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"Serve First, Lead Second"

November 11, 2013

These words encapsulate the engagement philosophy of the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, one of the case studies found in a new book by Anne Bergeron and Beth Tuttle called Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement. Although the book is written about museums of art, I think the lessons contained within are applicable to any type of nonprofit organization and even some for-profit businesses.

The authors define "engagement" as meaning "connecting one person or thing to another; making a promise, perhaps to meet; entering into an emotional involvement that might lead to marriage; or joining forces, like gears in a machine, to create motion or energy."

To the authors, organizations that prioritize engagement become "magnetic" − they differentiate themselves from the rest of the field and exhibit a powerful ability to attract and retain the capital that is needed to create, develop and deliver superior programs.

Six practices of such institutions are:

  • Building Core Alignment − creating a shared vision, mission and set of goals within the professional staff and board.
  • Embracing 360 Engagement − involving internal and external stakeholders in meaningful experiences that make a difference for both the individual and the institution.
  • Empowering Others − being motivated by a people-first, service-first philosophy that seeks to meet the needs, develop the leadership, and activate the potential of others.
  • Widening the Circle and Inviting the Outside In − operating from a fundamental principle of respect for what others can contribute and personifying openness and inclusion.
  • Becoming Essential − increasing their relevance, responsiveness and value in mission-related ways.
  • Building Trust Through High Performance − having high ambitions and attracting people who are similarly motivated to be the best at what they do.

Each of these six practices forms a section of the book containing a case study and set of six "magnetic tips." For example, the section on Empowering Others includes the following tips:

  • Serve first, lead second. Commit to developing and serving the needs of your people, your partners, your audiences, and your community and leadership will follow.
  • Ensure autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Give people the freedom to decide and then act; provide the necessary training and tools; and make the work meaningful and important.
  • Think like a maestro and conduct rather than control; bring out the best in everyone.
  • Be unequivocal in supporting your staff and volunteers. Applaud initiative and support decisive action whatever the outcomes.
  • Remove barriers to empowerment. Ensure that structures, skills, systems and supervisors support employees.
  • Above all else, show respect and appreciation, again and again.

For Becoming Essential, the authors advise:

  • Turn outward and meet genuine community needs; listen to what people are concerned about and act on what you hear, even if it means changing direction.
  • Find the points of intersection where community needs and organizational mission meet, where collective, strategic action can have impact on large-scale public concerns.
  • Combine "outreach" with "inreach." Help to shape the public agenda and allow the public agenda to shape yours.
  • Be visible and outspoken in the community. Attend and participate in public meetings, share ideas freely, and solicit honest feedback.
  • Deliver on your promises and tell your story of impact in order to shift perception from "nice to necessary."
  • Never assume you have the right to exist or to receive community support. Earn your place in the world.

In conclusion, the authors assert that "putting it all together means nurturing high-performance people to create high-performance organizations." And, following the lessons learned in Magnetic: The Art and Science of Engagement should lead to a more motivated team and more successful organization − no matter what the size or scope of the institution.

What do you think about engagement? Let me know your comments and questions by clicking here and sending us a message. Alternatively, follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimonand comment there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog with friends and colleagues.

P.S. Did you know that museums in the United States employ 400,000 people and contribute over $21 billion to the U.S. economy according to a 2008 study by the American Alliance of Museums?


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