An Interview with Darren Macfee, Museum Roundtable Facilitator
Interviewed by Mary Maher
|Darren Macfee’s career began in fundraising as the director of development at a regional rehabilitation hospital. In 2006, he entered the museum field as the executive director of the Lincoln Children’s Museum (Nebraska). In 2012 he struck out on his own as an independent consultant, focusing on strategy, governance, and leadership. He assumed leadership of the Museum Director Roundtables from John and Anita Durel in 2018 when they retired.|
The Museum Director Roundtables were started in 1999 by the Durels. Their format was based on that of groups of fitness club owners who, under the leadership of John Durel’s colleague and mentor Will Phillips, would get together and share best practices.
Each Roundtable is comprised of eight to ten executive directors or CEOs of geographically diverse museums of all types—children’s museums, history museums, science centers, and art museums. Pre-, and hopefully soon post-COVID, members convene three times a year in a chosen city where for three days they discuss topics central to effectively running a museum: leadership, management, governance, strategy and fundraising. Between meetings, groups meet virtually for updates on progress, friendly accountability check-ins, and problem-solving. Additionally, members commonly email their group with help for solving prickly issues.
For more than twenty years, this fee-based professional development group has been a model of supporting leaders as they navigate the ups and downs of the nonprofit world of children’s museums. In this past COVID year, Roundtable methods, resources, and open communications offered another lifeline to member museum directors as they wrestled with unprecedented challenges.
When I initially met John Durel, he told me he was considering recruiting a group of museum directors to form a Roundtable—really, a think tank. I immediately said, “Count me in.” I had benefitted from a similar situation when I was a school board president working with a “board presidency consultant” and other school board presidents across the U.S. I learned so very much from the guidance of that group. Peer support and networking is a real motivator for leaders. Being part of the Roundtable was transformational for me.Julia Bland, Louisiana Children’s Museum
MAHER: The Durels began Museum Roundtable groups in 1999. You joined as a museum director in 2006, and became the facilitator in 2018. What perspective do you bring to today’s Roundtable groups?
MACFEE: The Durels are a tough act to follow, but I bring a slightly different perspective. John was far more knowledgeable than I in the technical side of museums such as collections management, curation, and programming; Anita was very focused on fundraising. I’m a big proponent of what writer Patrick Lencioni, author of The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, calls “team health.” He cites a difference between a “smart” organization and a “healthy” one. Smart organizations work on strategy, marketing, finance, technology. “Healthy” organizations do all of that and create an employee experience that minimizes politics and confusion and maximizes morale and productivity, leading to less staff turnover. Team health can and should be applied to boards as well.
MAHER: Were there differences in what museum leaders needed from a professional development group twenty years ago and what they need today?
MACFEE: I look at what’s the same as opposed to what’s different. But there are obvious external changes, like the growth of the internet. In the late 2000s at the children’s museum, we kept our wi-fi password a secret. We didn’t allow visitors network access because we wanted them to spend time with their kids with no distractions. That’s much less common these days.
There has been a lot of research in the past ten years on the “softer side” of organizational management. We know so much more about how brains work, how adults can reprogram their own neural networks and learn new things. Leaders can learn to change and modify the way they run their organizations creating a great environment in which staff can do great work.
MAHER: Tell us a little bit more about the softer side of organizational management.
MACFEE: Back in the ’90s, when I was in business school, business management was all about hard metrics, like the cost of materials and cash turnover. Employee engagement and job satisfaction, once viewed as “soft” measurements, are taken much more seriously now because we realize they actually matter a great deal.
For instance, to be successful, employees need to know their work has purpose, be able to measure whether or not they’re doing good work, and have autonomy over some part of the work. Purpose is easy. If you work in a children’s museum and you can’t get a sense of what the organization is trying to accomplish or how you’re contributing to a better world, then you’re probably in the wrong spot. Measurement is a little more difficult. For example, how do you know you’re doing a good job as a floor staff person? Is it keeping the museum exhibits clean? Interacting with guests? Facilitating play? Museum leaders have to define what constitutes a good job, and once an employee is clear on this, they should be given some autonomy to do it.
MAHER: When the Roundtables started, what needs were they fulfilling among members of the groups?
MACFEE: Museum leaders were looking for somebody who could appreciate the nuances of serving as a director of a nonprofit organization. They wanted a sounding board to talk about things like board issues or creating an environment where staff can be successful.
MAHER: What are today’s Roundtable groups like?
MACFEE: We purposely gather a broad cross-section of museums. Groups evolve. New people come in all the time, while some of the longest members have been in for over ten years. Some decide it isn’t for them and move on. The first Roundtable member was Julia Bland, executive director of the Louisiana Children’s Museum, and she remained a member for nineteen years.
MAHER: How do the Roundtable groups decide what to talk about? Is there a curriculum or a content plan?
MACFEE: We generally focus our discussions on the five critical competencies of a chief executive, which are: 1) good governance (everything about working with a board); 2) staff (organizational culture and engagement); 3) fundraising (a big focus for most museums); 4) community leadership (institutional visibility in the community); and recently, 5) DEAI (diversity, equity, access, inclusion). In addition, members suggest topics or things just come up at the meetings that members would like to talk or learn more about. So, between meetings I locate resources or prepare presentations to be on the agenda next time. Discussions are responsive to what the members say they need.
No topic is off limits. For example, one of the things people are talking about now is how to deal with burnout. People have been really stressed and challenged to keep things together, and now they need a respite in order to recover. But now, museums are reopening and trying to get back to normal, which requires fresh stores of energy. So, we’re talking about how to maintain energy and enthusiasm among an already burnt out staff.
MAHER: Do members bring nuts-and-bolts issues or thorny problems to hash out with the group?
MACFEE: Yes, the prepared topics mentioned above probably take up about two-thirds of the time at an in-person retreat. Then we reserve time for troubleshooting. You give people time in the hot seat where they say, “This is my challenge.” Then the group addresses it and gives them ideas for moving forward. The Roundtable meeting framework has been in place for more than twenty years, but once the pandemic hit, we devoted almost all of our time to rapid-response troubleshooting. Now, as we’re slowly re-emerging in 2021, there’s less attention on urgent problems and a return to thinking in bigger terms about ongoing professional development.
MAHER: Museum directors’ primary focus is usually on how to make their museums succeed. How much do museum leaders feel comfortable sharing and how much do they hold back? How do you deal with collaboration vs. competition among group members?
MACFEE: One difference between the Roundtable model and the other affinity groups discussed in this issue of Hand to Hand is how we bring new members into the group. When someone expresses an interest in joining, we look at the possibility of their museum being in competition with other group members. For example, including directors from two different art museums in the same city would not produce the optimal group mix. Competition for audience share or fundraising is not as big a concern as competition for board members, which can be fierce. The short list of people within a particular geographic region who make ideal board members often means that multiple organizations are competing for the same people. But once Roundtable groups are formed, trust takes over and there’s no holding back. We don’t aim to be matchmakers, but if collaborations emerge, that is frosting on the cake.
MAHER: How do people join a Roundtable?
MACFEE: They come through referrals from other members. This isn’t by design, we’re not trying to be exclusive, but broad-based, outbound marketing has not been effective at getting new members. It’s partly the nature of the business: people don’t usually reach out until something is wrong. Referrals come after somebody calls somebody they know for help. Maybe they remember a session presenter from InterActivity or recall a colleague’s story of how someone in the field helped them with a particular problem. So, they give them a call. And if this person has been a Roundtable member, during the course of the conversation, they might say, “Well, this is exactly the kind of thing I would take to my Roundtable.” And the caller’s response? “What’s a Roundtable?” That’s how new members come in. We want fresh thinking and new perspectives, but we haven’t had any luck inviting people who don’t have any connection to someone in the group who is known and trusted.
MAHER: Once someone has expressed interest in joining, what characteristics do you look for in assembling a compatible and productive group?
MACFEE: First, I get to know them through several in-depth phone calls. The first call is informational—what is the Roundtable and how does it work? After they’ve had a chance to think it over, the next call covers any questions and then confirms that we have a spot if they want to join. The third is an orientation call which focuses on the Roundtable’s core values, which are 1) listen to understand not to respond; 2) commit to growth, particularly uncomfortable growth; 3) engage in healthy conflict; and 4) full participation.
Listening is harder than it sounds. Directors are problem solvers, and sometimes jump in before they fully understand the issue. Growth is about stretching and challenging yourself. If you’re doing it right, you should feel uncomfortable. Healthy conflict takes place when somebody says something another member doesn’t agree with. Robust discussion and different points of view are encouraged, but we don’t want destructive conflict. Finally, if you come to a retreat and spend the whole time on your phone, that’s not helpful to anybody. Meetings are actively facilitated; everybody gets equal airtime. Nobody dominates the conversation, but nobody’s hiding in the corner either. This process helps establish trust.
MAHER: Successful affinity groups trust each other, and are not afraid to bring up any topic. What inhibits trust-building in a group?
MACFEE: People who would rather give all the advice and are not willing to hear or take any. Also people who aren’t willing to be open enough to share the real issues they face.
MAHER: Leaders are used to leading. People look to them for direction and answers. This role reversal must be hard for some people.
MACFEE: Yes, and some people never can get there. As an active facilitator, I try to balance answer-giving with answer-getting. Being unable to make this switch isn’t a bad thing—the Roundtable just might not be a good fit for them.
Every in-person retreat begins with what we call the Opening Ceremony where we revisit the core values of the group, and then participate in a sharing experience. It helps members shift out of “I have all the answers” mode into “I’d rather have people question my answers than answer my questions” Roundtable mode.
MAHER: In an earlier email, you described the health and vitality of a group in general as depending on a good balance of “advice givers and advice takers.”
MACFEE: People do things when they have an incentive. Somebody who wants advice or feels like they need help might have the incentive to start a group because they need a sounding board. Conversely, someone in the twilight of their career, who wants to give back, might be incentivized to keep a group together. Post-COVID will all these local/regional affinity groups stay together? Some will. As long as somebody has a strong incentive to keep a group together, they will do their best to make it happen. But if that incentive is weakened or lost, then groups kind of drift apart. People get busy with other things.
MAHER: Roundtable participation is fee-based; most local/regional groups are informally organized and free. There are some obvious differences between the two, but are there any commonalities?
MACFEE: When we’re in the nuts-and-bolts, problem-solving mode, the Roundtable group looks a lot like these other groups. Both models promote camaraderie and many result in the formation of deep friendships among members of the group.
But the fee and time commitment require me as a facilitator to elevate the Roundtable to another level. When I’m not actually engaged with my groups, I’m preparing for the next meeting, developing the curriculum and study guides so that when we all get together they will feel like it’s time and money well spent. With more informally organized affinity groups, attendance is less consistent. If nobody has any big questions or has prepared anything, it might not be the most productive session. Many people like that informality. Roundtable members do tell me they appreciate not having to plan anything. They don’t want one more thing to be in charge of.
The other big difference is that the Roundtables monitor accountability. Meetings are not episodic reports of issues, problems, solutions, and next time new problems, new solutions. We ask members to update us on progress made over the long term, because we’re interested in growth and solving the most challenging issues once and for all. We close each retreat by saying, “What are the two things that you absolutely want to make progress on before we gather together next time?” I write their responses down and email them to members afterwards. We start the next retreat with that list and the opening question is, “How did you do with ‘x’? Did you make progress?” If their answer is vague or evasive, I might say, “Okay, that was a nice bluff. Now tell us the real truth.” Sometimes it can be hard to get back into “Roundtable mode.” And sometimes there is hesitancy admitting they didn’t make progress. We want to tackle hard issues, so there isn’t any shame in it. But we can’t support a member if we don’t know what’s actually going on.
MAHER: In every local/regional group virtual meeting I attended, someone brought up a very specific problem. In about ten minutes, five or six directors just troubleshooted, came up with solutions the person was happy about, and they moved on to the next problem. I was amazed but also thought, “How did these directors solve problems quickly before COVID spawned regular group calls?”
MACFEE: How did people get advice like this in the past? Mentors. You invited an experienced director for coffee and picked their brain. Then if a cordial relationship emerged and later a crisis comes up, you could pick up the phone and ask them for specific advice. When I was the director of what was then considered a moderate-sized children’s museum (annual budget $1.5M), the people from smaller museums would ask me for advice. I, in turn, would seek advice from bigger museums. It’s like an ongoing food chain.
Also let’s not lose sight of the fact that before the pandemic, museum directors had fewer problems to solve. Life wasn’t perfect, of course, but compared to the past eighteen months, the wind was at their backs, the economy was good, donors were out there, and people were visiting and joining as members.
When the pandemic started, everybody suddenly had a lot of problems, some they had never even imagined before. So, they needed the active support of their peers to get through it. For our groups it was no different, but at the beginning of this year we started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. As museums reopened, directors’ interest shifted back toward longer-term thinking and organizational development.
MAHER: Do you think that what museum leaders have experienced in these stormy last eighteen months will fundamentally change the way they work together going forward?
MACFEE: My short-term prediction is we will return to the pre-pandemic way of doing things as much and as quickly as we can. However, the foundation has been laid for major changes over the coming decade. Now that we know that we can work from home, the link between where you live and where you work has been severed, probably forever. Museums will struggle with part of this because they are open to the public, so certain employees have to be there. But other employees might be able to work 90 percent remotely, coming in to the museum a couple of times a year. A marketing director, for example, could work for a museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, but live in Seattle, Washington. With enhanced communications, particularly now with Zoom, it is becoming increasingly accepted to conduct business from anywhere, so you’re no longer limited to the talent which lives close to you. Museum leaders already know the model of fractional work by hiring consultants for short duration specialized work. Where else can you deploy that model in your workforce?
MAHER: Among new people joining the Roundtables, do you see any changes in what they’re looking for in a support network now?
MACFEE: We actually brought on a couple new people during the pandemic. Judging by them, the focus for leaders remains the same: long-term organization development, good board relationships, good governance principles, strategic planning, working your plan, and building team health.
MAHER: Other affinity groups are wondering if their group should expand, what it would take to do that, and if there are trade-offs?
MACFEE: Expanding groups can be challenging. Even though the Roundtables grow by referral, I’m very structured and mindful of providing a proper orientation before the member attends their first meeting. This is as much to help them get the most out of it as it is to preserve the experience of the existing members. Everyone benefits from more brains at the table, but not if a new member is actively disrupting the culture we’ve established, even if inadvertently.
Even with all of this, I think the most effective groups should be capped at a dozen members. Google’s research about effective teams has shown that one key component is everyone has to have a chance to talk at each meeting. If you get too many people in the room, you run out of time pretty quickly for equal sharing.
MAHER: Before COVID—and perhaps again soon—many of these local/regional groups took field trips to each other’s museums. They supported each other professionally, but a real camaraderie developed through socializing. During the pandemic, maintaining virtual social contact with other people was a lifeline. What is the role of socializing in professional development networks?
MACFEE: Socializing is very important because that’s where you build trust. Pre-COVID, our groups work during the day and go to dinner together in the evening. Evening dinners are entirely social time—no work chatter—we talk about families and general interests. The more you know somebody, the more willing you are to share and bond as a group. During the pandemic Zoom calls, we were primarily business-focused and the group started to suffer a little bit. So, following an afternoon of professional development on Zoom, we adjourned and met up again at 7:00 p.m., uncorked some wine I had shipped to each of them ahead of time—and socialized. We were surprised at how much we needed that.
MAHER: What have you learned about people in your work with small groups?
MACFEE: People and organizations are much more alike than they are different. The same scenarios come up over and over, and everybody thinks that they’re the only one who has this challenge—particularly with governance. Having a board that understands what it is supposed to do, doesn’t micromanage or get “into the weeds,” and stays focused on the big picture is a common aspiration. Everybody feels like their board is the only one struggling with this, but I can tell you that most boards struggle with this.
Another learning is that inertia is strong. Someone once said that change only happens when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of changing. People will come to the Roundtable retreats with a problem. They want a plan for change. So, we give them suggestions to take back home but when they get there something else takes center stage and the plan gets tucked away. But it’s only a matter of time until the problem resurfaces, and when it does, it’s usually worse. At that point they really have to exert the effort and the resources to make the change.
Lastly, we all have pride. We don’t want to tell people what we struggle with the most. Museum directors sitting at their desks dealing with museum issues can get insular and myopic. But when they join a group, whether it’s a committed professional development, fee-based one or the many informal affinity groups that have sprung up all over the world, and build up trust, professional and personal breakthroughs can happen.