02 October 2007

Conservation: Steve McCormick's Departure from The Nature Conservancy, Questions and Appreciation

The emails started hitting my inbox shortly after 11 yesterday morning. From all over the world, colleagues and alumni alike were sending me the news: Steve McCormick resigned from the top of The Nature Conservancy.

"After almost seven years in my role as President," his email to staff began, "and a total of thirty years with The Nature Conservancy, I've concluded that I've contributed all I can to help the organization improve its ability to fulfill the mission. I've decided, therefore, to resign, and will vacate my role immediately."

What is surprising is the abrupt manner in which this was done. It begs the question, "Why now?" The harsh ring of "vacate my role immediately" begs another set of questions. It's not surprising that he stepped down; many of us had speculated that Steve was weary of the top job. And who could blame him?

His first year as president and CEO was marked by an unfair three-part investigative series by the Washington Post. The reporters put Steve -- who was not in charge when many of the alleged discretions were made -- under the spot light; chiefly for the no-interest loan the Conservancy had given him to lure him from California to northern Virginia.

I argued at the time that it was the lack of disclosure and not the loan itself that should have been questioned. I don't see any problem with trying to lure talent to your top position with such incentives. And his salary and Fairfax County home, which were also disclosed, the latter even pictured in the series, were neither extravagant nor lavish.

The Post series, much of which was based on conjecture and a too strict interpretation of what constitutes an "insider," led to two letters of inquiry from the Senate Finance Committee. Even as Steve took the heat most directly, he led the charge for transparency and cooperation, and marshaled all staff to work on the response from whatever corner of the organization they sat.

In the end, the committee in its review called the Conservancy a "model institution" and recommended it as an example of how non-profit organizations should be governed.

During this time Steve was seemingly unflappable. But this belied another struggle he was undertaking: transforming the organization to realize its mission: "to protect the diversity of life on Earth" (emphasis mine), by making it more of a global institution.

In his first 90 days, Steve told staff that the Conservancy needed to act on our global mission and that we couldn't fulfill that promise by spending 80 percent of our resources in the United States, where 20 percent (or less) of the biodiversity was found. We need to flip that ratio and we needed to do it soon -- time was our worst enemy.

Some early advice from ill-considered consultants who misread the organization's appetite for change, led to push-back from many parts of the organization. Much of the Conservancy was ill-prepared to move in this direction or to move as quickly as Steve wanted; some are not there still. Steve's reaction to that push back -- to scale down his tone and rhetoric --- was appropriate, but it eroded his leadership.

The fact is the Conservancy was not ready to do a 180 or even a 90-degree shift. Over 55 years (56 in a few weeks), the Conservancy built a strong infrastructure around a state-based model, and attracted staff, donors, and trustees to make it the largest and most effective conservation organization around.

With that strength and history, however, came responsibility. At times, I've likened this dilemma to a mid-life crisis: the Conservancy has a strong, 55-year marriage and it's faced with the fast-car/trophy spouse of global conservation. To be honest, I'm not convinced Steve's closest advisers at the time were doing him good service. We should have listened to the pulse of the organization, understood how to go about this change in a more strategic, methodical manner.

The Conservancy's brand was so tied up in its history that it seemed intractable. I know about this because my team there was intimately involved with trying to change the perception of that brand, from "We Buy Land" to protecting Nature for life; from "Saving the Last Great Places to words articulating a vision that Steve used in his email to staff: that our vision was not about "protecting lands and waters from people, but conserving them for people."

Truth be told, there were many among us who felt the Conservancy wasn't going far enough and fast enough. The last few years have been characterized by too much planning and process and not enough action. In my mind, some of that leads directly back to Steve's early charge and retreat. Once people got a sense they could push back, they did -- and heavily at times. I don't think Steve's presidency ever fully recovered from that early stumbling.

Ultimately, however, Steve has brought the Conservancy forward towards realizing its potential and his legacy. Much of the organization now better articulates the connections between biodiversity conservation and human well-being; there is a groundswell of recognition of the need to be a global institution, even if it is intellectual and not yet operational; and they now have a more clear strategy for its reaction to the major environmental issue of our time, climate change.

I got to know Steve first when he was California State Director and I was in Alaska. We shared some trustees between our two programs and I always heard about how good Steve was at managing their relationship to the organization. I was also intimately involved in helping shape the conversation on biodiversity/human well-being, going global, and developing the climate change strategy as part of the working group Steve chartered last winter.

At times, he frustrated me; like the Annual Meeting in Monterrey a few years back, right after we had made it through the Senate Finance Committee hearings, when I wanted him to acknowledge our painful journey and how we emerged stronger and better, and now could put it all behind us. I wanted him to take charge, lead the troops, rally all of us towards the ambitious goal we'd set for ourselves. Instead, he told stories that made you scratch your head and had none of the fire of his passion he carries within.

Yet, when Steve was on message, he was on fire, and his tenure as president of The Nature Conservancy should be weighed by the progress the organization made under his leadership. I think the late John Sawhill, whom Steve “replaced,” would be proud of him.

In the end, I left the Conservancy because of a need to explore alternative models, to find a way to catalyze entrepreneurial ideas and approaches that were beyond what the Conservancy could foster. There’s too much of an air of mystery surrounding his abrupt departure (and attempts to reach him have proved futile); I need to know more and why the accelerated timeframe?

I still consider Steve a colleague and am proud to have helped in my small way to move things forward with him. (Would that I could have done more early on to help him navigate the treacherous path he undertook.) I wish the best for him in his next endeavor -- and I hope he does turn his attention to global warming, as he told the Post he may.

For more on Steve McCormick's resignation, see: nature.org


Nature Ali said...

I was saddened to hear of Steve's departure from TNC. He has been a catalyst for so many great habitat protection efforts. I look forward to letting him rest for a while before seeing him reemerge with the tenacious determination that only Steve can manage to turn into real action. I do hope that he and others in the environmental movement will start to address the major problem that threatens our planet and our species, that of overpopulation.

Anonymous said...

Could be that Steve got out just in time - before the you-know-what hits the fan. Try as he may to turn things around and focus on true advocacy, Steve was faced with a task which was unsurmountable. TNC wanted to buy Big Springs (the largest cold water spring in Siskiyou county, CA) very badly, and by now probably has it. Look for TNC to compromise with a large bottler (the area already has three, with another in the wings) to recoup their investment. They already buy land with money they get from large corporate donors. Consider a name change to "The Nestle Channel". God forbid Steve gets replaced by someone like Brian Stranko, who rules his Cal Trout minnions with an iron fist. It seems that legitamacy can be bought, as long as you're willing to pay for enough "studies".