What Do You Read to Lead?

An Interview with Marsha L. Semmel, Author of Partnership Power: Essential Museum Strategies for Today’s Networked World

Marsha L. Semmel is a national museum leader and consultant who has spent much of her career exploring how cultural institutions can connect with their communities—and with one another—to achieve their missions. Her new book, Partnership Power offers a range of perspectives and real-world profiles that shed light on both the hard work and strategic payoff of collaboration. (Marsha L. Semmel, pictured at right.)

Tell me a little about how your background informs your perspective on museum partnerships.

I’d always wanted to be a teacher. Then, after getting my Master’s in art history, I got a job at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati. It had such a tiny staff that I got to wear a lot of hats there. Later, as a fellow at the Arts Endowment in D.C., I was able to learn a lot about our national cultural policy. A lot of my work since—from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS)—has been about museums, libraries, and other cultural organizations and how they contribute to public learning and understanding. I’ve always respected scholarship, but I’m also always thinking about the public and its learning interests and needs. Because I’ve been at institutions like the Conner Prairie living history museum as well as IMLS, I’ve been on both sides of the looking glass: seeing things from the national funder perspective and from the perspective of a museum leader in the community thinking about how to situate my institution strategically in that community. For me, the question for nonprofit museums has always been about: What do our communities need, and what can we do to support these needs? What are our community’s gifts and assets? And I’ve learned you can’t address those needs (or assets) effectively as a single agent.

Why write about the potential of partnerships now, at this moment in time?

I feel that there’s a growing urgency for developing effective partnerships. Most of the challenges we face are “wicked challenges” without simple cookbook answers. They need to be puzzled out in a collaborative manner by different players in the community. The more technology advances, the more we are becoming a networked world, the more we have the capacity to work together to address these complex, challenging, and pressing societal issues. As I was considering this book, I also found that much of the existing partnership literature was about museum-school partnerships, which are great, but they are only a small part of the story—or the partnership opportunity.

That’s an important point: there are differences between one-to-one organizational partnerships and more networked ways of collaborating. Can you talk a bit about that?

All partnerships are challenging because they require you to redefine your ego and identity, beyond the single entity to the community (or system) as a whole. But networks are even more difficult. Some of the challenges come with ensuring effective, constant communication, which is important to any relationship—but it’s exponentially more difficult in a network. The other thing that happens in a network is that the people change, so the relationships you build…when people leave and move on (and they will), it can take you back to square one. Leadership—especially leadership in a collaboration—is also more complicated. Bob Johansen (author of The New Leadership Literacies) writes about this using the metaphor of a fishnet. In a distributed leadership situation like a network, one member (or knot in the net) can pop up and assume a leadership role and be the right leader at the right time, and at another time another knot in the net rises to assume the leadership role, depending on the network’s needs. It’s challenging—but it’s possible.

I’m glad you mentioned the role of leadership because I was struck by your description of your own collaborative leadership role at IMLS as a bumblebee, “buzzing around,” cross-pollinating. What are some other characteristics you think are important to this kind of leadership?

I’ve come to appreciate the importance of boundary-spanning leaders, those who understand the importance of acknowledging, and building tools and skills for spanning, existing silos and boundaries: whether hierarchical or horizontal, intra- or inter-institutional. Different groups use different names for these important roles, including, “pollinator,” “broker,” or “weaver,” for someone who can move across spaces and nurture partnerships and relationships. Negotiating and wrangling is part of the position. It can happen at the CEO level, or it can also happen at other levels. But to be effective, these roles have to be recognized as real work, essential to a position, not just something expected “in addition to your regular 40+hours a week” of responsibilities! It must be recognized and rewarded. And it takes skills like building trust, active listening, taking in perspectives from multiple voices, dealing with conflict, and understanding process. Also, the ability to see what “true North” is, that there will be potholes along the road, and that maybe you’ll have to take one step back to take two steps forward, but, despite setbacks, you keep your eye on the prize.

What is one other thing you want your readers to take away about partnerships?

It was important to me, in Partnership Power, to do a deep dive on authentic partnerships, not the transactional “one-offs” where museums might co-market a program or exhibit, for example. I expected contributors and interviewees to share their stories, warts and all, to talk about the mistakes that had been made, how things went wrong, and how they refocused after a stumble. These partnerships can be a long slog, and they usually involve risk. They’re also not the right strategy for every project; they need to be chosen carefully. But nonprofits do have the responsibility to give back to the community, and I don’t know how that can be done to its full potential without creating relationships with other sectors of the community. Despite their challenges, I believe that partnerships are not just the right thing to do—they are a necessary element of effective nonprofit leadership.

Learn more about Partnership Power, including author bio, table of contents, and reviews—and order your copy—at Rowman & Littlefield online:’s-Networked-World

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