Company Culture

Building a Positive Culture: Lessons from the Seattle Art Museum

By EverwiseAugust 23, 2016

In the Northern reaches of the progressive West Coast, there exists a vibrant group of aesthetically-inclined people. The company office features original art, piercings and tattoos aren’t hidden, and the fashion sense is cutting edge. While you might be picturing a small, trendy firm we’re actually describing the offices of the prestigious Seattle Art Museum.

A leading art institution of the Pacific Northwest, SAM currently encompasses three facilities in Seattle and has a staff of over 270 individuals. The museum began in 1933 in Volunteer Park with a focus on Asian art. SAM opened a new 155,000-square-foot downtown facility in 1991 and then significantly expanded that building in 2007. That same year also saw the debut of the Olympic Sculpture Park, a nine-acre “museum without walls” that is free and open to all. Along the way, the SAM collection has flourished and diversified in terms of media, cultures, and time periods.

SAM’s staff has experienced many transitional times yet are in a place of positive company culture, according to Head of HR Elizabeth Detels. They are an “achievement-oriented culture,” she says, who “are highly engaged and want to offer their best”. Part of their best are unique practices such as encouraging “art breaks” to ponder a new exhibit. Yet while their culture may have surface quirks, there are deep insights to be gained from this mission-based organization.

Learn from Local Resources

SAM trains their customer-facing staff using a method with a unique origin: Pike Place Market, which happens to be just down the street from the SAM headquarters. Behind all the salmon-flinging, the iconic fishmongers of Pike Place have a lively approach to customer engagement based on specific principles which have proven effective across different industries.

For example, rather than stand behind a counter and wait for orders, the fishmongers stand out front and interact with customers: asking where they’re from, posing for pictures with them, and then taking orders. SAM has taken that example and created a richer experience for visitors by having staff/docents in the store and admissions areas approach and speak with visitors rather than waiting for them to ask a question. For SAM, tapping into a resource in their own back yard means delivering great customer service, economically supporting the local community, and drawing on knowledge derived from serving a similar market.

Activate Core Values

The values of your company can’t only live on paper, but should live through employee experiences—both the ones they receive and generate. SAM has an explicit list of six core values: Creativity, Excellence, Engagement, Diversity, Accessibility, and Stewardship. Reading them, it’s clear they have been refined from employee experiences and are targeted towards concrete actions not just internally, but also in the world. For example, under the value of “Creativity” there is mention of art’s “unique power to inspire creative thinking, which is crucial to understanding and solving our world’s complex problems.”

SAM’s core values are not shelved away in the employee handbook and forgotten, but are embodied and articulated by those who work there. They’re even physically displayed in the office along with SAM’s mission. The core values reflect a mission that is near and dear to their hearts, and they use those values daily to steer their individual decisions as well as guide their vision as an organization.

Employee Feedback Systems

Detels can tell you why employees continue to stay with SAM: “The top three reasons are always: because I believe in the mission, I like to be close to art, and I enjoy my colleagues.” She also can tell you what words employees would use to describe their workplace: Friendly, creative, supportive, dedicated, busy, fun, collaborative, and challenging. Detels can tell you this information so precisely because of the feedback systems in place for the SAM employees. They use a variety of methods at the museum to understand the employee experience, including surveys and asking people to describe SAM culture in their own words. Because they are a visual crowd, this data might be put into a useful format like a word cloud, for example.

Using this information, SAM offers many activities and opportunities for the staff to keep everyone engaged. There are leadership teams, social events, sports activities, a book club, and an employee art show. The staff go on curator-led tours of new exhibitions prior to public opening and participate in “staff enrichments” where individuals share research, expertise, learning, and so on with their co-workers. Detels offers an example: “Our Chief Conservator went to Haiti after the earthquake to assist the art museum there…so he shared [his experience] out to our staff.”

Grow and Change with Trust in Mind

Culture at SAM has obviously seen changes with the growth phases the organization has experienced. “With growth comes some formality,” Detels explains. “We need policies, or written practices, and more levels in the organization to manage ourselves.” The requirement to become more formally organized is a common growing pain for successful organizations and should be undertaken with great attention to company culture. Training, resources, and time are all factors in developing cohesive, trusting teams and leaders. Indeed, the people of SAM prioritize trust in a transparent way: discussing the value of it, how to encourage it, and what it looks like.

Detels also notes the role of leadership in shaping culture, explaining that there was a challenging transitional time when long-time Director Mimi Gates retired in 2009 and the SAM had a vacancy until current Director and CEO Kimerly Rorschach came on board in 2012. Detels attributes the current positive culture to many factors, but explains it begins with internal leaders who, “honestly respect and listen to each other.” The people of SAM are excited for the future with the steady leadership they now enjoy, and are ready to continue shaping the Northwest art scene.



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