A recurring question in career development is how to get your first line management or leadership experience. For many people, a lack of experience in this area can seem a real barrier to progression.

I don’t have any firm answers to this question, but I was in the same boat before I started my current job in January 2019. What follows is an outline of how I made my first step into a management position.

Inspirational diorama at the American Museum of Natural History, New York

In October 2018, I had been working as a Collections Management Assistant at the History of Science Museum (HSM) for a little over two years. It was my third paid job in the heritage sector. Taking earlier voluntary roles into account, I had about six years of experience under my belt. But I had I never line-managed anyone.

That month, what would become my now current job as a Curator in a national museum was advertised. I was very keen to apply for it and met most of, but not all, the criteria on the personal specification. One of the criteria I felt I fell short on was:

‘Experience of managing, motivating, mentoring and developing professional curatorial staff.’

This related to a line on the job description:

‘Manage, motivate and develop the Assistant Curator.’

I remember struggling to evidence this in my supporting statement, but this is what I put down in the end:

‘In my role at HSM, I work closely with a team of project staff more junior than myself. I ensure that I always make myself available for advice, as well as maintaining an approach that promotes motivation and morale, drawing closely on the experience I developed whilst acting as a checkout supervisor at Morrisons.

I have drawn on this same source to deliver effective volunteer management, including being mindful of the need to motivate and maintain engagement in situations that have pressing targets.

I am committed to my own professional development as well as that of others. I regularly deliver professional development sessions to my volunteers, both for those who wish to develop careers within the sector and outside it. In my free time, I run a blog aimed at emerging museum professionals that offers advice on career development and skills building. I also offer mentoring to emerging museum professionals, and find this extremely rewarding.’

I submitted my application. I heard nothing for weeks, and grew despondent. I felt that I had overstretched myself, maybe even embarrassed myself, by applying for a role that I wasn’t ready for yet. But then the invite to interview came.

Looking over my interview notes, I had prepared to talk in more detail about what I had written. Specifically, I made sure I was ready to talk about:

  • My experience of volunteer management, with reference to specific examples of times that I had achieved success and held teams together – but also making friends.
  • What little I knew of leadership and management theory – things like Douglas McGregor’s ‘Theory X and Theory Y’ and transactional analysis.
  • Role models in which I took inspiration and wanted to emulate myself. In particular I had written ‘be more Catriona [Wilson]’. (Which still very much stands!)

Anyway, that was enough to get me the job. I don’t know if the thoughts set out above were considered good answers, but they were good enough for other things that I knew were definite strengths of mine – collections management experience, research experience and specialist knowledge of historical aircraft – to shine through.

Another thing going for me is that I really do have all the confidence of being a mediocre white man. I am good at up-selling myself. Looking back at what I wrote on my supporting statement, there is a lot of spin there. ‘More junior colleagues’ refers to ones who started later than me, but were on the same grade. I was never officially a supervisor at Morrisons, although the chaotic circumstances of the shop floor made me act as one on countless shifts – and I demand credit for that. But does being a confident white man also make me less subject to scrutiny than others when it comes to applying for management situations? Either way (although the answer is yes) it’s important that you can justify your spin, and never let it spill over into dishonesty.

If my confidence helped me to justify my ‘experience of managing, motivating, mentoring and developing professional curatorial staff,’ the other thing was the wording of the criterion itself. At first I may have taken it to mean ‘previous experience of line management’. But that’s not what it says at all. It is phrased in a way that invites responses from a range of directions, and opens doors to a number of different routes. It let me answer it adequately in a way that a narrower alternative might not have done. I could talk about blogging, mentoring, volunteer management, theory, and role models – and still pass.

Museums have a bad track record of specifying who gets to work in them and who doesn’t. Credentialism (Essential: MA in Museum Studies) is the classic example. But it spills over into other areas of selection criteria. By considering the skills that we *actually* want, and by using vocabulary and phrasing that is inclusive and open, museums can remove many of the barriers that professionals face in advancing to management positions. This is just one suggestion. This post can only be about my own privileged experience, because that’s all I feel qualified to talk about. But clearly these barriers are something we need to discuss urgently.

Anyway, I love my current job, and have since been given additional line management responsibilities. My main battle now is escaping the paranoia that I’m a terrible boss.



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