Photo by Toshi Tasaki
They say you can’t lead by consensus, but Neil Watson, the 59-year-old director of the Katonah Museum of Art (KMA), wouldn’t have it any other way. When the endowment at KMA lost a third of its value during the Great Recession, Watson had tough decisions to make. But, rather than make them alone, he gathered everyone’s input and built a coalition of staffers, united in cause to keep the museum alive. In what should have been discord, Watson wove harmony, and it paid off—through agreed-upon pay freezes and benefit reductions, his staff is largely the same as it was before 2008, confident as ever.
“He builds consensus on the best way to address something,” says Karen Stein, director of education. “When it came to tough economic times, he was very outspoken about how he would do his best not to let anyone go. The only people who left were ready to retire. We’re one of the few museums that can say that.” Candidness about his plans prevented employees from fearing the axe, built trust, and gave them a sense of control. “Integrity is everything,” says Watson. “If people don’t believe what you say, and you don’t do what you say you’re going to do, all is lost.”
According to Nancy Wallach, director of curatorial affairs, “Neil is somebody who wants to hear everybody’s ideas about everything. He brought us all together and we spoke about what each one of us could sacrifice in our departments.” The cuts—personal ones, too, such as a two-thirds reduction in retirement participation, a doubling of employee participation to health insurance, a three-year salary freeze—were made bearable by a sense of shared sacrifice. Watson took the cuts, too. “We have an ally and an accessible person in Neil,” says Stein.
Watson is adamant about the “we” effort at the museum: “After seven years as director, the we has to be every day,” he says. “It has to be in every decision that’s made.” Watson concedes that his is an atypical leadership style—almost counterintuitive—but he’s resolute that it creates a bond among staff that supersedes any benefits from a top-down management style, uniting employees around the museum rather than having them shifting their eyes, wondering who’s next to be fired. “To invite consensus is to invite the challenges of decisions, and in the end they are my decisions, but by opening yourself up and not being a dictator, you’re going to have more conversation, and everyone will be facing in the same direction.”