Melissa Kaiser: “You will be the person of last resort. For everything”

Be sure as you build your team that you hire people with skills and styles complementary to yours and to each other’s skills. It will assure diversity of thought and help the team learn to be respectful of other people’s differences. Never come in thinking you have all of the answers. Seek input from your […]

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Be sure as you build your team that you hire people with skills and styles complementary to yours and to each other’s skills. It will assure diversity of thought and help the team learn to be respectful of other people’s differences. Never come in thinking you have all of the answers. Seek input from your team on your most important decisions and set goals collaboratively. Give your team respect and autonomy, reward their performance, and make sure you laugh together daily and often. Conversely, don’t try to stick it out with a team that isn’t working. Change fosters momentum and new energy and always ends up being better in the end. Most importantly, love what you do, and you will attract a team that does as well.

As a part of our series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melissa Kaiser, CEO of DISCOVERY Children’s Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada. Melissa Kaiser is the chief executive officer for DISCOVERY Children’s Museum in Las Vegas, Nevada’s premier interactive museum dedicated to curating STEAM programming for children through interactive and educational exhibits. In her role, she is responsible for overseeing the museum’s fundraising, community relations and program management. Melissa has more than 20 years of professional fundraising experience with an extensive background in capital campaigns, strategic planning and executive management. Prior to her role at DISCOVERY Children’s Museum, she was the executive vice president of development for Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia. In addition, Melissa has served as the senior director of development at the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, where she helped a highly successful major gifts program launch the first endowment campaign in the organization’s history. Since joining DISCOVERY in 2018, she has spearheaded major initiatives for the museum including helping it to become the first museum in Nevada to participate in the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ Museums for All program as well as launch the first public makerspace and DISCOVERY Lab.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I think the defining moment in my life that brought me to this career path was when I decided to be an art history major instead of an economics major. My dad, who was mostly paying for my education at a top liberal arts college, cautioned me against this choice, insisting that economics would give me a better business background. I listened to his appeal, but in the end decided to follow my passion, studying art history abroad and picking up French as a second major. In France, I held my first internship at a museum, and the following summer back home in Pennsylvania, my second. My first job after graduating college was at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia, America’s oldest museum and school of fine arts. After seven years, I moved on to other non-profit organizations to grow my fundraising and executive administration skills, and eventually came back to PAFA nine years later as Executive Vice President of Development. I think pursuing what you love and making it into a career is what made the biggest difference for me.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

I was fortunate enough to help close a 1 million dollars gift to DISCOVERY Children’s Museum shortly after I arrived. This significant gift has enabled DISCOVERY to become the first museum in Nevada to participate in the Institute of Museum and Library Services’ Museums for All program, offering families on assistance reduced admission of 3 dollars to the museum by showing their SNAP, WIC or EBT cards. We also decided to extend the subsidy to foster child caregivers. To promote the program, we are able to invest in a robust Spanish language marketing campaign and build partnerships throughout our neighborhoods with the highest poverty levels. Additionally, we have begun translating our educational museum signage into Spanish and English to support the significant Latino population living in Las Vegas. Since launching the program last fall, we have welcomed more than 20,000 Museums for All visitors.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

The funniest mistake I made by far was thinking that our work day began at 9 a.m. Even when I showed up to work “early,” I noticed that all of the employee parking spots were filled, everyone was settled in their workspaces, and there was no morning chatter — everyone was already productively at work. I was amazed and impressed by this disciplined culture. This went on for a few weeks, with no one telling me I was showing up late, not even my assistant. I don’t remember how I figured it out, but I remember being mortified to think I’d been setting such a poor example as a leader by appearing to breeze in to work on my own time. Lesson learned: read the employee handbook cover to cover to learn the policies and cultural norms of the organization before you start leading it. Doing so also helps identify which policies you disagree with and want to change right off the bat. Outcome: we now have a 9 to 5 workday.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

I have worked for leaders who have invested a lot into the culture of an organization, and leaders who have invested little. During my years in executive management as a department head, I learned how important it was to communicate what was happening at the top of the organization, reward and recognize the team’s accomplishments, and minimize any concerns or fears. However, I also realized that not every department in the organization shared our department’s culture because what I was practicing were not institutionally held values. Entering the role of CEO, I was definitely attracted to the idea of growing a culture of communication and respect within our organization. I believe it drives productivity and performance when employees feel valued and are recognized for what they bring to the table.

Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

I think the biggest difference between a CEO and other leaders is that as the CEO, you become the driver for all of the heavy-lifting that moves an organization forward. You also carry the responsibility of your organization’s success, not just for the people you serve, but also for the livelihood of everyone who works there. You think about that with every decision you make.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

I work with an incredible team of people who complement, support, and motivate each other with their own unique perspectives and experiences. Our team is a mix of executive leaders who have been with the organization for some time, and several others who I’ve brought on with skill sets to address our most pressing needs. I especially value the diversity of thought that each person brings to the table to help collectively solve problems. We are constantly improving upon what we do and how we deliver our services, and I feel as though everyone at DISCOVERY is committed to that vision because they truly care about the organization.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

The human resources and legal issues. The stress that comes with managing a budget and having to make difficult choices and unpopular decisions.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO. Can you explain what you mean?

That CEOs have all of the answers. There was a time when I didn’t think I could be the authority or figurehead for an organization because I got flustered when it came to recall certain information off the top of my head. I’ve since learned that it’s perfectly okay to say to someone that you don’t have an answer but will get back to them with it. Or to admit that something is not your area of expertise but that you will consult with the person representing your organization who is the expert.

That CEOs are not approachable. While a CEO needs to be achievement-oriented and driven, it doesn’t mean that they should never leave their office. I think it’s important that CEOs walk around, ask questions, and show an interest in what their employees are doing. It helps immensely in decision making to have multiple viewpoints, and often the view from the ground is much different than from up above.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I think being judged on your appearance is a challenge faced by both men and women, but I think there may be higher standards for women. I don’t think it is appropriate to call out someone’s appearance in any situation, but I believe it happens to women much more than it does to men. The other day, even after sharing my bio in advance, I was introduced to the audience I was speaking to as “very smart and very pretty”. Can you imagine anyone ever introducing a male speaker only as “very intelligent and good looking”?

I think women also sometimes have a harder time being heard in a room that is predominantly filled with male voices. It drives me crazy when a point a woman has just made is restated by a more dominant voice as if it was their own idea. Thankfully, that has not happened since I’ve become CEO, but it definitely happened on my path to getting here.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

I assumed I would have had more of a learning curve but found that I knew a lot more than I thought I did. And for the areas I didn’t know as much about, I was able to lean on the experience of my board. I was also fortunate to have a board that put a lot of trust in me from the very beginning.

Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

I think resilience is an important trait for a successful executive. There will be times when you are expected to answer difficult questions on the spot and you will need to be prepared with answers, have the ability to think on your feet, and respond with confidence, rationality, and clarity. You definitely need to be self-directed and not prone to procrastination or opposed to taking on challenging tasks. Strong time management skills are essential. You might only get 20–30 minute windows per day at your desk, so prioritizing your time and making it as efficient as possible is critical. You can’t be a perfectionist within those time frames either, so you will just have to trust your abilities, double check your work, and move it forward. I also think humility is another important trait. Keeping your ego out of your decisions and demonstrating judiciousness and empathy go a long way in maintaining a healthy workplace and also letting your team know that you are human.

What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?

Be sure as you build your team that you hire people with skills and styles complementary to yours and to each other’s skills. It will assure diversity of thought and help the team learn to be respectful of other people’s differences. Never come in thinking you have all of the answers. Seek input from your team on your most important decisions and set goals collaboratively. Give your team respect and autonomy, reward their performance, and make sure you laugh together daily and often. Conversely, don’t try to stick it out with a team that isn’t working. Change fosters momentum and new energy and always ends up being better in the end. Most importantly, love what you do, and you will attract a team that does as well.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I had a boss once who encouraged me to apply for a grant writing position at our organization and offered to teach me all that I needed to know to do it well. It wasn’t a job I would have applied for on my own, but she said it was a skill I’d need if I ever wanted to be a Development Director or CEO of a non-profit. It turns out she was right, and my career took off not long after that. I also ended up meeting my future husband through that job, but that’s a story for another day. I am also grateful to my husband Roy who has been my confidante and number-one champion throughout our fourteen years together. (And yes, our former co-worker, Jane, was at our wedding and we remain close friends to this day.)

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I think it’s important to be a leader in the community outside of your day-to-day job. At this moment in time, there happens to be a strong coalition of female arts and culture leaders in the Las Vegas community. Together we are submitting a proposal to the National Endowment for the Arts to establish an arts festival in Symphony Park, home to DISCOVERY Children’s Museum, the coming expansion of the Nevada Museum of Art, and The Smith Center for the Performing Arts, where the Las Vegas Philharmonic and Nevada Ballet Theatre are resident companies. I am also serving as volunteer co-chair of the host committee for the American Association of State and Local History which is bringing its annual meeting and conference to Las Vegas in 2020.

It’s also important to me and my husband, who has also spent his career in the nonprofit world, to contribute to other philanthropic causes we believe in. Whether serving on nonprofit boards, attending events or making personal donations, we do what we can with what we have. For me, supporting the arts and helping more art to be created is one way I try to help bring goodness to the world.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

You mean, besides the fact that our workday started at 8 a.m.?! Ha ha. No seriously:

  1. You will be the person of last resort. For everything.Not to say that you have to be an expert on every subject — thankfully I have an incredibly knowledgeable Board of Trustees supporting me on the really big issues — but all of the difficult day-to-day tasks, such as editing legal contracts, proofing the budget, and consolidating the strategic plan? They’ll be yours.
  2. You’d better like math.You’ll be constantly assessing, bench-marking, analyzing, projecting, forecasting and working to improve the financial performance of the organization. (You were right, Dad. Those economics classes really did pay off.)
  3. People are going to try to influence you about something every second of the day. Whether it’s your staff, external constituents, or your supporters — managing up is real.
  4. Motivating others is constantly going to be your job.You will need to watch for burnout, seek buy-in for revenue strategies, and have hyper self-awareness, because everyone is paying attention to you as a gauge of what is going on in the organization.
  5. You will have to manage yourself. This applies to both your work and your personal life. I go the gym every day at 6 a.m. and make sure to get at least seven hours of sleep so that I am clear-headed and able to be 100% present throughout my day and accomplish all of the above.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Distracted parenting is a real issue in today’s world. Kids are growing up in households where parents are distracted by making ends meet. They are also observing their parents looking at their phones during dinner and playtime, and as a result, they are missing out on critical interaction with their adult caregivers. Many parents who come to DISCOVERY Children’s Museum admit that they don’t know how to play with their children. I’d like to start a movement of caregiver-and-child engaged play, even if that takes the form of joint media engagement. Play is a powerful medium for children and adults alike. If you don’t exercise your imagination, it atrophies like any other muscle. Imagine the good more play would bring to the world, if only we valued it more.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You may never know what results come of your action, but if you do nothing there will be no result.” — Mahatma Gandhi

I think a lot about history and the service that we are called to do as human beings in our communities. When I decided to move to Las Vegas after living most of my life in Philadelphia, many intelligent people I knew shuddered at the thought of living in a city that they perceived to be without history or culture. However, to me, taking the helm of the Children’s Museum meant I was also taking the helm of an important part of the community. To the many people who helped bring DISCOVERY Children’s Museum to fruition and have spent their lives here, the museum is a crown jewel — a miracle that was born in the desert close to thirty years ago. To be called to sustain and further the museum and the cultural community in Las Vegas is an honor to me. Because the community here believes anything and everything is possible, it is a place where through your noble actions, you can make a big impact. (And for the record — Las Vegas has plenty of history and culture, folks. Just plenty.)

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

From what I’ve learned about Dan through interviews and his recent documentary Believer, I’ve grown to admire him beyond the vulnerability and humanity that he shares with the world through his music. Lyrics can be cryptic, but in real life, Dan is not hiding his truth. He openly shares his experiences with physical and mental health issues, his battles to overcome guilt and shame from his religious upbringing, and even the difficulties he has faced in his marriage. Through his actions, Dan is destigmatizing the notion of men vocalizing their feelings, which I think is beautiful and much needed in today’s world.

Dan also has a deep commitment to community service that is genuine and real. He has organized music festivals with messages aimed at preventing bullying, violence and teen suicide among vulnerable youth, and has aligned with the Tyler Robinson Foundation here in Las Vegas to help families fighting childhood cancer. I’d like to talk with Dan not only about his activism, but what it means for to him to be a dad. Who knows, maybe we could even come up with ways to work together on programs at DISCOVERY to empower children from a young age to live their truth.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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