Stewards over gatekeepers: Three Principles for Partnerships

Worse still is when a gatekeeper seeks to maintain broken aspects of the business’ status quo to serve their own self-interest, thereby failing in their duty to the institution or other partners. Stewards are “possibility engineers”. Gatekeepers are “progress suppressors”. Be a steward not a gatekeeper when working in partnerships.

Hello, I'm Neal Stimler, an arts consultant and Senior Advisor with the Balboa Park Online Collaborative. In my role, I help clients with nonprofit technology initiatives that connect audiences to art, culture, and science. Prior to joining Balboa Park Online Collaborative, I had over a decade of service at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. You can learn more about me and my work at www.nealstimler.com.

  Neal Stimler. Image by Konrad Brattke Photography.

Neal Stimler. Image by Konrad Brattke Photography.

Today, I will share three “partnership principles” from my professional and personal experience as an inspirational guide to anyone looking to build those strong partnerships that enable us to reach business goals. If you are interested in learning more about partnerships, collaboration, content, UX and business culture, consider joining me for the Boye 19 Brooklyn Conference May 7-9, 2019.

Three Partnership Principles: Stewards, Not Gatekeepers

Prior to becoming an independent arts consultant, I worked for over a decade at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In my various roles at The Met, including that of Program Manager Content Partnerships, it was the concept of “stewardship” that I kept at the forefront of my mind. I came to understand the personal responsibility I had to serve my colleagues and the public in a manner that provided the fullest opportunity for art, business and culture to flourish in relationship to the artworks in the collection of this world renowned institution. I attribute this understanding of stewardship as a core principle in museum work to the former and esteemed Director Emeritus of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Philippe de Montebello, under whose tenure I had the privilege of beginning my career.

Applied to partnerships, stewardship emphasizes a sincere commitment toward the brand, content and organization’s mission that one serves. A stewardship approach toward developing an institution’s partnerships means being curious and open-hearted to the possibilities that new contacts [from outside the immediate confines of that institution] may bring. The partnership steward cares as deeply about delivering a successful project, as someone who is in an institutional role; both must be fully committed to the institution’s integrity, mission and vision.

There is a great deal of awareness, nuance and sensitivity to being a steward. Inhabiting the role of a steward in a partnership requires an attentive mind. A partnership steward is devoted to decisive action that serves the institution yet has a sense of the common good and a willingness to achieve the agreed upon goals set forth by leadership and the collaborators. A steward develops a capacity for judgment that keeps a partnership on a clear course that is aligned with the institutional mission.

A steward sees the boundless expanse of creative possibilities that can help the business and its customers thrive at a responsive, innovative pace of production. In comparison, a gatekeeper sees only the boundaries of what they alone are unable or unwilling to do. Worse still is when a gatekeeper seeks to maintain broken aspects of the business’ status quo to serve their own self-interest, thereby failing in their duty to the institution or other partners. Stewards are “possibility engineers”. Gatekeepers are “progress suppressors”. Be a steward not a gatekeeper when working in partnership.

  Pellegrino dal Colle (Italian, Belluno 1737–1812 Venice). After Francesco Maggiotto (Italian, Venice 1738–1805 Venice). The Printmaking Workshop. 1750–1800. Engraving. Purchase, Brooke Russell Astor Bequest, 2013. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2013.223. Creative Commons Zero 1.0.    https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/415528

Pellegrino dal Colle (Italian, Belluno 1737–1812 Venice). After Francesco Maggiotto (Italian, Venice 1738–1805 Venice). The Printmaking Workshop. 1750–1800. Engraving. Purchase, Brooke Russell Astor Bequest, 2013. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 2013.223. Creative Commons Zero 1.0. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/415528

“Yes And!”  

My work in museums led me to work with incredible and talented educators whose role is to foster sincere engagement with artworks for audiences of varying ages and abilities. Museum educators are often talented coaches who help people develop their capacity and skills for learning through “affirmational approaches.” These methods are aimed at nurturing a learner’s personal growth (and the collective understanding of a class or group) on the subject of inquiry. Museum educators can be integral leaders in an institution, especially when their own abilities are honed to adapt agilely to new ideas, methods and technologies in order to achieve learning outcomes for the benefit of all variety of learners.

In 2014, I had the opportunity to participate in a collaborative learning experience with Jen Oleniczak Brown, co-led by Jen and other facilitating educators, in the style of a “Throw Down” at the American Folk Art Museum. Jen’s engaging practice through improvisation techniques at the event, left a lasting impression on me when considering my own ability to improvise and iterate on problem-solving solutions, especially when facing roadblocks on partnerships.

One of Jen’s techniques is the emphasis on “Yes, And!” It’s even tattooed on her arm! “Yes, And!” according to Jen is a “powerful leadership tool because it allows for affirmation and collaboration.” It keeps open the door to possibility in partnerships, and other work scenarios, as it is focused on achieving a goal and resolving the problem of what action to take next. As Jen points out, “but” is often used by people to block or stop progress. “Yes, And!” is a leadership style that emphasizes action by doing rather than dissuading. It’s important to keep in mind that “Yes, And!” is not a free-for-all! It requires thoughtful management and oversight abilities to guide a partnership with discernment in-sync with the stated goals and outcomes of the project.  

Jen has gone on to even more success with her entrepreneurial coaching company, The Engaging Educator; she is a contributor at Forbes and is a TEDx speaker. Jen’s also the author of Improv(e): Using Improv to Find Your Voice, Style, and Self, published by Balboa Press in 2018. Follow her work and engage her expertise!

  Jen Oleniczak Brown. "Yes, And" Tattoo. November 29, 2018. © Jen Oleniczak Brown.

Jen Oleniczak Brown. "Yes, And" Tattoo. November 29, 2018. © Jen Oleniczak Brown.

Resounding Resilience

Since my university days, I have had the pleasure of annually visiting Avalon, New Jersey in the autumn of each year. This family trip is a celebration of my mother’s birthday and her amazing friendship with a former work colleague, who is as close and loved by our family as a blood relative. The trip for me is always a time to reset, refresh and re-connect with my vision of the “self” that I want to be in the world for my family and for whomever I encounter in this life journey.

Among the special things that I do while at the shore is to take early morning walks with my father on the beach of the Atlantic Ocean. We talk about anything on our minds, from issues of the present moment to memories from long ago. I notice each year, as our feet leave temporary impressions on the sand, that our being together in this place once again marks the growth and endurance of what we have experienced in the previous years. I witness the movement of water in and out with tides. I take in the smell of the salty air that clears my mind. I watch light carve clouds like sculptures. I listen to the symphony of the sea alive with us as we walk - as we walked before - and shall walk again. These walks with my father and contact with nature are beacons of resounding resilience for me.

Partnerships, too, require resounding resilience. Often throughout the course of a business project or relationship, obstacles--some expected and others unexpected-- come like a change of wind while you are sailing on the water. In these moments of difficulty, it is critical to: remain aware of the commitment made to one’s organization and its collaborators; and to continue with the same thoughtful care for one another that you established at the beginning of the journey. The light will cut through and the seas of struggle will calm again. What will matter at the end is that you held the lines, wrapped in the arms of your colleagues, to achieve the goal that you set. The memories of these victories of the human spirit will carry you onward to succeed again and again.

  Neal Stimler. Sunrise; Avalon, New Jersey. September 28, 2018. Creative Commons Zero 1.0 via Flickr.    https://www.flickr.com/photos/52357995@N07/44300421960

Neal Stimler. Sunrise; Avalon, New Jersey. September 28, 2018. Creative Commons Zero 1.0 via Flickr. https://www.flickr.com/photos/52357995@N07/44300421960

Reminder!

In work and life keep three partnership principles in mind:

  • Be A Steward. Not A Gatekeeper.

  • Yes, And!”

  • Resounding Resilience

A Conference that Empowers Partnerships

My first Boye conference in 2012 showed me the potential for amazing collaborations between leaders in widely different business sectors. At each subsequent conference I attended, I met inspiring professionals who demonstrated a curiosity about the world. Moreover, they shared a commitment to leveraging partnerships to achieve innovation in all types of businesses. The products and projects I learned about at the conference inspired my own work in the museum field. I have benefited greatly from the sincere generosity of other Boye and Company thought-leaders and the helping hands they extended to me. The people I met and worked with through Janus Boye became business colleagues but, more importantly, they became my friends, mentors and partners throughout my career.

Hope to see you at the Boye 19 Brooklyn conference!