The Chief Fill-in-the-Blank Officer: A Trend in Museum Restructuring

Combining experiences at the helm of nature and science museums with insights from literature and courses on leadership, Emlyn Koster reflects on the corporate roots of this trend and its application to the museum sector.

An unfortunate paradox surrounds the subject of organizational structure. On the one hand, it is the primary tool for configuring the work of employees, any organization’s largest single investment. On the other hand, its absence as a session topic at museum association conferences implies that restructuring is an unimportant focus for shared learning. Perhaps this is because restructuring often conjures up unpleasant memories of surprising changes in position titles and responsibilities, reporting relationships, and office locations. Marilyn Ferguson, a guru in the 1980s movement of social and personal transformation, famously observed: “… Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside. We cannot open the gate of another, either by argument or emotional appeal.

Successful Restructuring

Here are two insights from courses I attended in the 90s. One for business executives in Toronto likened an organizational structure to a wiring circuit diagram in which any faulty connection will cause a breakdown. A structure should map lines of managerial reporting, decision-making, delegation, and the most favorable pathways for cross-functional teamwork. Then a weeklong immersion for nonprofit executives at the Harvard Business School emphasized that between the boxes and lines of a structure, there may be ‘white spaces’ across which departments also need to often collaborate.

An image of a clock with the phrase "Time for Change" written on it, in reference to the author's call for museum restructuring.

My early years of museum leadership also affirmed that any reorganization would be counterproductive if its draft rationale was not substantially strengthened by one-on-one consultations with those potentially most affected and all-staff feedback opportunities. At both Liberty Science Center and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, I added a preceding major step. I circulated several drafts of a comprehensive situation analysis after the first 100 days at each CEO appointment to calibrate the state of the institution and to introduce the likelihood of structural adjustments to improve its efficiency and effectiveness—doing things right and doing the right things, respectively. This approach elicited many supportive reactions, such as “If we’d all walk a mile in each other’s shoes, maybe we wouldn’t be so quick to devalue the contributions of coworkers”.

When I read a Harvard Business Review (HBR) article about the Chief Operating Officer (COO) as the CEO’s second-in-command, I became aware of difficulties surrounding a COO appointment at a new science center. A board member who had been an executive at a nearby corporation was appointed CEO and soon hired a COO, necessarily from the private sector because this function was almost unheard of in the museum sector. The other executives reacted negatively to this new player who soon left, having evidently thought that he had a level of seniority between them and the CEO. In addition, his for-profit values seemed incongruent with their mission-advancing values. The conclusions of this HBR article included a need for COOs “to check their egos at the door” and to realize that such positions are “not necessarily in line to receive the kudos for a job well done”.

Recently, as the museum sector has been obliged to think and act in innovative ways, a new genre of restructuring—additional to the rippling effects of downsizing—shows signs of becoming common. In what could be perceived as an approach to transform organizational culture and capabilities, a variety of non-traditional functions are being inserted into the senior management of museums. Compounded by less-than-ideal recruitment approaches due to limitations of online interviews, this step—partly emulating the private sector and partly originating in the museum sector—involves new Chief Fill-in-the-Blank Officer positions which, in alphabetical order, include Commercial, Digital, Diversity, Excellence, Experience, Innovation, People, Strategy, and Technology. Makeba Clay and Cecile Shellman recently remarked on preparing a Chief Diversity Officer (CDO) for success that … each institution must do extensive diagnostic work to identify and analyze their own challenges” and “institutions that believe they are ready for organizational cultural change [may be] unwilling to face the truth about where they are on their journey”. Concerning her former position of Deputy Director of Digital Initiatives and Chief Experience Officer, Shelley Bernstein clarified that such a position is “in charge of an idea”.

Two museum leaders who have shared their views on the applicability, or not, of private sector practices are Robert Janes, formerly of Canada’s Glenbow Museum who spoke at the Smithsonian’s 150th anniversary symposium (see “Don’t lose your nerve: museums and organizational change), and John Wetenhall of The George Washington University Museum and Textile Museum. How the newly-styled Chief Fill-in-the-Blank Officer positions are optimally spliced into the structure of traditional senior functions is an uneasy task for CEOs to coordinate. As museums rethink their management and try to improve morale, what was a prescient recommendation of Dr. Janes may now be the right gearshift: “…a group of people at the top of an organization, with shared responsibilities and clear accountabilities, are developing strategies together, reaching decisions by consensus, and coordinating implementation of these decisions”. He introduced the leadership team concept of primus inter pares, meaning first among equals. Considering the weighty implications of this approach for the conventional reporting protocol between a museum CEO and her/his governing board, I am reminded of what transpired at the above-noted Harvard Business School course. Experimenting with its CEO-only tradition, board chairs were invited to join their CEOs midweek. What had been a collegially productive atmosphere instantly switched into an awkwardly formal atmosphere and the School soon abandoned its new approach.       

Professional Development

With instability around the traditional lone-CEO approach on the rise, the museum sector needs conference sessions focused on restructuring of leadership with insightful, humanly approaches. Meanwhile, it would be valuable for museums to follow trends of thought and practice about leading change across all sectors (some examples of these trends here, here, here, and here). In its 2016 report on human capital trends, Deloitte noted: “92 percent of participants saw a need to redesign their organization to improve employee engagement and retention and build a meaningful culture. This same survey found that 82 percent of respondents see culture as a competitive advantage, driving innovation, customer service, and employee behavior”. Its 2021 report, titled ‘The New Organization: Different by Design’, notes: “The “new organization … is built around highly empowered teams, driven by a new model of management, and led by a breed of younger, more globally diverse leaders”. Clearly, the design of structures and systems for how results are achieved is ripe for optimization.

About the Author

Emlyn Koster, PhD has been the CEO of Canada’s Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology and Ontario Science Centre, Liberty Science Center in NJ, and the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. With the nature and purpose of leadership an ongoing focus, his recognition has also included Humanitarian of the Year by the American Conference on Diversity and founding chair of ICOM’s Anthropocene Working Group.  Current affiliations include the ambassadors circle for the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, adjunct professor in Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at NC State University, and the board of the International Big History Association. He is writing monthly op-ed styles pieces as a guest blogger for RK&A in 2021; find his other posts here.

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1 Response
  1. susan Garrity

    ” Marilyn Ferguson, a guru in the 1980s movement of social and personal transformation, famously observed: “… Each of us guards a gate of change that can only be opened from the inside. We cannot open the gate of another, either by argument or emotional appeal”.

    I agree, let’s open the gate within ourselves.

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