Think Globally, Act Globally: The Nature Conservancy

The not-for-profit Nature Conservancy is moving beyond its North American roots (and U.S. donor base) to kick into high gear its efforts to conserve critical ecosystems in 32 countries.  Relying increasingly on partnerships around the world to protect land and water, the organization reasoned it could learn from the wisdom of corporations who had already begun the transition from multi-national to global.

Leadership development consultant Flaminia Mangone explains, “In the past we’ve operated primarily as a US-centric organization.   We’re really thinking about how we can develop our senior leaders to work most effectively in a global environment.”  Recognizing the high commitment of its workforce—employees sign on because they want to change the status quo—and setting out to secure buy-in for an ambitious global strategy that represented a real departure from tradition, the Conservancy needed leaders to embrace a new mindset that would help drive change across boundaries.

Passion and intelligence, notes Vice President of human resources Cynthia Smith, are a differentiator, but these traits alone are not enough for the next generation of Nature Conservancy leadership.  “We have a highly educated and enthusiastic workforce,” she says. “We needed an executive education program to take us beyond our skills, to really enable our people in some of the less tangible areas of leadership.”

In the spring of 2006, the organization invited some of its most talented managers and directors (“fellows”) to a week-long program focused on building relationships and learning how to translate strategy into action. The program employed innovative learning methods to affect both behavior and belief, and helped fellows model the kind of communication that could make change happen.

In one activity, they worked together to build a life-size model bridge.  Recalls Dawit Zeleke, ecoregion manager for the Great Central Valley in California, “I had the blueprints, but I couldn’t share them with my team. Helping people visualize what they can’t see was very difficult. If communication on that scale is difficult, it humbles me to think about what it must be like in an organization like ours where the mission is global.”

During the week, the fellows met with their supervisors, who had convened just down the hall in their own customized program; the parallel structure allowed fellows to work on tangible development plans. External Affairs Director Roberto Troya worked with his regional managing director on a communication framework to help Troya grow as a leader while influencing community partners and policy makers—both regionally and world-wide.

The fellows were quick to connect what they learned with action plans back at work. “I am already applying communication tactics and techniques that we learned,” said Troya two weeks after the program. “Providing framework, strategic perspective, and discipline may help the environment where I am living in Ecuador, especially in working with decision-makers to apply and enforce laws.”

Troya adds, “Most of the people in the organization are very passionate about what we do. Passion plus framework, passion plus strategic alignment and vision is a very powerful force.”