19 June 2008

Conservation: A Farewell to TNC's Stephanie Meeks

I've crashed a few parties in my day. But tonight I found my way into an invitation-only special event, thanks to my old TNC-pal David Whitehead.

The occasion? Saying farewell to Stephanie Meeks, the acting president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy, who will step down at the end of the month. I was glad I went.

I've known Stephanie for a long time; we came into the Conservancy around the same time, and we each contributed in our own ways to the organization's tremendous success over the past decade and change.

Over the past eighteen years, Stephanie rose in the ranks from a humble start in the Tennessee chapter to acting CEO. She took over the top spot last October, when Steve McCormick left to run the Moore Foundation.

But in reality, Stephanie was capably running much of the organization by the time she stepped into the acting president and CEO role. Since the late 90s, Stephanie oversaw the fundraising, marketing, and operations functions and later became chief operating officer.

Her able leadership, decisiveness, and laser focus fueled the dizzying growth and, ultimately, navigated the ship through unchartered waters: enabling her team to mobilize billions of dollars in support of conservation outcomes.

A colleague told me that when Stephanie stepped up to the plate last Fall, the organization let out a huge exhale. Such was the confidence the staff and board had in her abilities and leadership.

She was an inspiring and tireless leader; in part because she understood the real value in shared leadership and trusting her team. This was a lesson she -- and all of us -- learned from the late John Sawhill, and from Stephanie's former boss, the late Mike Coda.

The Conservancy ultimately decided to go in a different direction, bringing in Mark Tercek to lead its next chapter. This was not a reflection on Stephanie's promise as a leader; most of us who worked under her believed in her capabilities.

As with any leader, we didn't always agree with particular decisions she made. (In the last few years a wall seemed to be building between the staff and executive team, and staff and board, for instance. That was disconcerting, but it never hampered TNC's growth.)

We all understood, however, that Stephanie always lived the Conservancy's values, and her decisions were driven by an insatiable desire to advance the Conservancy's mission.

Some smart group -- non-profit or for-profit -- will snap her up. They will not be disappointed.

Stephanie Meeks will go on to lead another organization of committed individuals to great growth and new heights. She will also learn a lesson a number of us have learned: there is life after TNC.

Thank you, Stephanie, and good luck in your future endeavors. I won't say goodbye, hoping our paths will cross again down the road.

(Blogging by BlackBerry; updated with links and photo courtesy of TNC on 6/20/08)