CLP009 Susie Burdick – Stewarding the Culture (PDF)
Marc: Welcome to the Concord Leaders podcast. My name’s Marc Pitman. I’m the CEO of the Concord Leadership Group. Today our guest is Susie Burdick, the Executive Director of the Kid’s Discovery Museum, but, Susie, I’ve heard it called something else before. What do the kids call it?
Susie: The kids call it KiDiMu.
Marc: Why KiDiMu?
Susie: Consequently, so does most of the community.
Marc: Oh, [phew]. I was a little blindsided when you said Kid’s Discovery Museum because that was many more syllables than I was expecting. Thank you for joining us today. I am thrilled to have you here. I always ask every guest that comes on to the podcast, they’re all executive directors and CEOs and I ask, what do you love? What do you enjoy most about being a leader in this sector?
Susie: First of all, thank you for having me. I’m delighted to be here. What I love most about being a leader, especially in the non-profit sector, although I’m sure it would translate to other sectors, is helping people unlock their potential. I love supporting people in their success and helping them find joy in the process, I love process, and I really like watching people go through a project from conception through completion while growing themselves. For me, it’s really unlocking potential. When I see people, no matter what job they’re in, I see prospects. Prospects for the future. That’s my favorite [crosstalk 00:01:33].
Marc: How do you mean that? Prospects, not as having a fundraising background, when I hear prospects I think donor prospects.
Susie: That’s right. For example, at my last job a woman came to interview for an executive assistant role. By the end of the interview, what I realized is she was perfectly qualified to direct one of the programs we had and really work through what that meant with her, what that would mean to lead that program, what she would have to bring forward and bring to the table, and it was very clear to me just in meeting with her that she had way more potential than just that role she was applying for.
Marc: How did she handle that?
Susie: She was thrilled.
Marc: Oh, phew. Okay.
Susie: I mentored her. She said, “I’m thrilled at the opportunity and will happily do this if you mentor me,” which was a no brainer.
Marc: Especially given your perspective. Tell me a little bit … I kind of started twitching when you said you love process. That’s not one of the things I love a lot, but I love a process to get somewhere and has a point.
Susie: Thank you. This came from before museums and health and human services, I was in theater for 25 years as a theater director. What I loved, to be really honest, I could’ve cared less about opening night. What I loved was the process of discovery that happens as you take a project from conception to completion. That’s the process I love, but it has to be efficient. I’m a wee bit OCD and need stuff to be well planned and carried out in a logical, efficient manner. It’s that process of watching discovery when people discover their own skills or new ideas. That just thrills me.
Marc: I feel like I got my feet back under me. I understand that. That’s really cool. I don’t know if it’s in the part of the process of helping people find this, but as leaders we often face things that aren’t situations that aren’t the way they should’ve been or they’re difficult. Would you share something that happened that you’ve experienced and how you came through that?
Susie: Absolutely. One of the biggest lessons I learned is kind of two fold. Part of it was I was leading without checking my assumptions and things were not as rosy as I thought they were. I was kind of operating under the premise that if nobody says anything everything’s okay. I learned the hard way that that’s not true. I had to go about checking my assumptions which led me to my second big learning which is that we as leaders need to lead the process of designing our culture and I consider my most important job being steward of that culture.
Marc: As opposed to … That’s an interesting role because instead of creating the culture, you’re-
Susie: Facilitating the creation.
Susie: For example, when I came to Kiddie Mu, we took the 5 employees, plus me, who had been here a long time. We’re all incredibly capable. We made them into a leadership team, we went on a retreat and said, okay, how do we want the kids and families to feel when they come in here? Consequently, how do we want to feel? How do we want to feel when we drive to work? What’s important to us at work and how do we want to feel when we drive home? We very specifically designed a culture, a mutually supportive, non-judgmental happy place. We wanted to feel good about what we did and we wanted to feel like we made a difference when we went home. Consequently, that became my primary objective, was to try and make sure that the things that we did aligned with that culture. The results were that people talk about this as a really happy place to come into. We have great retention. That was a big lesson for me and it was through a variety of opportunities. It took me from intuition leadership to intentional leadership.
Marc: I’m taking lots of notes because what I love about that is that I think a lot of us get into leadership and think we need to do this stuff. We need to make sure the kids have a great experience. What I hear you doing is taking a step back and saying, we need to make sure that we have a great experience and then … Does that just naturally mean that the people that are hired to create kids experience will perpetuate that? How does that-
Susie: It does because we hire to that culture. We very specifically hire to that culture and it’s a really positive can-do culture. Every once in a while there may be somebody who comes along that surprises you and is not quite there with you, but you deal with that because the culture, especially for us dealing with young children and families and very formative ages, that culture is the most important thing, so that they come into a place where they are welcomed and safe, met where they are, and happy. Laughing a lot during the day was one of our core values.
Marc: Wow. That’s one of the things I’ve noticed about our conversation even now, there’s chuckling going back and forth and … Wow.
Susie: We’re a happy crew.
Marc: How did you … Was there a bump in the road when you tried to institute this? Did everybody after you had this leadership retreat, did everybody just drink the Kool-aid and go with the program or …
Marc: They did?
Susie: We would run into problems but we always talk them through. This is the best leadership team I’ve ever had. Six of us on the team and we, because I’m a firm believer in the shared leadership model. I’m happy to make all the hard decisions and step in when I need to, but I much prefer making decisions about the operation of the museum with the other heads that are involved in running it.
Marc: You find that they can be trusted with that?
Susie: Yes, absolutely, and what I also find is when you set your expectations high people rise to them. As long a you give them the tools and the training that they need they will rise to the occasion. Members of our team have moved into different roles here that require learning new skill sets but it was the attitude that was there from the beginning. That’s what’s important to me. I will hire for attitude over skills because I feel like skills can be taught.
Marc: Is the staff a large staff?
Susie: No, there’s 6 of us on the leadership team and then we have about another 6 or 7 who are part-time weekend staff.
Marc: When you say they’ve rolled into other positions, that’s still fairly lean so it’s not like you have lots of [crosstalk 00:08:22].
Susie: For example, one of the women was the Art Director and the art room didn’t need … And she was looking for a new challenge. She is now a highly functioning, very productive Operations Manager. We talked skill sets, we talked about what interested her because we were young. We’re only about 12 years old. Because of that, people just went into jobs and wore multiple hats. For us it was really refining. Our Development Director became my Deputy Director. Like I said, Art Director became Operations Director. Putting these people in roles where they didn’t start out or expanding their roles to real leadership.
Marc: That’s great. I think one of the struggles that a lot of non-profits have, maybe it’s because you love process and seeing potential and you’re able to see a Development Director as a person with potential instead of a role to fill.
Marc: That’s really good. What a great shift. I’m shocked that we’ve already come to the end of our time together, at least for this conversation. Who knows what we’ll say after the recording, but as we come to the end of this discussion, what would you recommend people listening to this do right now to improve their joy in leading, because I totally get exuberance and joy from what you’re doing. Are there any practical tips that you might suggest?
Susie: One of them that I learned from “Leadership on the Line” which was a book that I really liked, I took an executive leadership training and that was one of our reading materials, was the discussion about getting off the dance floor and going up on the balcony and looking at the work of the group. Not just what they’re accomplishing, but how they’re accomplishing it and where you see them stumbling or there might be roadblocks or there might be friction, but it’s getting out of the fray and really taking that high level look at what’s really going on. That was an epiphany for me.
Marc: That is such a powerful picture too. That sums up a lot of what I feel like got from my full page of scribbled notes from talking to you. Wow. Thank you so much, Susie, for being here.
Susie: You are so welcome, Marc.
Marc: I know people are going to want to hear this. I’ll repeat this again and again and think about where their dance floor is. For those of you that do, this episode with all the episodes of the Concord Leaders podcast can be found out http://ConcordLeadership.com/podcast/. Until next time, remember that healthy non-profits start with healthy leaders.