Launching our BMT labs blog

This week we launched a new “labs” blog for the good folks at Birmingham Museums Trust to share their experiments, announce new things or share opinions on any topic they wish. The aim of the game is to keep shipping.

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.

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“.

Sell what people are asking you to sell

At work we sell approx 50 types of goods or service. We sell goods in our shops for example and our services include permitting, steam train rides, educational workshops and much more. Transactions none the less. I regularly get asked how to start a new revenue stream. For me the answer is simple for a good proportion of the time: Start by selling goods or services that people are already asking us for. Simple.


Case in point are the studios at M Shed. The original purpose was for the delivery of education activity. When not in use, staff would use the space for internal activity, meetings and the like. There was wriggle room for different uses. Any use that wasn’t the original intention or primary purpose I call a “by-product”. Sometime during 2015 we started to get enquiries for hiring a space that was smaller than our event suite. The event suite on the top floor was originally the only space for hire. We soon agreed with the learning team that they and us would both have access to the booking diary and use the space for education or private hire aka a new by-product. Every year since 2015 we have seen growth in the booking of this space which generates something like 5% additional revenue at this point. We didn’t transform or innovate, we simply responded to a user need and make a healthy stream of revenue. 

What are people asking you for that perhaps could be the start of tens of thousands of pounds?

Set your social media free

We trust our workforce (yes including volunteers who are super critical) to fly the flag for us day in and day out. To represent our brand in the flesh and to tell the stories of our organisation. Oh and no small feat to ensure the safety of both the public and our collections. Every interaction with our customers at our venues, on the phone or by email is an opportunity to delight. Our museums alone welcome over a million people a year.

Yet nearly every organisation still insists on holding tightly to social media with a select few as guardians. Worried about tone of voice or that something bad may happen. We are happy to let folks loose in the physical environment (and again keep us all safe) and tell amazing stories to people, protect rare and priceless objects but not tweet ?! Who better to tell stories online than the very workforce who do this for us on a daily basis.

Please set your social media free. Provide simple guidelines [see our social media principles] and training then bring the rest of the workforce online. Social media wants to be free. It will pay you back with the stories people will tell that they already know captivate your audience.

Tell me what you discover in my data

Unless I’m at risk of being fired for sharing data I happily throw out our numbers publicly. Money, satisfaction, raw data on X, y and Z.  I think that sharing is vital and by sharing it leads to connecting with others seeking similar answers. I get messages from people across the globe who have googled an issue and found a talk, tweet or blog I’ve shared. I’ve already done the work so sharing costs me nothing but has led to real connections.
An unexpected benefit has been that others have spotted trends or interesting insights that I’ve overlooked. Everything looks like a nail when you’re welding a hammer. Opening up the data gives a new perspective which can only be a good thing.
So please do tell me what you see when you look at my data or dashboards.
P.S. I get push back from others who think they aren’t able to share their data verbally let alone publicly – I’m fairly confident an FOI request could be made on 99.9% of things you haven’t shared. So share because you can not because you’re being forced to.