Donald J. Trump’s election to the U. S. presidency is a shock to many pundits and career politicians because he never held elected office and didn’t seem to care about politics or government, except as it might benefit his businesses. His interest is business, following his father into real estate and receiving his bachelor’s degree in economics from the Wharton School, and then pursuing real estate development, professional sports, beauty pageants, for-profit education, branding and licensing, and entertainment. While the 2016 campaign will be heavily analyzed for years to understand its unfolding, my sense is that it’s not just about “change,” but a change in the skills and qualifications required for effective leadership. It’s no longer about mission, vision, or values, but the expertise and perspective of independent business entrepreneurs. And it’s a trend I’ve been witnessing in house museums and historic sites as well.
In the last decade, several major history and preservation organizations have selected CEOs who have little passion for or experience with the mission of the organization but instead offer outsider perspectives, often informed exclusively by an MBA:
- In 2010, the National Trust for Historic Preservation hired Stephanie Meeks as its president, who holds an MBA from George Washington University and had a long 17-year career in the financial management of The Nature Conservancy. Her primary interest is in environmental conservation and she is currently the board chair of the Potomac Conservancy and was a trustee of RARE, an international conservation group. She followed the long 17-year tenure of Richard Moe, an attorney with extensive experience in the White House and Congress. When he became the Trust’s president in 1993, he was actively involved in preserving the Manassas Battlefield and just completed a book on the history of the First Minnesota Volunteers.
- In 2012, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union hired Curt Viebranz as the CEO and president of George Washington’s Mount Vernon. He was an advertising executive at HBO, Time Warner, and AOL; founded Korrelate, a consumer research company; and received his MBA from Harvard University. Before his arrival to Mount Vernon, his only connection to history or museums was on the board of the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation, which holds a significant collection of Civil War photographs. He followed James Rees, who spent nearly three decades at Mount Vernon, starting in development and fundraising until he was appointed president in 1994. He received his Masters in Public Administration from George Washington University and did development at the College of William and Mary and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
- In 2014, the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation appointed Mitchell Reiss as President and CEO. He holds a law degree from Oxford and was briefly the president of Washington College in Maryland. Most of his career, however, was spent in international relations and public policy, including as the President’s Special Envoy for the Northern Ireland Peace Process and author of three books on international security, most recently Negotiating with Evil: When to Talk with Terrorists. He followed the 14-year tenure of Colin Campbell, who holds a law degree from Columbia and was president at Wesleyan University and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
I’m not saying that Meeks, Viebranz, and Reiss have nothing to offer their organizations and their accomplishments are bogus. Nor am I saying that an MBA is worthless (indeed, I’ve found businesses classes to be immensely helpful in my work with historic house museums). What I am noticing is that there is a seismic shift in the qualifications necessary for leaders in history museums and historic preservation. The traditional expertise in history, collections, preservation, or non-profit management no longer seem necessary and indeed, may be perceived as a weakness on one’s resumé. This is continually on my mind when I teach graduate students who are eager to work in museums and I lead workshops for historic sites to sharpen their skills in historic preservation, historical interpretation, or museum management. Is this education and experience all for naught? Will they eventually reach a dead-end in their careers, unable to fill the CEO’s chair?
I suspect many of the organizations who hire outsiders are seeking a breath of fresh air and some outside-the-box thinking. Attendance and membership is down, fundraising is becoming harder, and it feels like they’re not making any progress. With the new CEO, change does happen and it initially seems exciting. They move out of their old historic building, introduce programs that attract more visitors, and reorganize the staff for increased efficiency. But it turns out it’s a short-term pursuit of “change for change’s sake” and there’s “no there there.” Within a few years, the organization finds it’s in the same rut.
A passion for and knowledge of the organization’s mission is the basis for a visionary and effective leadership. It not only ensures a deep understanding of the purpose and goals of the organization, but informs the CEO’s decisions and values. As Jim Collins explains through his Hedgehog Concept, “The good-to-great companies focused on those activities that ignited their passion. The idea here is not to stimulate passion but to discover what makes you passionate.” If it’s all about technique and no passion, the work of the organization is mechanical and soulless—attracting visitors is just a marketing program, raising funds another sales job, and decisions are merely calculations based on return-on-investment. That’s what I’ve found in these new types of CEOs. They view non-profit organizations as poorly managed enterprises that simply need to be more like businesses (while overlooking that most businesses fail after five years). They’ve memorized the talking points crafted by the communications department, but if they go off-message and speak impromptu, they say ridiculous and vacuous things. Sound familiar? This lack of passion and authenticity will eventually erode trust. Unfortunately, it affects the organization more than the CEO. He or she has gone on to another job and left the organization with a stained reputation that takes years to clear up. And the board that hired the CEO? They’ve moved on as well.
Hiring a CEO is one of the toughest and most important jobs for a nonprofit board. The combination of skills required for the job in history museums and historic preservation are often not adequately compensated so it’s hard to attract well-qualified candidates. Boards are often forced to make compromises and lower their expectations. And yet that doesn’t seem true for national organizations. In 2014 (the latest data available), Mount Vernon paid its CEO $351,324; National Trust paid $500,598; and Colonial Williamsburg paid $762,962. These seem to be sufficient salaries to attract ideal candidates, yet two of these organizations had incredible struggles finding an executive who matched their expectations or were willing to serve. Perhaps their expectations were too high, the job has too many headaches, or salaries are out of whack across the field. Jim Collins argues that having the right people so crucial to an organization’s success, that it’s even more important than deciding the mission or vision. As he says, “leaders of companies that go from good to great start not with “where” but with “who.” They start by getting the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats. And they stick with that discipline—first the people, then the direction—no matter how dire the circumstances.” What Collins doesn’t explain, however, is which people are “right” and “wrong” for an organization. It seems those definitions for CEO are changing in our field.