My first week as CEO

On Monday 16th November 2020 at 9am (or was it the stroke of midnight?) I started alongside Sara Wajid as part-time CEO at Birmingham Museums Trust. Sara and I are a job share who will both be working three days a week. We have a grand plan which I’ll talk about in the near future. For now I wanted to summarise my opening week, in part for myself but also to help communicate what a CEO does in these critical early days for others.

At the time of starting this role England is half way through a national lockdown and everyone who can work at home must work at home. So the context of my starting is during an international health emergency which also means remote working is our default for now.

Fortunately I love remote working and have plenty of tools to make the transition smooth for me. I’ve long said that I’m really a permanent remote worker due to the nature of my two previous roles, which included regularly working across the UK or locally with teams distributed around the city, I see myself as a remote worker even when I technically have “an office I’m based at”. Thinking back over the past 5 years I can’t ever recall being at my desk for more than a few hours at a time. Don’t get me confused though, I very much think work happens in our buildings but just not the kind many assume. A busy workplace isn’t the place I get my deep work done. Too many interruptions from well meaning people. The same is true of online tools that mimic the workplace with their beeps and notifications stealing time.

I had the foresight to collect my laptop during my last informal visit to see Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery at the beginning of October so at 9am I was good to go.

I like to work in roughly 6 week cycles which is conveniently 16th November to 24th December. This period of time is just short enough to gain momentum but not too unwieldy. Whilst we’re remote working Sara and I will work one full day each and every morning. Coupled with our internal use of technology we expect this to give us the right initial balance. If there is something unmovable in the afternoon we can easily swap.

I want to use this first cycle to get up to speed by learning as much as possible about the priorities, internal culture, systems and skills across BMT. In short I will be reading, listening and asking “why” lots . To this end, in the first week I’ve done 11 1:1s with team managers asking the same three questions (what’s good about BMT? if you were a trustee what one change would you make? What are the attributes of the best line manager you’ve had?) and on day one we held an all-staff online hello event for just over 100 staff. Furlough permitting I want to meet every member of staff 1:1 in the first 30-60 days. I had my first audit and finance committee which was no light read at over 100 pages!

I also want to form alliances as connection is fundamental so I have a long list of people to introduce myself too. I was pleased to meet the Council’s main contacts with the trust in an hour’s rapid fire session.

I mostly use trello for collecting ideas and I can see my private “thoughts on” has collected over 50 items already. I introduced a simple kanban trello board to the leadership team on day 1 that we’ll use for reviewing options and decisions which will be open for all staff to see as part of us being transparent. The beauty of this approach is that Sara and I can contribute in our own time so that all options can be considered without the need for real-time meeting in most cases. Talking of internal communication tools, I really want to introduce Basecamp but week 1 seemed too quick so I’ll take a little bit of time in the cycle to stretch my thoughts on the matter. The aim is to design out remote working with intent for the long-term so then it won’t matter when or where the team is. More on this in 2021.

I also squeezed in recording my talk for the Change for Good seminar about decision science and gave advice to a Scottish based organisation about making money online.

My summary of week one is that the team are clearly passionate and despite furlough, lockdown and difficult recent times with redundancies everyone is eager to make BMT work for its users.

I look forward to the weeks ahead.

Zak Mensah and Sara Wajid appointed joint CEOs of Birmingham Museums Trust

Photo of Sara and Zak standing in the main hall at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery with paintings in the background

Birmingham Museums Trust, one of the UK’s largest independent museum trusts, has appointed Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah as joint CEOs. The pair will formally join the charity in November, taking over from Dr Ellen McAdam who stepped down in June this year.

The appointment is a rare instance of people of colour reaching the highest level of leadership in UK museums, and of job-sharing taking place at this level. Of the 45 institutions represented on the National Museums Directors Council, only one other organisation is currently led by a person of colour. Sara and Zak’s appointment also represents the only instance of a shared CEO role among the group.

Birmingham’s demographic is young and diverse and this announcement further cements Birmingham Museums Trust’s commitment to representing the people of the city at all levels across the organisation.

Zak comes to Birmingham Museums Trust from a leadership role at Bristol Museums where, as Head of Transformation: Culture & Creative Industries, he made a leading contribution to increasing income by 100% within three years as well as ambitious programmes focusing on continuous improvement and technology.

Sara is currently Head of Engagement for the Museum of London’s new museum capital project; previous to that she was Head of Interpretation at Birmingham Museums Trust on a fifteen month secondment where she produced the ground-breaking experimental exhibition ‘The Past is Now’ offering new perspectives on British Empire.

Sara Wajid said: Being appointed as joint CEO to BMT is a very special honour for me and it’s in part thanks to the experience I gained on the Arts Council ‘Changemakers’ programme at BMT in 2016. That’s what I call effective anti-racist succession planning. Zak and I were inspired to apply for this role together through our involvement in Museum Detox (an anti-racist museum collective). We hope it could be a useful blueprint for others considering their future in the sector, and that we won’t be in such a small cohort of people of colour leading museums for long.”

Zak Mensah said: “Birmingham Museums Trust attracts over 1 million visitors a year to its world-class services in Birmingham and online that bring both local and world stories to the public. As a regional museum with a very diverse demographic, BMT is well placed to connect communities locally and use technology to drive audience engagement on a global scale. Sara and I aim to ensure BMT remains resilient and delivers services that are inclusive, allowing people to connect and learn. On a personal note I’m proud to be a demonstration of being part of the change you seek to make at an institutional level and look forward to making a ruckus.”

Niels de Vos, Chair of Birmingham Museums Trust, said: “This appointment is a transformational moment for Birmingham Museums Trust and allows us to plan confidently for the future after what has been a very turbulent few months. Sara and Zak’s experience, proven past results and their openness to experiment and push boundaries is what made them standout candidates.

“The sector needs to diversify from the top if there is to be a real shift in how museums operate and how their collections are presented. Sara and Zak are trailblazers and they reflect the character of this city, young, futuristic and diverse. Their dynamic partnership will mark a very exciting new chapter for Birmingham Museums Trust and for the city.”

Liz Johnson, Director, Museums & Collections Development/ Birmingham, Arts Council England, said: “I’m delighted to be welcoming Zak Mensah and Sara Wajid as joint CEOs of Birmingham Museums Trust – it’s great to see an appointment like this representing such an important step-change for the sector.

“We have worked with Sara on several projects, including as part of our Change Makers programme, and look forward to working with Zak who brings with him an entrepreneurial spirit and drive for innovation. I’m sure they will achieve great things as they join forces and help visitors from across the city and beyond discover what Birmingham’s museums have to offer.”

Cllr Jayne Francis, Cabinet Member for Education, Skills and Culture at Birmingham City Council, said: “This is a really exciting moment for Birmingham Museums Trust, with the appointment of Sara and Zak who will I am sure bring great energy and a fresh perspective to Birmingham and the Trust and how we engage with visitors to its sites.

“I applaud the trustees for recognising the talent available to them and making this prestigious post a job share between two people of colour. I wish both Sara and Zak well in their new role and welcome them to Birmingham.”

The announcement follows the news that Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery will be reopening to the public on Wednesday 7 October, after a significant closure due to the coronavirus pandemic.

What Matters Now

After several months planning, Friday 10th July saw a group of us meet online to hear 18 speakers and performers explain “What Matters Now” to them.

I was proud to have a small part to play in organising and opening the event. Each person was given 5 minutes to have the digital floor and do whatever they felt. We had petcha ketcha style, poetry, DJ, song, and open minds and hearts. The performers and audience came from across the globe and the energy was 11/10.

The videos will be available soon.

The internet was designed for openess and collaboration. Big check in the boxes for this event.

Thank you to Mike for bringing us all together.

Lots of Love.

That was the “old way” is there another way?

We’re all spending lots of time guessing what might be next. We also all talk lots about “returning to normal”. Yet often the normal way was followed without checking if it was fit for purpose – unless it was of course. So all this week I’ve been trying to use the phase “that was the old way” instead of “return to normal”.

Then today I stumbled over the term collective conservatism when reading Nudge, which refers to the tendency of groups to stick to established patterns even as new needs arise.

It is clear that for the short term at the very least is is impossible to slip back into the old way. Thus now is the time to see if we can shift our culture in a different direction for the long term benefit.

An example is adding to our digital by default ways to include digital communication and remote working. Not remote vs office but default to remote. We’ll see.

Reading List 2020

Last year I managed to read 11 books. I’d like to get 12-15 this year

  1. Grit by Angela Duckworth finished 13 Feb 2020. Paperback ISBN 9781785040207. In short people can do well in life by practicing and not giving up and this can beat “talent”.
  2. The only Investment Guide you’ll Ever Need by Andrew Tobias finished 21 Feb 2020. Paperback ISBN 9780544781931. A witty read that basically suggests you should come back when you have £10,000 or more in savings ha! The section on how to save money is very useful and my aim this year is to try to save 20% of my earnings…..
  3. Sprint: Solve big problems and test new ideas in just Five Days by Jake Knapp finished 27 Feb 2020 Paperback ISBN 9780593076118. A short guide with case studies on how to tackle a problem and produce a prototype in five days. Lots of useful tips I’ll be trying out this year.
  4. Red Notice by Bill Browder finished 19 April 2020 kindle isbn 9781448170937
  5. Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond finished 3rd May 2020 Paperback 9780099302780. Huge thanks to my local bookshop for delivering during the pandemic!
  6. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein paperback ISBN 978014104001 finished 14th June 2020. A highly readable look at how using “nudges” we can help ourselves and others make better decisions – useful for home and work.
  7. The Spook Who Sat by The Door by Sam Greenlee finished 26 June 2020. Paperback ISBN 9781943138173. A really good read that is about one black man’s vision set his people free.
  8. The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi finished 10 July 2020. Paperback ISBN 9780575088894. My first SF novel in ages and it was good to be lost in other worlds!
  9. How to Stop Worrying & Start Living by Dale Carnegie finished 29th July 2020. Kindle. A short run through of things we worry about and letters from people who came out the other side – a good read during the pandemic
  10. Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala finished 13 August 2020. Kindle. We’re both born the same year and so much of his descriptions of his teens and 20’s match mine (London / Bristol) – from literally countless stop and search*, school folks murdered, shots fired, and the mix of Ghanaian/UK/USA influences. Akala is a gifted writer and I really enjoyed this book. I have seen him rapping live in the past too so it is nice to reconnect too. Highly recommended. *Ive been stopped walking, cycling, driving/passenger and motorcycle.
  11. How To Be An Antiracist by Dr Ibram X. Kendi finished 27 August 2020. Kindle ISBN 9781473570979. Just read it!
  12. Hell Yeah or No by Derek Sivers finished 29th August 2020. Kindle. A book about making things happen. Each chapter is 1-2min read and concisely gives you food for thought and more importantly action…or not. Many of the chapters are also available via his podcast if you prefer to listen. Derek donated all $250,000 raised from the books sold to the Against Malaria Foundation.
  13. Your Music and People by Derek Sivers finished 6th September 2020. Kindle. I respect music enough not to play any instruments and I def can’t sing or rap ha. This book is aimed at helping “musicians” to get their work out in the World BUT you can replace “musician” with any other role and find Derek’s suggestions useful. I really like that creativity isn’t limited to the actual songs but is just as true for marketing/business/connection. I’m looking forward to my print copy later this year.
  14. The Art of Possibility by Ros Zander and Ben Zander finished 13 September 2020. Kindle. A good format book that asks us to transform how we can open up our world view and from I to We.
  15. The Anarchy: The Relentless Rise of the East India Company by William Dalrymple finished 6 October 2020. Kindle ISBN: 9781408864401. The book details how a company grew into an “empire within an empire” and is as much a business book as a tale of the horrors of war, greed, betrayal and loot. Recommended.
  16. Manifesto for a Moral Revolution: Practices to Build a Better World by Jacqueline Novogratz finished 21 October 2020. Paperback ISBN 9781250798770. Such a great book. Jacqueline has been around the globe countless times helping people to make sustainable businesses that have a real social impact. I think it is an important book for anybody in business but certainly those of us in the non-profit sector. In a time of needing revenue more than ever Jacqueline shows that patient capital is where we can really add value.
  17. It Doesn’t have to Crazy at work byJason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson finished 17th November 2020. Paperback ISBN 9780008323448. As Sara and I start to lead BMT this week and England is in national lockdown I wanted to re-read this book which is packed full of 1-2 page suggestions for working remotely and having a calm company. With most staff having to remain at home until at least 3rd December now seems like a good time to help us all remain calm digitally at least. I see no reason that we as a cultural sector can’t remain calm and use digital tools with intent from now. I don’t want being in the office to be a sign of “doing the work”. It isn’t physical vs remote, it is taking the time in 2020 to see if there is another way to leap from how things were to fixing some of our old habits that may be comfy but not as effective as the tools and processes of 2020 could let us be. Plenty of good reasons for human contact too!
  18. The First 90 Days by Michael D. Watkins finished 17th November 2020. Kindle. As I embark on my first CEO role this week I wanted to sense check with Sara how we’ll get momentum. Although we have all of the parts in our heads, this book brings everything together so was worth the read. Working as a job-share it is good to have reference material to align. I like how the guide is aimed at all job levels too. If I had to choose one highlight it is “build credibility early” as nobody knows you from your old success. Otherwise known as a trust battery.

Using an Asda self serve scanner with 50 items

Photo of me scanning an item at Asda using the self serve machine with 50 items
Self-scanning lane on 2nd Jan 2020

Used this self scan at @asda today to buy 50 items. Between my slowness and the software lag we counted 12 customers served in the same time it took me with roughly same or bigger trolley. Not quite the future of retail yet #retail #retailtech

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The focus of any business plan in the Cultural sector

There are only three states of any business:

  1. Not generating enough money to cover your running costs – Danger zone
  2. Meeting your budget by balancing costs so that your income covers your running costs
  3. Generating a net surplus above and beyond your running costs

The first means close up shop so that’s assume that isn’t us.

Option two is where most cultural organisations sit and should be the initial focus for everyone. Either generate enough money to cover your running costs before your reserves or line of credit runs out and/or reduce your running costs until money in/out match. Its not the most comfortable place to be but perfectly respectable. Most of the folks I meet have 2-4 years to get to this magic number. A commercial business would have 90-180 days. Apply the 80/20 rule. where you apply 80% of your focus on the 20% that will offer the best way to get to the magic number. For example 20% of our retail products deliver approx 80% of our revenue. Same with venue hire customers.

Once you are able to meet budget you can then consider option three generating a surplus. Option’s two and three should be running in parallel where possible (see my thoughts on Scale elsewhere). Option three is about using any surplus to build the future – reserves, continuous improvement (that lead to further surplus of money or resource) and enabling activity not possible under the other conditions.

Most folks in the sector don’t write a business plan to know which of the three states they are in. Write it down. Use Seth Godin’s “The Modern Business Plan“.