Early on, Hennessey launched a strategic planning initiative of his own, which achieved three things: (a) it committed the museum to fiscal rectitude—a balanced budget going forward, which it has consistently achieved; (b) it defined the museum’s audience as the 1.5 million people living within 50 miles and committed to engaging all of them, not just the prosperous and well-educated; and (c) it adopted this mission statement: “The Chrysler Museum exists to enrich and transform lives. We bring art and people together through experiences that delight, inform, and inspire.”

The third is of course the important one, and before you dismiss any hope of a law firm “delighting, informing, and inspiring,” listen to Hennessey discuss its implications for the museum’s priorities and how they could readily translate to the world of law firm client service:

We started with a mission that was almost exclusively focused on objects, the old “collect, preserve, display, interpret” paradigm. But it struck us that we could do all those things, and even do them well, but still be a pretty boring place…[so] we systematically shifted our focus to be more and more about people and the ways that we can ensure that these works of art make a difference in their lives.

Most importantly, putting the visitor (client) experience first has required a “dramatically increased sense of shared responsibility and accountability among all staff.” Hennessey started by replacing uniformed security guards in the galleries with “gallery hosts,” specially recruited and trained guest service representatives whose purpose is to make people feel welcomed, relaxed, and comfortable in the presence of art. What does this actually mean?

It starts with engagement between the museum staff and visitors: “Engagement is the thread that runs through everything,” said Colleen Higgenbotham, director of visitor [client] services: “We began by teaching our gallery hosts to ‘read’ people—their body language, their level of comfort and their interests… Over the years, the program has grown and improved because we have really listened to and observed the visitors [clients]. We also listen to the gallery hosts’ insights into visitor [client] behaviors and needs.”

The next step is empowerment. Here’s where you have to have faith in your colleagues—and your colleagues at all levels throughout the firm:

The key to making this program work is that the gallery hosts are empowered and authorized to do whatever is required to meet a visitor’s needs [short of injury to people or the art]. [For example,] an out of town guest trying to locate a Velasquez portrait sought help from a host, who tracked down the painting and escorted the visitor to the administrative floor where the work was hanging…in the director’s office.

And yes, it requires courage:

Jeff Harrison, chief curator and a 30-year Chrysler veteran, explained, “This kind of change requires a leap of faith. You need to have strong leaders and trust at every level and all across the board… In the ’80s, the assumption was that the curators knew best. Now we have shifted our thinking so that we trust and support and listen to the staff on the floor. Our curators are always on call for the gallery hosts and will come down to the floor immediately if a visitor has a question. It would not be acceptable here for a curator to say ‘no’ to such a request.”

The payoff, however, is immense (emphasis mine):

Molly Marder, registrar for loans and exhibitions at the Chrysler, considers herself a leader at the museum. So does Gary Marshall, a former journalist turned art museum webmaster. Dawn Penny, assistant to the director of the museum, describes herself as a leader, too. “All of us have leadership positions here,” said Visitor Services Supervisor Christine Gamache, a digital media artist who joined the museum in 2003 as a temp conducting visitor surveys. “The key is that the museum trusts us to make good decisions and we trust that the museum will support our choices. We are invited and allowed to take a high degree of ownership here…and so we do.”

So, bottom line, has it paid off? I think any dispassionate observer would say yes:

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