Becoming Middle Management

It took about a year into my role at Montpelier to realize that my primary job wasn’t entirely doing archaeology: it was managing people who happened to be doing archaeology. I am a “middle manager”. Certainly, I have archaeological responsibilities. I plan and lead excavations, write reports, instruct field schools, interpret data and teach archaeology to the public. Sometimes I use a trowel to move dirt around. But for the most part, I manage and supervise archaeologists who do the excavations. During my first few years on the job, I learned that managing a team effectively requires more than just intuition or experience. I had no real idea how much time, energy, and work it takes to become an effective supervisor, and that it will be something I will work on throughout my career. As such, it has become the thing that I have focused my efforts on over the past three years.

My graduate training was not much of a help in this regard. In large part, getting your PhD is a solo operation. Even the projects I did run had small crews largely made up of my fellow graduate students, and the projects were short, sometimes a few days, sometimes weeks, and field schools going for over a month. Even working on crews doesn’t help as much as you might think: being able to identify poor management doesn’t mean you are going to be any better at it yourself. Building, leading, and working with a team that is large, made up of strangers, and that works on projects year-round is a real challenge. There are far more opportunities for things to go wrong, for personality conflicts to grow and fester, and for bad habits to form, both among management and the crew. It doesn’t take much for a toxic culture to emerge, and both the cause and responsibility to solve it falls at the feet of the leadership.

It has taken me a little while to become more comfortable and confident as a leader. I had assumed from previous experiences that management was something you intuit. I knew what kind of leader I considered myself to be, but it didn’t seem to translate into the type of performance or culture that I wanted. I couldn’t just want or wish a certain type of workplace into existence, and I began to realize I hadn’t learned or developed the skill set to do that effectively. So, I have been doing the one thing that graduate school did teach me how to do: research.

It turns out, scholars and practitioners research, study, and talk about management. Almost everyone is either a manager or is managed, and most of the world is concerned about how to do that well. So, people research it. A lot. There are many excellent resources out there that archaeologists can learn from and apply. They range from how to have effective one-on-ones (or just to have them); having difficult conversations with staff; coaching your employees to improve their skills; building an effective workplace culture; recruiting and retaining talent; how to onboard new employees; the importance of gratitude and feedback…things that we either think sound easy, but can be a surprising challenge, or that we never thought would matter or sounds wishy-washy, until you try it, and it works.

So, that is where my time and energy has gone the past few years. Trying to figure out how to do my job as middle management more effectively, and how to build a team and culture that does quality work and enjoys doing it. As a result, I haven’t spent much time blogging, or publishing from my dissertation, or participating in the discipline in ways I “should” be. Instead, I’ve been reading books about management and leadership. I’ve had to learn a variety of new skills that I hadn’t developed, and that I didn’t even know existed. A lot of this required some real personal reflection on who I am, what I value, where I derive happiness at work, and how I want to lead, while other books have led to more practical, tactical skills. But they were skills that I need to develop so I could help my team do better archaeology. I’m still working on them…and I’m grateful to the staff members from the past few years who have tolerated, and continue to tolerate, my growing pains.

As I’ve gone through this process it has made me wonder: how do other archaeologists think about management and supervision? Do you? Are there unique challenges that we face as a discipline? I’m particularly thinking of the CRM field, or people who tend to hire new crews project to project. I tend to have my ear to the ground when it comes to the back channel chatter on Twitter, and I don’t often see conversations about strategies for team management, developing work culture, etc., aside from the important discussions like compensation and issues with harassment in the field. (I did enjoy this convo on Go Dig A Hole where the director talks about putting together the team). With that in mind, expect more posts in the future where I will share a bit about what I’ve learned and continue to learn, resources I’ve been using, and some of the things we’re trying at Montpelier, but I hope to get your input and ideas as well. Archaeology should be a fun and enjoyable process for everyone, and effective management and supervision is a critical part of how this can be achieved.

  • Jo VanEvery

    I look forward to hearing more about this. You have made an important observation and I like the way you are approaching it. I wonder if there are opportunities for people in positions like yours to get together to discuss this kind of thing in person at conferences. I’m thinking places you might be going anyway to talk about the archeology. I remember years ago, for example, that the Heads of Department met at the annual British Sociological Association conference.

  • David A. Brown

    This is an excellent introduction to a subject seldom discussed in our discipline. I applaud the fact that you didn’t simply assume that you would be best served by trial and error alone, but took the step to read about management in other disciplines. I can imagine the eye rolling that would follow someone recommending management texts to an upwardly mobile archaeologist, but until someone writes something specifically for archaeologists, that will be the only alternative to the “fake it until you make it” approach. My own challenges stem from jumping from field tech to co-director…no “middle” stage. And while I’ve had the advantage of small numbers of staff, and excellent ones at that, most of my management experience came with overseeing volunteers (a somewhat different phenomena). I look forward to your next chapter on this…figurative and literal.