In our day jobs at Arthur Diamond Associates we spend a lot of time talking to business leaders and industry influencers, and we thought it would be great to have a monthly Q&A sharing the insights and learnings from executives at the top of their game.
We are lucky enough to have our inaugural Q&A with Tamara Christian, COO of The International Spy Museum in Washington DC who graciously agreed to share her thoughts with us.
What attracted you to your current position? It’s the International Spy Museum – the coolest place to work! The idea of working for an institution that both educates and entertains visitors, while also giving back to the community, was very appealing to me. I love the fact that the Spy Museum is considered a go-to resource as a thought leader on the international intelligence landscape used by major news outlets, authors, researchers and academics. We offer something for everyone, and that is what brought me here. Being at the heart of such an organization and being part of the incredible creative process, while surrounded by an amazing team – that is what keeps me here.
What trends do you see impacting the industry you are in, in 2-4 years? There are many, but technology is one that continues to evolve and affect our industry in unique ways. The Museum industry is at a crossroads, struggling to find a balance between digitizing content to share with a broader audience, thus becoming online curators; while still creating impactful experiences that people can’t get solely over the Internet. Museums now compete with YouTube, search engines and other digital sources for curating content. We need to work harder to convince people to leave their computers and walk through a Museum to see the real as opposed to the digital.
Once people get to the Museum, technology is creating different expectations for the public – a lot is a direct result of video gaming. Guests are increasingly expecting to be part of the story, to step into the experience, as opposed to just reading labels and consuming information. I am a strong advocate for the best visitor experience possible; however, there are significant costs that have to be carefully considered and monetized, and that’s not easy. Most Museums are not-for-profit but they still have to cover their operating costs. The cost of creating technologically engaging experiences that educate and entertain – that differentiate from a billion dollar gaming company industry and have you walking away informed and inspired – is quite high. Plus, once the experience is created you need to keep enhancing and building. Today’s trending technology might very well be obsolete in five years.
Who has been your mentor? I have been fortunate enough to have had several. Diana Simmons was the President of National Trade Productions, a company I began working for as an intern when I was 24 and getting my MBA. Diana started as the receptionist at NTP and worked her way to the top. She is a very straight forward, no-holds-barred person and I admire that about her. If you work for Diana, you know where you stand with her. She showed me that savvy knowhow, transparency, and above all hard work can drive a career. Little did I know when I was looking up to her that I would one day have her job when she moved on to the next step in her career. I am also very thankful to Bob Harar, the Chairman and Founder of National Trade Productions. He offered me the position of President when I was still green, but he had total confidence and stood behind me giving me support and freedom to make decisions. I don’t know where I would be if it wasn’t for these two people.
What is the best piece of career advice you’ve received? Create a work environment where the team feels safe making mistakes. We often learn more from our mistakes than our successes, but if you don’t feel safe admitting a mistake when you have made one, the culture is going to be one of cover-up and blame and that doesn’t feed innovation and growth.
As Albert Einstein put it, “Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.”
I’m also a big believer in redesigning jobs to minimize an individual’s weaknesses. Weaknesses don’t change, or they change temporarily when the boss is putting pressure on you, but we all eventually revert back to our true selves. Companies spend a lot of time trying to fix weaknesses within their staff instead of taking advantage of their strengths. If you have someone who is fantastic at 75 percent of their job but lousy at the other 25 percent, can the job be re-designed? Can you re-envision the 25 percent of the job they don’t do well to better suit their skills? If so, you will have an ‘A+’ top performer and those are hard to find.
What was your first job? Aside from babysitting, stuffing envelopes in my father’s office and selling painted rocks on the curb, my first “real” job was working in a small drug store. I learned a lot about customer service in that job and also about listening. Some of the people who came in to pick up their prescriptions really just wanted someone to listen to them. Listening brought the customers back again and again. This lesson has stayed with me my entire career – spend more time listening to your customers – they are your market research and they will tell you what they need.
What accomplishments are you most proud of at The International Spy Museum? It’s unusual to put someone with no Museum experience into my role and I’m sure everyone on my team was rolling their eyes when they heard my background. So being accepted by this talented team of Museum professionals, earning their respect and helping to make the team even stronger, makes me proud.
What would people be surprised to know about you? I’m fairly open so I’m trying to think of what might surprise people. I’m terrified of roller coasters, snakes and cliffs, but not scared of speeding cars, other reptiles or heights.
What’s next for The International Spy Museum? We are in the process of moving the Spy Museum to a new location, the historic Carnegie Library at Mount Vernon Square. In September, we announced this project, with Events DC and The Malrite Group as co-developers. It will add 58,000 square feet of new space to the Library, create a state-of-the-art Visitors Center, and consolidate and renovate the Historical Society of Washington’s galleries and offices, while bringing a variety of community amenities to one of the capital city’s original green spaces. The proposed development includes 40,000-square-feet of new underground space below the Library for the Spy Museum, creating large flexible exhibit areas for the Museum.
This move is positioning the International Spy Museum for long-term sustainability by providing additional space for changing exhibitions to most effectively tell the real stories of real spies. It allows for our institution to grow while simultaneously furthering our relationship with the District.
What’s your favorite artifact or exhibit at the museum? There are so many! However, our newest interactive exhibition “Exquisitely Evil: 50 Years of Bond Villains” is my favorite. It celebrates the 50th anniversary of the James Bond film franchise, as told through the eyes of 007’s most infamous adversaries, exploring the influence of the iconic series in shaping the public’s understanding of the world of espionage. It is the first exhibit that I was able to see from start to finish – from the incredible creative process that went into the concept and initial designs down to the detailed process of developing original video content, creating exciting and engaging interactive elements, installing the complete exhibition, and then finally opening to the public and media.