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Mistakes Were Made

At the 2018 AAM Annual Meeting, I attended the popular “Mistakes Were Made” session based on a few recommendations. The idea behind the session was to get folks to publicly admit their mistakes and then, as a group, learn from them. A few presenters shared mistakes they made, and then there was time for discussions at each table in the room during which we were to share our mistakes. As the other folks at my table shared their stories, I was struggling to come up with something. Then I thought of a very big recent mistake to share.

A few months prior, I created the “Find Your Museum Job” meme pictured here. I posted this on the Visitor Experience Group (VEX) Facebook account with the hopes of getting a significant number of comments and interactions. By significant, my stretch goal was 30+ but I’d be happy with a dozen as our posts hadn’t been getting a ton of engagement. The post ended up getting nearly 3,000 comments, over 1,500 reactions, and over 2 million impressions. The only problem was I didn’t put our name on it. I created a viral post but forgot to put the VEX logo or name anywhere on it.

I shared this story at the table and the people I was sitting with selected my story to go on to the final round. I stood at the front of the room with about a dozen colleagues from the field and we all shared our stories. Despite stories that included the accidental destruction of entire private collections and other very expensive mistakes, my story won Mistake of the Year and I took home the broken trophy. Part of the reason I think my story took home the title was that my mistake was only two months old, I named the organization affected by my mistake, and I was transparent in my presentation. In the end, this experience was both a valuable lesson and a way to correct my error. This session (and the same session the following year in which I was a panelist) kept the viral post going, this time with attribution.

The point of that very long introduction is to say that we all make mistakes and, in the spirit of Rafiki from The Lion King, we can either run from them, or learn from them. Ideally, we can learn from the mistakes we make and speak openly about those experiences to help others learn from them as well. In that spirit, I’m going to take some time today to reflect on a career of mistakes and the lessons that can be pulled from them.

Please Touch Museum

I often think about my time at PTM, brief as it was, in the context of mistakes because I think this is where some of my biggest mistakes as a leader occurred. While I was able to boost overall morale and earn the respect of a diverse team of 70 part-timers and 5 full-timers, I still could have done a much better job at leading that department.

The area that sticks out the most is discipline. It took me way too long to realize that the frontline team equated training with punishment – in their experience, training was a result of the back of house (BOH) team’s perception that the front of house (FOH) team was doing something wrong. Not recognizing this dynamic lessened the impact of my training programs.

I also had to fire 12 people during my time at PTM. Some of those were warranted, whether it was a significant attendance issue or a refusal to perform even the most basic tasks required. But in retrospect, I can see that some of them were unnecessary and often fueled by racism/classism within the organization.

For example, in my 13 months at PTM, I had three different Birthday Party Supervisors. The first one requested that I join them for meetings with the marketing department to have their back. They had experienced some issues of being told one thing in a meeting and then having things switched on them at the last minute. Shortly thereafter, they left the museum, citing problems with that department. The second supervisor also requested to have me as backup in those meetings, but in addition to what I now recognize as gaslighting on the part of the marketing team, that BOH group also just flat out did not like the new supervisor. The marketing team asked me to discipline, and eventually fire, the supervisor. I refused. Then they went above my head to my VP, asking for the supervisor to be fired. I still refused. After the fourth time I was ordered to let the supervisor go, I finally relented. I shouldn’t have. I should’ve fought harder for this supervisor. I didn’t recognize the gaslighting at the time, and I also didn’t recognize the inherent racism in the organization.

In retrospect, these things are much more apparent. The white people on my team were given significantly less severe punishments than the Black people on the team. This finally clicked into place for me when I had a dispute between two team members. One, a middle-aged white man, was constantly picking on a Black woman with cerebral palsy. When this was reported to HR, it was brushed off. When it was brought to my attention, I wanted to take away the bully’s extra responsibilities that he enjoyed and issue a warning in an attempt to curb the behavior but HR wouldn’t back that decision. Eventually, the woman who was the target of his constant harassment threatened to have her significant other come deal with him, and he immediately reported her to HR. I was forced to let her go, and was told I could not fire him. I instead suspended him against the wishes of HR, and eventually refused to fire anyone on behalf of someone else in the museum. Around that time, my position was eliminated during bankruptcy proceedings and then reposted under a different title.

Wells Fargo

Leading a much smaller team and learning from my mistakes at PTM, my time running the Wells Fargo Museum in Philadelphia and working on the national brand engagement team featured fewer, smaller mistakes. Even so, there are a few things I could have done better in my time in the corporate world.

One thing I pride myself on is helping my team move up in their careers, which usually means helping them build up their resumes and portfolios before preparing them to move onto another organization. At Wells Fargo, I had a team member who was studying to become an exhibit designer, so whenever an exhibit project came up I always ensured that he was involved so that he could add to his portfolio. That being said, I could have done more in this area. I should have taken more time to cover the front desk to allow the museum assistants some time in the office to work on special projects. This would have given them much-needed breaks from the front desk and allow them to do work that is specifically tied to their career goals.

When our department’s leadership changed, the entire focus of the department changed. Where I had been working with leaders to include more transparency in our exhibits and programs, the new leadership instead drastically reduced the programming to almost nothing, and refused to consider even hinting at anything that could possibly be construed as negative. We went from being a corporate museum to being walk-through propaganda almost overnight. I cannot overstate how frustrating this change was and how maddening it was to have every project proposal shot down for the last several years with the company. I let the stress of this build up too much and, on one occasion, my frustration spilled over to the front desk. The museum assistants were simply calling out the same hypocrisies I was, but I took it as though they were criticizing me and reacted poorly. Eventually, I refocused my energy on helping them find better jobs by reviewing their resumes and taking time out of the work day to do interview prep.

Learning From Mistakes

The most important part of sharing all of this is to share what I have learned from my mistakes, and offer solutions to better handle these situations in the future.

First, you can rest assured that every communication from VEX includes at least the logo if not the logo and contact information. That lesson was learned immediately!

More importantly, I am better prepared to avoid making the mistakes I made at PTM. Nine years of learning and retrospect have truly helped provide the context I was lacking when I worked there and I am now in a better position to recognize when organizational divides and/or racism are impacted decisions and policies. Furthermore, by setting up my team in the most transparent ways I can think of and focusing on open communication, I expect that I will be much more aware of the social dynamics of the institution.

As for ensuring that my frontline team has a balance of FOH and BOH work and preparing them for the future, I am prepared to build in career development time into the regular work schedule. I am also lucky to be at an organization that, at least in my early days here, seems to value the work, opinions, and input of FOH workers.

Finally, I know that there are areas of my own approach and style that could use work. By seeking regular feedback from coworkers on all levels and making adjustments as needed, I can continue to improve.

With that, here are a few direct actions I plan on taking in my new role as Guest Experience Manager at the Delaware Museum of Nature and Science:

  • Center transparent communication in everything I do at the museum

  • Update the hiring process to be more transparent and equitable

  • Advocate for an annual training/refresher for all staff (administered quarterly)

  • Set up regular, one-on-one meetings with direct reports to focus on career goals, their current work, and anything else they want to talk about

  • Continue to seek input and feedback from a variety of sources


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Verb. 1) Pertaining to the behavior of being a Wittwer. 2) Doing odd things that only Wittwers would do. 3) Catchall phrase for the thoughts and actions of Patrick Wittwer.

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