The Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem, Massachusetts, is one of the nation’s top 20 art museums, in terms of gallery space and collections—with more than 840,000 works of art and some 400,000 books and manuscripts in its two libraries. Under Director and CEO Dan L. Monroe, PEM has achieved a national reputation for its adventurous programming.
Isaacson, Miller has been helping PEM build its leadership team for more than two decades.
This past summer, IM’s Jack Gorman sat down for a far-ranging conversation with PEM Director Dan L. Monroe and Chief Philanthropy Officer Amanda Clark MacMullan. Excerpts from that conversation follow.
JG: So, Dan—[Isaacson, Miller’s] Karen Wilcox recruited you here, right?
DM: That’s right. In 1992.
JG: And in 2014, I worked with Dan to recruit Amanda, and now we’re working with Amanda to fill some roles. So it struck me that there’s an interesting story here about long-term relationships, and getting to know an organization, and helping an organization recruit leadership.
It would also be great to capture Dan’s vision for PEM, and how assembling a strong team helps Dan achieve that vision.
ACM: Starting with the current search: I’ve been really impressed with the candidates you’ve turned up for us, Jack. They’re not necessarily obvious candidates, but just considering them seriously helps us break through our preconceptions.
For example, we had looked at one candidate, and I was sure she wasn’t right. But your team asked me some really good questions, and got me to put aside the prejudices that I’ve accumulated from experience. As a result, we brought the person back in, and that second round was terrific.
JG: Well, it starts with understanding the assignment, right? Understanding what our clients are looking for, what they’re hoping to achieve, and how they’re going to measure success. Then we have to find the candidates who not only have the skill set and experience to meet those challenges, but who will also be a good fit with the culture of the organization.
DM: And, of course, there are different needs at different times. But I think this whole challenge is underestimated by new leaders. Many people think you can just come in and work with whomever happens to be there to take the institution this way or that. But that’s naive. The truth is, you have to build a central core of people who not only have the necessary capabilities, but whose values are aligned with where you’re trying to move the institution.
As it turns out, that’s really among the most difficult of challenges. First of all, the standard ways that we evaluate people are often very flawed, no matter who happens to be doing that evaluation. And second, in many cases, you’re not just hiring one person, but you’re putting together the whole team that can move you forward—and that’s particularly important if you’re going some place out of the ordinary. So it’s really a central component of institutional success, in my view, and it’s a very dicey process.
In my experience, a good search firm helps, first, by actually being able to listen to what you need. That sounds very simple, but it can be quite difficult. What’s the ambience of this place? What do people value, what do they know, and what can they do? In many cases, people can’t actually do very much with what they know.
Search firms that are focused on what people value, what they know, and what they can do are really not that common, yet they can make a huge difference in the success of a search. And I should underscore that, as Amanda said, a good search firm takes you outside of your normal networks. That’s key.
ACM: Absolutely, yeah. When we first started recruiting on the development side, I thought, “Well, I’ve been at this a long time; I can just go to my LinkedIn network and riffle through my Rolodex.” But the fact is, Jack, your team has led us to consider candidates that we haven’t met before, and who aren’t necessarily looking for work. And because your team is really effective at talking about the pluses of the job, people who are already sitting in high-level jobs are willing to come and talk with us. That’s been great.
JG: Well, I tell my team that when it comes to development, we really need to mirror the market that we’re serving. In other words, we do what our fundraising clients do: we identify, we prospect, and we cultivate.
ACM: Yes, exactly.
JG: And let’s not forget, Amanda, that we had many conversations before you joined here. You initially turned me down.
DM: You did? [Laughs]
ACM: Well, yeah, but that’s a long story!
JG: But we stayed in touch. And that’s key. I tell my team we’re not in a transactional business. Building relationships with our clients and our candidates over the long term is really the key to our success.
ACM: A big part of it is simply timing—where the candidate is at a particular point in time, and where the institution is. Because the first time that you spoke with me, I was totally ensconced where I was, up to my eyeballs. But you kept in touch, and the second go-round was the right moment. So you’re right—it is a lot like development work, in that way.
JG: And let’s not underestimate the client’s role in all this. When you and I were working together, Dan, we were in contact all the time, and you made it clear that you were willing to meet with candidates one-on-one, before they went through a whole cast of interviews. A client who’s engaged, and will put the time in, is key.
ACM: I’m now remembering, Jack, that you prepped me for my conversations up here very well. You described PEM and Dan perfectly. You described Dan to a tee—as a visionary leader—and you also warned me that Dan might ask some unusual questions, and that I should just roll with it.
You probably don’t remember this, Dan, but one of your lines of questioning was, “What do you think art is? What’s an art object?” And another was, “What are you reading right now?” We wound up talking for hours. By the way, I use that question—the one about reading—in my own interviews now.
DM: It’s true; I do try to dig a little deeper in the interview setting. That’s purposeful. One of the things we’ve tried to do over the last several years is to move away from a sole focus on the competencies that are required for the particular position, and to broaden the focus to include other issues that are critically important to someone being successful here. So, yeah, I’m very interested in the whole broad spectrum of your interests. I mean, what do you do with yourself? What are your particular intellectual interests? Where do you spend your time?
It’s one way of pushing on creativity, which can be very difficult to get your arms around. If you ask unorthodox questions, you can start to get a sense of what makes people tick, and how creative they are. If they come in through a good search firm, you can assume that they have the core competencies. What really separates people, in terms of performance, is what is going on with them above and beyond those core competencies.
JG: At Isaacson, Miller, we have our own version of that, which really started with what John Isaacson called the “biographical interview.” It’s less about the career and more about getting to know the person. Why they made certain choices early. Challenges they’ve faced, and how they dealt with them.
I was interviewing a candidate recently who told me very quickly that she hadn’t yet closed a $50 million or $100 million gift. But I said, “Hey, start from the beginning. Tell me your story.” And I learned from that conversation that this was somebody who was resilient and optimistic, who could face challenges head-on, and who could find a path through the woods. And so while she may not be the strongest candidate in terms of her gift experience, I actually think she’s going to be able to work with that client very effectively, and deal with the challenges that she’s going to face.
DM: That’s interesting, and it illustrates the value-added of a good search firm. Look, I simply don’t do that stuff day in and day out. Like anything else, if you’re constantly immersed in it, you acquire a distinctive set of capabilities, and insights into people, that you wouldn’t otherwise have. And the truth is, not that many people are actually all that good at interviewing people.
And to expand on what’s been said before, the good search firm presents the institution in a way that is consistent with the institution’s mission, but at the same time, addresses some of the complexities and idiosyncrasies of the place. I mean, Jack, I’m sure you talk about this place in a different way than I do, and that adds dimensions that the candidate needs to hear. Sure, you’re always our advocate, but not blindly so. And there’s a tremendous amount of value in that, actually.
ACM: Getting back to the subject of values, Jack, I do think that Isaacson, Miller is very values-oriented. The values of the firm come through consistently with the way that your folks work with us. It’s very respectful, and it conveys that you’re trustworthy. It’s really important that we can speak with real candor—both about our institution, and about the candidates we meet. And it’s often very delicate information, with a lot of nuance.
Your process is very circumspect, thoughtful, and careful. It’s not the sort of slap-bang approach that you get with some search firms, where you feel like they’re salespeople, driving through with volume, focused on the transaction. As I said, this is more nuanced, and principled. It has a different feel.
JG: Well, thank you. It may sound self-evident, but it’s worth saying—you have to treat people well, and with respect.
DM: You asked earlier about the challenges inherent in leading a place like PEM. In the art museum world, there’s no particular training for being a director. You just show some ambition and some capability, here and there, and suddenly somebody decides, “Hey, you get a shot at being a director!”
And if you’re honest with yourself, at that point, you admit that the amount you don’t know is really stunning. Now, a lot of people in that situation start off by changing structure. But of course, structure really has very, very little to do with organizational dynamics and performance. Again, it’s a fit between the individual’s values and the organization’s culture. PEM, for example, isn’t a good place for somebody who wants things to be highly regularized. There’s always churn. There’s constant change. Strategies are put in place, and then strategies are taken apart because we decide that we can do better.
My point is, the leader is learning as he or she goes. The institution is evolving in response. A certain sort of person loves that, while other people find that’s not the environment in which they can do their best work. So for the search firm to understand those dynamics is extremely important, I think—and you guys do it very well.
A second challenge is contextual. Art museums, whether they recognize it or not, are in the midst of a major transition period. There has been a 20 percent decline in attendance at American art museums over the last two decades. The truth is, we have to come to grips with the fact that the core art museum experience isn’t necessarily great, as evidenced by the vast majority of Americans who choose not to take part in it.
We also have to come to grips with the fact that information drives cultural evolution. Every two days, around the globe, we’re producing the equivalent of about 250,000 Libraries of Congresses’ worth of information—equaling the sum total of all information humans have generated since homo sapiens emerged as a species! And as the volume of information increases dramatically, it also increases the speed of cultural change and complexity. This is true for all enterprises, businesses, and organizations. The amount of time that you had to adapt to a changing environment 20 or 25 years ago was vastly greater than the amount of time you have today.
Meanwhile, how much time are people spending acquiring information now? And it turns out the average, in America, is seven hours a day. In other words, 42 percent of the average American’s waking hours are spent acquiring and processing digital information. But unlike information, time, energy, and attention don’t increase exponentially. They’re all fixed.
What are the implications of all these things for art museums? Well, one of them is, that, hey, there is dramatically less time available for people to do anything in their life, and there are unlimited distractions, you know? So all of that implies that the art museum needs to change fundamentally. And at least for us at PEM, that means that you’d better be really quick on your feet, and you’d better be trying a lot of new things constantly. The single riskiest strategy we could possibly embrace would be to try to hold on to the status quo.
So going back to the beginning of the discussion, we’re looking for people who find this kind of circumstance fun, exciting, stimulating, and creativity-inspiring. As opposed to somebody who’s thinking to themself, “What the hell am I doing here? Who are these people?” [Laughs]
One last thought: The talent, capability, values, and creativity of the people in an organization are what define that institution. Sure, you need the money, the facilities, and—in our case—the collections. But it all boils down to the people. And unfortunately, in many institutions, that often isn’t as clear as it ought to be. Here we try to make it clear.
JG: Thank you, Dan and Amanda. It’s been fun.