Sarah Hartshorne, Museum Development Programme Officer for the East Midlands reflects on the challenges of transitioning into mid-career.
When entering mid management one of the hardest balances is to shift gears between grafter and enabler. Often when starting on the career ladder you’re keen to showcase your abilities through high quality and high volume work. It’s what singles you out in a world saturated by temporary and project based contracts and an overqualified workforce.
Becoming a regional Museum Development Officer (MDO) was a real step change for me. Previously I’d managed several departments in a bustling historic property and was constantly working at the operational front line. (I was the lucky person whose phone rang when the bats had got in at 10pm, just as I was pouring a glass of red wine on a Saturday). Now as an MDO I hold a strategic position and I’m primarily a facilitator for museums, and an enabler of people and projects. Which I should point out, I absolutely love. However if the museum front desk is the coal face, then I’m now several steps removed and I’ve found the transition an unexpected challenge.
On a practical level it’s hard to flick the switch in your head from proactive problem solver, to strategic thinker who often delegates. Delegation is a skill that we don’t value as much as we should in the sector. To delegate effectively and genuinely is a challenging thing. It takes trust in yourself and your team, as well as generosity. This also needs to be balanced with remaining in touch with what it’s actually like on the front line, something which I’m trying consciously to remember the further away from my operational experience I get.
I’m extremely lucky to have a very supportive manager who has allowed me to address this through lots of continued professional development, a position I know not everyone shares. There isn’t a current training course on my radar which focuses specifically on how to move to mid management which is where I intend to spend a good chunk of my career – if you know of any I’d love to hear from you. I’ve looked in a variety of places for support. Particularly helpful to me was the AIM Enablers programmes which looked at strategic delivery and its wider issues at length. Furthermore I’ve become a trustee and also continued to volunteer in an operational capacity, all of which I’ve found helped give me my ‘doing’ fix. I’ve also collected a group of peers along the way that I can call on for support outside of the work setting; you’ll know them as the brilliant Culture Now team.
I wanted to use this blog to share some of the lessons I’ve learnt whilst making this transition. The most important one is to take time. This may sound a simple lesson but it’s been one of the hardest to really embed into my practice. In the past to have an ‘office-day’ was a laughable pipe dream, and now it’s where I spend at least 2 days a week. In reality this means don’t feel you have to respond to emails on the same day, prioritise effectively. When asked to take on a challenging task, ensure you build in thinking time as well as preparation for strategic meetings. Delegate wherever appropriate, and really mean it when you do. Also ask and give feedback with generosity to your team and peers, challenge and professional oxygen can sometimes be exactly what you need.
So if you’re finding transitioning to the middle of the career pyramid a challenge, don’t worry you are not alone! For me it took deeper self-awareness and a commitment to continued professional development. I’d urge anyone reading this to really think about their own development and how it helps to foster these softer and non-museum focused skills. I still haven’t cracked it completely, but I’m looking forward to growing in my role and hopefully continuing to improve along the way, as that’s the one thing I really can’t delegate.