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“You Have to be Comfortable Being Uncomfortable”- One-Line Lessons on Leadership

I will be graduating from the University of Southern California next Friday with my Master of Public Administration (MPA). I am pleased to report that, even with real-world experience prior to entering graduate school, my skill-set has been sharpened and the items in my professional toolbox are polished. I am thrilled to re-enter the workforce and meld my formal and informal experiences in areas of management, evaluation, economics, communications, strategy, and leadership.

Though I’ve done it before, I generally try not to write about my own personal thoughts and experiences. This is because, as my former Program Evaluation professor says, “a sample size of one does not a significant finding make.” Here– and in life– I am going for significant. That said, I think the lessons I’ve learned in graduate school are indeed significant, and I am delighted to share some bite-sized morsels.

…I’m the type of person who takes physical notes in class. I’m also the type of person who holds on tightly to professors’ well-articulated verbal gemstones about leadership, and I tape them shamelessly above my desk at home. Yes, much like eleven-year-olds reserve space on their walls for Justin Bieber posters, I reserve space for phrases like, “The best way to create change is to take away the barriers to change.” It’s nerdy, but I’m a graduate student (for 10 more days…)

Here are my very favorite one-liner lessons from graduate school. A vast majority are attributed to Dr. Robert Myrtle, my professor of Strategic Leadership in Nonprofit Organizations, but there are other key, formative professors’ words here, too, such as Dr. Peter Robertson and Dr. Donald Morgan). I’ve added descriptions were context is need to strengthen the relevance of the quote.

  •  “People who learn quickly have a competitive advantage”  This was a running theme throughout the program. It is an especially key lesson for nonprofits because they’ve developed a reputation for being slow-moving. What this quote does is place an emphasis on the people. The organization can only change if employees can adjust.
  • “Businesses survive on information, not harmony.” This quote packs a personal message to step out of our comfort zone. Bringing up new ideas, challenging sector boundaries, and asking questions helps organizations and businesses stretch their thinking and gain information. It is through collection of that information that organizations can grow to their potential.
  • “You have to be comfortable being uncomfortable” You have to take risks to be a good leader. The idea here is that if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not growing or reaching. If you aren’t growing and you are running operations in an organization, than the organization isn’t growing either.
  • “People who emerge as leaders are people who can manage change.” one professor reminded us that “nobody is going to change unless they see the need for change.” A good leader, he explained, is someone who sees the need, communicates it effectively, creates buy-in, and manages the change.
  • “Master the little things in relationships, because the unaddressed details– like who will do the dishes– will sink you.” This wasn’t just marriage advice dispensed by a professor. It was strategic management advice (and life advice, too). The idea of a partnership or collaboration sounds dandy in many situations. Unfortunately, our professor explained, many higher-ups leave the details dangling without clear direction as to who takes care of issues and how the partnership should be effectively handled by the organizations. Mastering the details is critical.
  • Treat people like they are valued, and they will be valuable.” This was said in regard to managing and leading teams, though I think it stands on its own.
  • “You must find the option that all parties hate equally.” This is about compromising and coming up with new solutions to meet stakeholder’s needs. Finding solutions that all stakeholders love is not very realistic in the public and nonprofit sectors. Also, if the quote was “you must find the option that both parties like equally,” then you’d never remember it. This quote also plays off of our program emphasis on Getting to Yes, a great book on compromise and creative solutions.
  • “Coopetition is when competitors collaborate” There are over 7,000 nonprofits in Los Angeles alone and many of these organizations have similar missions. Coopetition is a word that comes up a lot in classes in regard to strategically managing resources, but also putting a priority on maintaining a competitive advantage. Nonprofits must be able to both work together to accomplish a mission, and also to stand alone.
  • “Thou shalt not B.S. myself.” Organizational strengths only count as strengths if they are seen in the eyes of customers, donors, competitors, and constituents.  I like this quote, though, because it seems to be true of individual strengths as well.
  • “Social capital builds intellectual capital” In the information age, it takes people and connectivity to generate ideas and intelligence. Social relationships lead to new-age innovation.
  • “You need your followers more than they need you.” Leaders aren’t leaders if they don’t have followers and supporters. Achieving great things takes buy-in and participation.
  • “You get power by giving it away.” Don’t keep opportunity for yourself. Having power often means having opportunities and power to give to others.
  • “We all succeed or none of us succeeds…” This is not a quote from class, but a quote from A Dream For One World by Segev Perets, which we read in a class.  Though it would be an outrageous stretch to say that MPA’s run entirely on public service motivation, the desire to effectively carry out a meaningful mission that empowers constituents was a prevalent and key motivator for my classmates. It was the tie that binded us and a thing that we all seemed to understand.
I’m grateful to have learned an incredible amount of information in graduate school these last two years. These quotes don’t even begin to scratch the surface, but they are quick tidbits that I’ll carry with me into my next professional endeavour.
Posted on by colleendilen in Leadership, Management, Nonprofits, Public Management, Public Service Motivation, Social Change, Words of Wisdom 6 Comments

Museum Accessibility: Are Museum Professionals Sending the Right Signals?

Getting this post via e-mail? Click here to see the video.

Check out this video above, which I discovered thanks to Jennifer Souers of MuseoBlogger. Whether you work in a museum or not, it’s sure to bring a little smile to your face– not a warm and cuddly, feel-good smile– but a it’s-funny-because-it’s-true kind of smile. But this little video gives museum professionals something interesting to think about as well.

Sometimes it takes somebody outside of our niche to show us how our tribe/institution/industry is perceived, and this video can provide some insight for folks working in museums and cultural nonprofit organizations. For better or worse, this video shows us how museums and museum professionals are perceived. We must ask ourselves: is this how we want our professions and institutions to be viewed?

Below are some red-flags that emerged for me while watching the video. I’ll call them ‘misconceptions,’ though it could be argued by some that these are not misconceptions at all. If museums are increasingly becoming places for community, let’s make it clear.  If we want folks to be sure these things are misconceptions of museum professionals then let’s do what we can to prove it.


Misconception #1: Museum professionals are nothing like normal people. Kim the cat says, “Chances are, the museum people who decide what gets to be put in the museum probably don’t have anything in common with you.” I laughed at this because museum professionals (administrators, scientists, exhibit designers, researchers) often try hard to be accessible to the public, despite their often-vast knowledge of very particular subjects. (High levels of education is what Kim seems to identify as the leading barrier between museum staff and visitor). It’s a funny statement, but it also means that museum professionals, despite their efforts, aren’t doing their jobs right because their professional backgrounds can create a disconnect. Building upon the growing sense of community that museums are currently nursing may improve this, as well as incorporating accessible and engaging on-site professionals that can tell a personal story or two. Lesson: If museum professionals want their displays to exhibit accessibility, then museum professionals must be accessible themselves.


Misconception #2: Museum professionals think visitors can’t handle context. Kim says,”Blank walls are good so that the visitors won’t have to deal with too much context or history.” There are some valid reasons why museum professionals keep the walls blank. For instance, to draw attention to the formal elements of the art. However, when a visitor comes across an object and little context is provided, it can produce a negative effect. As the video hints, one effect is the notion that museum professionals draw academic boundaries to make themselves and the objects they display inaccessible. Moreover, in the video Kim points out that museums tell the community what to think.  In this era of new technologies and social media, some museums are aiming to allow visitors to be their own curators. Lesson: In order to increase accessibility, museum professionals should provide enough context that visitors may draw their own conclusions and connect to the object in a meaningful way on their own.


Misconception #3: Museum professionals fuzzy up concepts such as value and importance in order to appear authoritative. The video does more than hint that it’s unclear how museum professionals determine importance and value in regard to museum exhibits (namely, deciding what goes into the museum and what stays out). Perhaps professionals are fuzzy in communicating this process because cultural gatekeeping isn’t completely understood on the whole. Kim simply advises museum professionals to use tidy and sharp labels, and only use language that sounds academic, “otherwise, the authority effect won’t be so convincing.” By including enough context, making scientists and historians personally accessible, and allowing visitors to draw their own conclusions in regard to objects, only some of this misconception could be corrected. Lesson: Museum professionals must be communicative in regards to the exhibit design and creation process by explaining decisions that affect how the ‘story’ is presented.


Misconception #4: The work of museum professionals is about the objects. This video talks a lot about object-worship, and introduces the museum as a place that houses important things. In some ways, this is true– but museums tend to be fueled by ideas, theories, symbols, and a greater notion of sparking and expanding education, rather than objects themselves. This misconception makes sense: museums take great care to preserve and display objects because of what the objects represent. To call a museum a place of things is right- but also wrong. Museums’ missions are most often about ideas, and the objects are meaningful symbols of important stories. Lesson: Museum professionals must emphasize the stories and lessons that objects symbolize or represent– rather than focus on the object itself, as that appears irrelevant (because it’s missing context).


Misconception #5: Museum professionals only care about the wealthy. If this isn’t a misconception, then it should be. Kim the cat says, “At first I thought there must be some law against having poor people on a museum’s Board of Trustees, but then later I found out that actually there isn’t any law like this. This is just the way they like to do it.” What’s missing here is an explanation: the Board often secures significant funding, and the wealthy attract other wealthy folks who can give to the museum and help keep its doors open. But with or without the explanation, it’s still a telling and jarringly true statement. Many museums are placing more focus on diversity, and are arguably gearing themselves away from a white, upper-middle class visitor and donor base. There’s a lot of work to be done (3 of 17 of the top 25 most visited museums in the US are run by men. Over half have PhDs indicating that many have similar academic backgrounds). Lesson: In order for museums to connect to communities, it may help to have a Board and staff that match the community demographic. Or rather, having an all-wealthy and homogeneous Board can be off-putting for visitors who do not fit that bill.


Misconception #6: Museum professionals are magical masters of time-freeze and corps display. Do museum people fight nature every day, as Kim states in the video? Maybe– and it’s probably not a terrible misconception either. Museum professionals certainly go above and beyond to preserve objects that tell important stories about culture and the world around us. However, this time-freezing becomes wrapped up in Kim’s little paper, “An illustration of how everything in a museum is something like a corpse.” Museums are certainly doing a great many things to remain relevant and to shatter the notion that museums are merely houses for old, irrelevant things. However, the old stereotype lives on. Lesson: Old habits die hard, and despite recent efforts, it will take a lot of collaboration, forward-thinking, and community engagement for museums to break away from past reputations.

But it will be well worth the effort.

Posted on by colleendilen in Uncategorized 3 Comments

7 (Surprisingly Difficult) Things to Consider When Applying to Grad School


My graduate school application process is over. The tests are long since taken, applications long since sent out, my program selected, and my financial aid secured. I’ve relocated to my new city and I begin student orientation next week.

It’s no surprise that applying to graduate school is a long process, and it involves a lot of big decisions. Should I go back to school? When? What kind of degree should I pursue? Location, costs, funding, rankings, requirements, curriculum– these are all important things to consider when applying to and choosing a graduate school. For a self-starting individual with a keen sense of her professional needs, though, these should be easy questions to answer, right? Well, no. They weren’t.

Here’s insight into the road I traveled during my graduate school application process–the decisions and ideas that stopped me dead in my tracks, challenged my personal and professional goals, and paved the way into a new chapter in my life.

I’ll begin with possibly the most important decision of all:

1) Decide if you want to go to graduate school or not.

Because I’d long since realized that I’d like to go back to school– and for good reasons– this decision didn’t cause me much strife during the application process. My words of wisdom? Just make sure you aren’t thinking about going back to school for the wrong reasons.

The initial kicker for me, aside from wanting to soak up resourceful ideas and be immersed in this specialized community, was the fact that every single higher-level position opening of interest to me required a masters degree or above. I work in nonprofit organizations– museums, mostly– and these environments value education (though I wouldn’t go as far as to argue that one absolutely needs an advanced degree to be a leader in this industry). Whether or not you decide to pursue an advanced degree is entirely up to you. There are several reasons to go back to school, to wait, or not go back at all.

2) Pick a degree.

The fact that this is a staggeringly obvious step in the application process did not make this decision easier for me. Why wasn’t it easy? Because success doesn’t have only one concrete path (and in my opinion, it’s a good thing it doesn’t or we’d have very several similar and rather boring leaders). I knew what I wanted to do long term, I just wasn’t sure how to get there in terms of a graduate degree.

I picked my degree very shortly after deciding that I wanted to go back to school. I strongly considered degrees in public affairs, museum studies, art administration, or even pursuing an MBA.  Though, admittedly, museum studies and art administration were initially sexier areas of study for me, I picked public affairs for a few (in my opinion) very good reasons which relate to my own professional goals (which I will significantly over-simplify here). First, I know much more about museums and art administration than I do about public affairs, and public affairs– providing specializations in nonprofit management– would provide me with the skills and government knowledge required to lead public institutions- regardless of if they are science museums or art centers. Second, a Master of Public Administration is considered an advanced professional degree rather than an academic masters degree. And according to this article, the type of degree really does make a difference in compensation over a lifetime. It states that an individual earning a professional degree can expect an average of 4.4 million dollars in his or her lifetime, more than any other type of degree (more than a doctorate)! Could an M.P.A. recipient–with that “P” standing for Public (as in, the public sector) really be comparable in income to the degree’s private sector counterpart– the M.B.A recipient (which is considered a similar type of professional degree)?  No. It’s not as comparable as the article suggests. In fact, the average for-profit CEO makes 27 times more money than the average nonprofit CEO.  All the same, the more research I did, the more I realized which program was right for my interest in public institutions.

3) Choose programs that fit your needs and apply.

Understandably, the first step in going about this is deciding what your practical needs are and what interests you most about your general degree program. For some people, location is very important because they don’t want to relocate. For others, the ability to have part-time status is important because they’ll be maintaining a full-time job. As a potential full-time student, I cared most about two things: quality of the program and proximity to several high-quality cultural centers.

Identifying these two priorities helped me through the program-weeding and decision-making process, but with so many other factors to consider, they certainly didn’t make the process easy. Remaining true to my desire to attend a high quality program, I studied up on and applied to seven of the top schools on the first page of this list that matched my interests, met my needs, and would be ideal programs for me. I don’t think that rankings are by any means the only important factor in choosing a graduate school. What I mean to say, rather, is that I knew what was important to me and this list provided the framework for who to contact and where to look in order to find an institution that fit my needs. There were several things that contributed to my final decision, but this more specialized list ended up playing a role in the end because I found that after I had narrowed my options to my four favorites, only one of the four was on this list. I choose that school. Lesson: in the end, I reverted back to my initial needs/priorities to make the big decision.

4) Consider location.

Where’s the mecca for your industry, and are you considering relocating to a school in this area? By far the hardest decision that I had to make was choosing between going to graduate school in Washington D.C. or Los Angeles. I was considering L.A. because the programs at USC and UCLA matched my interests and background more closely than similar programs in D.C. So what was the problem? D.C. is a hot-spot of nonprofit activity, and some of my favorite young nonprofit leaders live in this city. Moreover, six of America’s 25 most visited museums– including the top three most visited museums in the country– are in DC.  What’s a concerned applicant to do? Do I choose the higher-ranked program with the connections or the city with the connections? Because the museums in L.A. are simply one-of-a-kind, and there’s no denying that there are several kick-butt institutions in D.C, it was a tough choice.

5) Now think about location again.

I had to think about location twice. Once in the decision-making process and again while preparing to take action on my decision. Regardless of where you choose to go, you’ll have to think about how it’s different than the city in which you currently live. I spent the last two years as an advocate of green practices (read: walking)  in the not-as-diverse-as-L.A. city of Seattle. I didn’t need a car, and my five years of Spanish speaking skills were slipping away. Embarrassingly, it was not until I moved to Los Angeles that I realized the full extent to which I need a mode of transportation and how much more beneficial I can be to the community if I brush up on my Spanish (seeing as I’m interested in community engagement and would like to participate in a hands-on capacity). Though I wouldn’t have done anything differently, these realizations provided interesting, “Oh yeah, that’s right…” moments in my first few weeks in my new city.

6) Understand that your position within the industry will be different when you’re in school.

Even without having started school, I’ve already learned that my position within the industry is different than it was before I left my full-time job. I was scared of losing my career title, too. Perhaps it was just natural human loss aversion at play. All of my networks now read “student” and it’s a strange adjustment. But to be honest, it’s nice to have a time period in my adult career where I can reflect upon the workings of the industry as a whole. I feel like I’ve gone from artist to art critic. Even in this simple mind-adjustment, I’ve learned quite a bit.

7) Decide how you’ll stay involved in your industry while enrolled in your program.

This makes the list because, as an applicant and now a new student, this is always on my mind. Experience is one of the most important things in a job applicant.  Here are ten ways to become a better nonprofit leader, and most of these items can be done by a full-time student in order to remain involved in the industry at large while in school. This is not to mention all of the great communities and organizations that graduate school offers.  I haven’t begun school yet and already I’ve been contacted by several university-run organizations within my field of interest. As a full-time student, I may only have about 30 hours a week to work or volunteer. I refuse to let this fact hinder my involvement with the museum community within Los Angeles. I’ll keep you posted on these developments. Also, I’d love to learn your methods for staying on top of your game while in school.

There are a lot of other interesting things to learn from applying to grad school and in preparing for classes. Relearning math for the GREs, tracking several programs at once, talking to recent program graduates, weighing financial aid packages (heck, just applying for financial aid packages) leaving an incredible full-time job, and moving out of a great city were all formative experiences for me.

I’m curious to know if your experiences are/were similar and what advice you would share with individuals currently taking part in the application process. Despite being hammered into the minds of potential applicants, I think this complicated process of life choices must be different for everyone.

Posted on by colleendilen in Education, Graduate school 6 Comments

3 Important Lessons I Learned at my First Full-Time Nonprofit/Museum Job

pacsciAt the end of May, I left my first full-time nonprofit job to spend the Summer with loved ones before starting graduate school in the Fall.

I worked at Pacific Science Center in Seattle for almost two years as the Special Events Coordinator. I developed, planned, and executed over 45 special events to enhance community engagement for visitors. The job was thrilling and unique; I served as the ringleader for hundreds of talented and often unusual exhibitors, vendors, and visiting scientists with incredible abilities to ignite initial sparks of science interest in children and adults.

When Ian Sefferman wrote the post “Leaving Amazon: What I Learned over the Last Four Years,” it made me reflect upon the career-shaping lessons I learned at my own innovative workplace. I would like to share the three most important lessons that I learned at Pacific Science Center. They are not the biggest lessons (those are regarding professional environments, the way nonprofits are run, and how a museum behaves during an economic recession), but rather the lessons I learned at Pacific Science Center that fundamentally changed the way that I think about projects and day-to-day life in a museum/nonprofit environment.

1. (Take a Moment to) Embrace the Messy Middle

I’ll credit Hammerstein for the decent and catchy advice he bestowed upon youngsters, urging them to “start at the very beginning; a very good place to start.” While it may be true that the beginning is a good place to start, I’ve learned that the middle is the best place to start– at least when tackling a complex problem in a museum/nonprofit environment.

When presented with a task (or in my case, an upcoming event), I was given the basic who/what/where/when information needed to do my job… along with a comprehensive collection of big and small ideas; specific details and vast generalizations passed along through the pipeline. It was my job to take these often-ambiguous ideas and specific details and make everything work.

I discovered quickly that my best events were produced when I wasn’t afraid to immediately lay all of the information out on the table and embrace the mess. That is starting in the middle; taking a moment to wade through the great creative vomit of good and bad ideas, resources, connections, partnership details, long-shots, and no-brainers for the project, and look at them all together.  Yes, this can be an overwhelming way to approach a project in the beginning, but I was constantly surprised by the new ideas and community partnerships that resulted from a good hour of continuous, multi-page brain-mapping. Accepting this moment to embrace the mess at all stages of project coordinating kept me constantly in perspective, and enabled me to maximize creativity in each event. More than anything, it reminded me that projects are often composed of moving parts, and it’s important not to get too wrapped up in specific details or too-big-ideas in the beginning. As hard as it may seem, the meat is in the middle and starting from there can keep you both open-minded and detail oriented— and it provided a terrific framework for my own good ideas to surface

2. Know the Cards You Hold

I’ll start with a story: Only two months after I started working at Pacific Science Center, I began planning our annual week-long holiday event for the public.  Remaining true to the traditional planning process of past coordinators and managers, I began calling science-related entertainers across the state to see just how much it would cost for them to give up their holiday break in the name of science education… Then the single most embarrassing Strike Of Obvious hit me: Why am I calling these people? Pacific Science Center offers some of the very best science education programs in the entire state! My manager and I proposed a re-creation and rebranding of the event in the form of a ten-day science celebration called Science Extravaganza that highlighted Pacific Science Center’s own incredible talent and resources. We saved thousands of dollars, showed off our own programs, bumped up the morale of our own departments, and attracted a record-setting 25,338 visitors during the event– just by being ourselves.

If you skipped the story, start here: That’s the moment I discovered the extreme importance of knowing the cards that you hold; you probably have more than you think. I made an effort to learn the talents of coworkers and volunteers– and it paid off. I was thrilled to learn of coworkers who were part-time magicians, kite designers, or astronomy experts– and we utilized these folks in events. These examples may sound unique to my workplace, and perhaps they are, but it’s not much different than knowing who in the office is the best copy-editor or fax-machine-fixer.

Despite my silly story, if it wasn’t the way that Pacific Science Center always was, then it certainly became a place of incredible resourcefulness and versatility in my eyes throughout the last two years. There seemed to be absolutely nothing that couldn’t be achieved when combining the unique talents of our staff members… I just had to piece it together. It’s no secret that connections can provide you with incredible opportunities, but I’m grateful that I learned that lesson before even leaving the institution.

3. Remember to (Always)  Learn Something

If you reach a point in your job when you believe that you’ve been a victim of some 80-20 rule (In this case, 80% of everything you need to know to do your job, you learned in the first 20% of your time there), then I charge you to prove yourself wrong: Every day, write down one thing that you’ve learned.

It’s easy to be conscious of learning in the beginning, especially if it’s your first full-time nonprofit or museum job! Each day is filled to the brim with lessons, from the name of the woman working in Accounts Payable to discovering the way that information is dispersed and tasks are delegated. Once you know these things, though, it sometimes gets hard to see the less obvious (but just as important) lessons. I kept a journal of the things that I learned every day and it was never hard to find something. I began actively looking for that daily lesson, and when I was aware of lessons, there was never just one. And keeping my eyes open for lessons increased my positivity! Here’s a memo from the bright side: the worst days often have the best lessons.

When you think of each lesson as a gift for later or a thing you can improve upon now, then it makes lesson-searching exciting– not to mention extremely beneficial in the long run.

Posted on by colleendilen in Lessons Learned, Museums, Nonprofits, The Small Stuff, Words of Wisdom 1 Comment