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.
Another good one, Max. Curious about what you think of Mt. Vernon since you mentioned it and since I used to work there. From the viewpoint of an outsider, it looks like it is thriving more now than it ever used to. The website is vibrant, programs are varied and interesting.,and the new library is amazing.
We all love Mount Vernon – but they are so rich the next thing will be gold-plating the toilets. Its almost obscene and it is because GW a giant figure in the life of the richest country on earth. They’ve been raising mountains of money for years. I am sure the current CEO is perfectly gifted and talented. I have no idea how one could evaluate leadership in a place so uniquely positioned. This discussion would be better if the case studies were not drawn from the 1/10th of 1% richest history orgs.
Wish I was able to provide more case studies to analyze this topic further, but do remember that Mount Vernon, Colonial Williamsburg, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation are often held up as models for the fields of house museums and historic preservation. What they say, do, adopt, or prohibit is often accepted as professional standards and best practices, so while these three organizations are perhaps are the “1/10th of the 1% richest history organizations,” they have an incredible influence on our field.
The new library is not only a beautiful building, but it provides much better facilities for offices, researchers, meetings, and workshops (indeed, it’s more of a conference center that happens to have a library considering the size of the book and archival collections within the building). The library was one of the last projects completed during Jim Rees’ tenure.
At the Preservation Symposium in Providence last week, Curt Viebranz mentioned that they’re attracting just over one million visitors annually on site. They’re not able to accommodate more visitors, so they’re focusing on their online audience. He said it stood at about one million when he arrived and it’s now up to over six million this year. He also mentioned that the education programs were abysmal so he’s strengthened that program with new staff.
The big thing that Mount Vernon needs to do is evaluate their impact, not just attendance and satisfaction. They’re doing lots of activities and programs, but are they achieving their goals and mission? They’re in a position to measure their impact on visitor attitudes and behavior (and that’s one area that Viebranz has expertise).
Excellent essay. Hard to say what the real trends are. One thing for sure – as B-schools keep spewing out graduates there will be more emphasis on colonizing every occupation imaginable with B-school grads. A serious occupational hazards of consultants – is the need to be appear to have an angle that others miss – a tendency to favor novelty. Laura Roberts was one of the first consultants I knew of who built her business – in part – on disparaging passion, curatorial expertise and content knowledge – insisting or implying that management skills trumped all. I don’t agree. For the rare orgs that can afford to be cost-blind – paying a “CEO” obscene salaries – (aided and abetted by the headhunters – a rant for another day) – there are 500 orgs that don’t have and will never have money to burn like that. Yes – managerial skills matter. But of the many successful orgs and org leaders I’ve known – I can’t think of one where mission-based passion, instinct, and expertise weren’t an essential ingredient of success. To get up every morning and do the joyful, prosaic & grueling things that need to be done – to be the first responder when there are problems, the coach and counselor when staff or board have issues; the messenger to the board, staff & public; to make those endless fund-raising calls and endure the painstaking requirements of grantsmanship, to be careful and discerning how you hire (and at times have to fire) personnel – you better love it and know why you love it. Many of the best museum workers I’ve known were not motivated by money, status or advancement half as much as they were driven by an inner light of passion for the work itself. Its not every business that offers that possibility. Museum boards squander it at their peril. To have a boss that has to fake it (or engage ghost writers) to sound with it – yuck. It would not be unreasonable at this point to ask – “Is B-school BS Ruining Museums.” I don’t honestly know. Every situation is unique – but let’s be serious – CW is gigantic and hardly instructional; Mt Vernon is its own Private Idaho – and the National Trust – evidence is piling up that this is an institution that needs – in the worst kind of way – a visionary change agent and leader.
Excellent post! Am reading in doctors office waiting room. Will comment when I’m back at my PC.
Susan Hellman Carlyle House, Alexandria
Max. Great post. Thankfully I’m over my incredible sadness over the end of my time at the Trust ( I mean it has been five years now!) but it is still great to read your blog. Amazing that person is still there and amazing the money she is earning!
Sent from my iPhone
Thanks, Margaret! I loved working with so many people at the National Trust, who were both smart and passionate about historic preservation. I’m incredibly proud of my association with them.
Excellent observations as always, Max. I think museums, especially historic sites, needed to look elsewhere in order to financially survive. Museum studies degrees are great, but they are a bit pie in the sky — they teach the ideal rather than the reality of museum work. When it comes down to it business people know how to raise money and leverage it through good times and bad. I have yet to meet a museum studies or public history student who is actually learning about “bad times” and what to do. Don’t even get me started on the Ph.D.’s who’ve never actually worked in a small museum but think they can teach about them! Enough of my rant….there is not really a glass ceiling for the museum studies grad — they just need to do broaden their knowledge base (taking business classes, learning how to create budgets, etc) and do something that is often counter to the “millenial/20-something” M.O. — settle into a position long enough to where your superiors can see your skill set and help you grow it rather than bouncing from shiny object to shiny object.