Across my desk the other week came Magnetic Museums: The Art and Science of Engagement, published by the American Alliance of Museums.

Having no clue why the volume was on my desk, but in deference to a longstanding friend whence it came, I opened it up and saw that it sets itself a perhaps improbable task, to identify, using rigorous criteria, “museums that were thriving and growing in spite of the challenges of the last decade.”

For museums, what were those challenges? Essentially, the economic ground shifted under their feet, and not for the better. Endowments plummeted in value, returns on investment dwindled to negligible levels, tourism and leisure markets contracted with the recession, and competition among cultural institutions for philanthropic donations increased. As the authors put it, “Old business models stopped working and many institutions found their relevancy declining.”

I decided to keep reading.

In late 2009, the authors issued a call to colleagues in the museum field that asked: Are there any institutions out there that seem to be doing better than others? They received more than 50 suggestions.

A quick digression, as context for “sizing” the museum sector.  There are more than 17,500 museums in the US, employing 400,000 people, with revenue of $21-billion/year. There are about 850 million visits to museums each year in the US, more than attendance for all major league sporting events and theme parks combined (483 million).

To winnow down the 50 suggestions they received, the authors spent over two years refining their methodology, doing background research, and delving into the available data around the finalists. They ended up with six museums that made the cut as “magnetic.” And they developed a definition, which follows, with my translation into Law Land:

Magnetic Museums [law firms] are high-performing organizations that deliver tangible cultural and civic [client] value, and achieve superior business results, through a commitment to service, engagement, and empowerment of others [their lawyers and professional staff]. They are distinguished by powerful alignment around a compelling vision and the lasting [client] bonds they create through meaningful experiences [exceptional service] that enrich and strengthen their internal and external communities [the esprit of their lawyers and staff and their reputation among clients, peers, and competitors].

As the authors themselves say:

Take the word ‘museums,’ substitute the word ‘organizations,’ and we believe that the general principle holds. Becoming ‘magnetic,’ we learned, starts with creating alignment at the center of our operations by engaging and empowering those closest to your organization in the pursuit of a compelling vision of the future. It means investing in people, forging deep relationships, and activating powerful networks and communities. It means creating real value for your customers and constituents by being responsive, relevant, and meeting real needs. Becoming ‘magnetic’ means building trust, loyalty, and support by consistently meeting or exceeding expectations.

I know what you’re thinking: I’ve heard all this before, I know, this is what law firms are supposed to do.

That’s precisely my point.  These values are universal.

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.”

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:

  • In 2008, at Hennessey’s urging, the board approved a recommendation to make admission to the museum’s permanent collections free of charge for a three-year trial period. Not only did attendance jump 33% in the first year, it had a “surprising ripple effect” boosting the sense of philanthropy and connection to the museum. Indeed, while admission income had been an important source of revenue, far more important and critical to long-term growth was the pipeline of donors and funding, with a 90% membership retention rate among top donors.
  • A capital campaign launched in 2010 surpassed its initial target goal during the “quiet phase,” so the goal was increased and only two years in, free admission had been funded in perpetuity, a 7,000 square foot Glass Studio had been built and opened, and the curatorial department had doubled in size.

The authors close the Chrysler case study by borrowing learning from Daniel Pink (“The puzzle of motivation“) and John Kotter (Leading Change):

  1. Serve first, lead second. Commit to developing and serving the needs of your partners and your clients, and leadership will follow.
  2. Ensure autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Give people the freedom to decide and then act, and make the work meaningful and important.
  3. Conduct rather than control; bring out the best in others.
  4. Be unequivocal in supporting your staff. Applaud initiative.
  5. Remove barriers to empowerment. Ensure that structures, systems, and supervisors provide support.
  6. Above all else, show respect and appreciation, again and again.

It surely has occurred to many of you, as it has to me, that law firms often display exceptional—truly world-class—levels of performance in the competitive event called, “killing morale.” We will leave for another day just exactly what are the psychological traits of lawyers tempting them into this soul-destroying exercise, but for today I implore you to listen to the message of Magnetic. Not only is it extremely poor social form, it doesn’t work.

Truly outstanding organizations—six museums out of 17,500 were chosen here, don’t forget—not only don’t indulge in morale busters, they do precisely the opposite. Trust your people to rise to the occasion. I can assure you they will do so, and in ways that may amaze and astound you with their power and dedication.

Finally, to silence the dark little gremlin inside you who continues to insist that they can’t be trusted, try this thought experiment: Has it ever (seriously) crossed your mind to give less than 100% to the firm and to your clients? No—of course not. So why do you presume they’re any different? They aren’t. They’re every iota as dedicated as you are. If you let them be.

Chrysler Museum

The Chrysler Museum, Norfolk

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