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Working at National Museums Liverpool

Stephanie Donaldson discusses her work as Executive Director of Business Resources at National Museums Liverpool

  • Name: Stephanie Donaldson
  • Current position: Executive Director of Business Resources
  • Organisation: National Museums Liverpool
  • Date of interview: July 2021
Headshot of Stephanie Donaldson.

Tell us about your organisation 

National Museums Liverpool (NML) is an exempt charity and arms-length body of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). NML runs eight national museums and art galleries across Merseyside and operates NML Trading – a commercial retail, events and conference business. We employ 640 permanent and 25 fixed term members of staff and we have approximately 150 volunteers.

Could you describe your workplace culture?   

In the 12 months that I have worked with NML I have been overwhelmed by how passionate and committed everyone is about the organisation. Through what has been very difficult times for everyone, the NML “sprit” has remained so positive, supportive and encouraging for all, and uncompromising on our ambition and creativity. 

What are the key challenges for your organisation?  

We sometimes struggle to recruit support service or “back office” professionals, such as Accountants, HR professionals, Health & Safety and IT because as a charity we are unable to offer salaries which are competitive with the private sector market in these kinds of professions. 

What type of roles do you employ?

We have 25 employees who have Doctorates / PHDs, most of whom work within the Museums and Galleries, for example as Curators or in areas such as Collections Care and Conservation. However, we are a business and as a business we also have all the functions one would expect such as Finance, HR, Health and Safety, IT, Communications and Marketing, Estates Management and so on. We also run a commercial trading company so this includes Retail, Catering, Conferences and Events (such as weddings) teams.

What do you need to build into your workforce to grow your business? 

Within Business Resources, we are keen to “grow our own” and work towards a more structured workforce plan. To do this we have recently undertaken a restructure within the Directorate which has enabled us to create “trainee” roles, utilising the Apprenticeship Levy. This way we can develop Accountants, Procurement professionals, HR professionals or Health & Safety professionals, some of whom may be graduates who are looking to undertake a professional qualification whilst earning and gaining practical experience at the same time.

Are there any specific concepts that you use or talk about often in your sector? 

Key current debates in museums and the wider culture sector are focused on themes of sustainability, equality, access, inclusive histories, decolonisation, cultural heritage protection and ethics and the wider societal impact of museums and their potential to influence national and sometimes international agendas.

What’s your background? 

I studied Archaeology and Art History at the University of Edinburgh, before completing a Retail Management Graduate programme with Argos in the mid-1990s. After a few years working in Retail Management I moved into Retail Internal Audit and then into Internal Audit in local Government. Whilst there I studied my professional Accountancy qualification and became a CIPFA Member (Chartered Accountant). 

I left local Government to work with the Government Internal Audit Agency in Westminster for a couple of years, where I was privileged to be the Head of Internal Audit for both HM Treasury and the Cabinet Office. I left both the Civil Service and Internal Audit when I joined NML as Executive Director of Business Resources, during national lockdown in May 2020. 

Can you describe a typical week in your job? 

I lead the teams that deliver support services – Finance & Procurement, Risk & Governance, HR, Estates and Information Systems – across the NML Group. I started this role during lockdown, so I am not sure I can describe a “typical” week, as we have not been working in a typical way for the last 12 months – in fact the Museums and Galleries have been closed for significant periods during this time. 

However, by its nature my job is varied because the activities that my teams deliver engage with all aspects of the business, supporting them in achieving our objectives and creating memorable experiences for our visitors. 

As a member of our Executive Leadership Team I contribute to decisions about the business. We are accountable to a Board of Trustees and to our sponsor, DCMS, so I also attend Board and Committee meetings and engage regularly with DCMS colleagues. 

What are your favourite parts of the job?  

I like the variation of the role. I enjoy working with people, and am thrilled to be working in the sector as it has always been an ambition of mine, since studying Archaeology and Art History 25 years ago. It is very rewarding seeing the buildings full of visitors, enjoying themselves and knowing that you have contributed to that experience, even in a “behind the scenes” way. 

I used to work in Internal Audit, so I have an interest in making sure that there are good processes and procedures in place that support effective working and help the business succeed and achieve. A significant element of my job is about putting procedures in place and trying to make sure that everyone understands and applies them, so I work with colleagues across the Business. 

What style of leadership have you found most effective?   

I’m a people person: talking to people and listening and being respectful is so important. I always try to take the time to say thank you to colleagues for their contributions, or well done for completing a task or achieving something. We should never be too busy to say thanks. 

It’s important to empower colleagues to get on with their roles and responsibilities and delegation should be used carefully – I would never ask someone to do something that I would not be prepared to do myself. I always take a turn at making the tea when working in the office! 

Everyone in the team is critical to how successful we are as an organisation, regardless of what roles we all do. It’s part of my role to inspire and motivate and develop others to be the best they can be in their roles and support them when they need it. 

What type of skills and motivations do you look for in an employee? 

I think enthusiasm and a genuine interest in NML and what we do, is important. Self-motivation, good communication skills and a desire to help others is also important in roles within support services.

What do you understand to be “excellent communication skills”? 

It would depend on the role; if a role requires presentations to be delivered to the Board of Trustees, for example, or training workshops to be delivered then we would expect that a candidate can demonstrate that they can use the necessary technology and are able to deliver a presentation, answer questions “on the spot” and so on. 

If that was necessary for a role it is likely we would include a presentation as part of the recruitment process (for example, provide a topic in advance and ask for a presentation to be delivered to the interview panel). If it is a role which involves more one-to-one engagement with colleagues or ad hoc support, we would just be looking for someone that is open and engaging with others and can explain points clearly. 

What other “soft skills” are important? 

Again, I think it depends on the role – and there are so many different roles within Business Resources. It might be that there is a need for precision and attention to detail, or good organisation skills, time management, report or business case writing, and so on. 

Could you describe your recruitment process? 

Shortlisting for interview will normally be based around how the candidates have demonstrated they meet the essential criteria for the role, which includes qualifications, skills and experience. 

At interview there may be a presentation or written test (depending on the role) but there will always be a panel of interviewers asking primarily competency-based questions, where candidates will be asked to describe a situation and how they dealt with it. 

These questions will normally relate to situations that they might encounter in the role being interviewed. Candidates will be asked to explain the situation, what the task and actions they took were and what the outcome was (often described as the STAR technique – Situation, Task, Action, Result). 

What makes a prospective employee stand out to you?  

Good time management. If we ask for a five-minute presentation, don’t make it ten! 

It’s also important that candidates listento the questions we ask – if there are 2 parts to a question, try to answer both parts and try to make sure that you answer what has actually been asked for. It’s fine to ask for a question to be repeated and much better than not actually answering it at all, because you hadn’t heard it properly! 

Interviews can make people nervous, and interviewers are aware of this and try to make allowances. A candidate is likely to give a better performance if they are able to control their nerves under pressure (without being over confident). It’s easy to say “try to be yourself” but it does help! 

What is the best way for a prospective employee to showcase their skills to you?  

I think, in terms of job applications, lots of skills are transferrable, so even if you don’t have what appears to be direct, relevant experience, take some time to think how you can demonstrate that you have used these skills – perhaps in another setting or role – and include this in your application. 

What common pitfalls do you see in the recruitment process? 

Candidates will often submit a standard CV or covering statement which does not draw on the role description and person specification for the job and therefore miss the opportunity to highlight or expand on key / essential cares. When there are multiple applications being shortlisted this could be the difference between getting an interview and not getting an interview. 

In interviews, candidates sometime over prepare. I know it sounds a bit strange, but if you have too many “pre-prepared” answers it becomes easy to fall into the trap of sharing examples which you feel will impress but which don’t actually answer the question being asked. 

Finally, good time management is so important. Remember that your interview will be one of maybe 5 or 6 being held that day, try to keep your answers succinct and avoid “rambling” or repeating points, and if a presentation was requested, make sure you stick to the requested time allocation. 

Are there any events or networks that postdocs interested in your sector should attend/join? 

The Museums Association holds an annual conference, which is the largest gathering of museum professionals in the UK every year. You do not need to work in a museum to attend and many delegates come from related sectors and also HEI institutions. In 2021 the conference will be held in Liverpool from 8-10 November and there will also be an option to join virtually (see link above). 

National Museums Liverpool hosts many public events and activities that provide real insight into how museums care for their collections and how they use collections to tell stories or raise awareness.

How can postdocs find out more about your organisation/sector?  

More information about National Museums Liverpool can be found on our website.

One of the best sources of information to find out more about careers in museums, skills development and current debates is the Museums Association. This is a membership organisation, but there is a lot of news and open access information on their website.

If you are interested more broadly in the cultural sector, then Arts Council England is a useful resource to look at key priorities and opportunities in the arts and cultural sectors.

Any advice to postdocs considering a career in your sector? 

The skills that postdocs have developed in their careers are really relevant in the museum sector and can be transferable into many different types of roles that make up the museum workforce. This includes everything from developing our collections, policy development, commercial partnerships to audience engagement and research to name just a few. It’s about thinking laterally and adapting skills with the ultimate aim of creating public benefit. A passion and enthusiasm for museums is always helpful! 

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