recovering from a management crisis and financial instability prompted by two previous undercapitalized expansion projects. As he put it diplomatically, the museum “had gotten ahead of itself.” The board was complacent and disengaged. A consultants’ study two years earlier used harsher language, finding “profound confusion around direction, purpose, and mission” among the board members they interviewed, and found an institution disconnected from its surrounding community and “more intimidating than welcoming to the average visitor.”

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