Situation: Deborah Lahey knew that her first CEO position was not going to be easy. When she was named president and CEO of the Chicago Academy of Sciences and its Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in May of 2010, she became the Museum’s sixth CEO in just 10 years. In the last decade, the Museum struggled to find its voice and relevance in a competitive Chicago market. Her previous experience as the institution’s chief operating officer helped in the transition to CEO, but she knew she needed communications and executive positioning to overcome the institution’s challenges and begin her tenure as its leader. She reached out to PCI to help.
Challenge: The Nature Museum, the public face of the Chicago Academy of Sciences, needed a leader to refocus and strengthen the Museum’s mission and identity. Lahey had limited management experience, and her résumé did not suggest she could be a transformational leader. Economic challenges also plagued the Museum as Lahey stepped in to establish financial stability and revitalize the Museum.
Given the Museum’s notoriety as a “revolving door” for top management, it was crucial to quickly establish the new CEO as a leader with vision and with a plan of action. The campaign focused on establishing Lahey’s “CEO brand” and having her become the voice and face of the Museum that would now concentrate on connecting urban dwellers with nature and science.
Research/Planning: PCI worked with the Museum’s board of directors and senior managers to develop a new mission, vision and strategic plan. This included evaluating past failures and challenges for the institution and for past CEOs. The team researched and identified what made Lahey uniquely qualified to lead the institution and what in her background would enable her to turnaround the Museum and bring it not only stability but increased financial support and attendance. As a Chicago native, an avid conservationist, community leader and mother of three, Lahey’s brand developed around a “Mother Nature” theme.
The Museum’s new direction focused on the urban region’s nature, science and conservation. As CEO, Lahey led the staff and board in this new direction, and PCI worked with her to establish her leadership goals, her CEO brand, and a message platform and a campaign plan to weave it together.
• Create a personal CEO brand for Lahey that establishes her public image and supports the Museum’s new strategic plan. Connect her personal passion with the Museum’s renewed mission and vision.
• Carry the CEO brand through increased internal communications to staff and board.
• Create strategic media and public appearance opportunities for the new CEO to increase her visibility.
• Use the new leadership and strategic plan to build public confidence and increase financial support to help ensure the Museum’s future.
Strategic Approach: Coming from a philanthropic background and having no formal management training, Lahey did not have the typical Chicago museum CEO pedigree. PCI helped her turn her uniqueness into her strength and developed a CEO brand. As a lifelong Chicagoan, avid gardener and daughter of a Chicago police officer, Lahey has a compelling personal story and passion for Chicago and for urban and regional nature.
Using strong messages and coaching, PCI assisted Lahey in become a hip “Mother Nature“ with her caring and passionate approach and her “get things done” management style. Visuals to support her CEO brand began from her announcement photo: Lahey posing with a snake draped around her neck like a scarf, a new video featuring Lahey welcoming visitors to the Nature Museum, and photographs of her running in the Museum’s Go Green 5k race were all used to help convey her brand to the public. She quickly became recognized as the CEO who cares about and is hands-on involved with nature.
PCI positioned Lahey in all media outreach to help increase her visibility. The plan also included making more regular contact with the Board of Trustees and demonstrating how she was putting a leadership “face” on the Museum. PCI worked with Lahey to launch the creation of a weekly e-mail to staff (Deb’s Dispatch) and a monthly update to the Board.
During several messaging and media trainings with PCI, Lahey mastered sound bites to answer tough questions and to position the Museum’s new strategic direction as “the Urban Gateway to Nature and Science.” As the face of the Nature Museum, she became the media spokesperson for all exhibition openings, as well as any nature and conservation issues in the news. This resulted in several high-profile media interviews, including a morning show appearance handling a Box turtle and talking about habitat protection on live television, and another on Chicago Tonight talking about human/nature conflict. It included her explaining the regional demise of the Prairie Chicken, of which she brought a specimen from the Academy’s collection.
But Lahey’s brand is more than about nature. It’s about caring for people. Lahey offered the beautiful Museum setting to Wish Upon a Wedding, a non-profit wish-granting organization providing weddings and vow renewals for couples facing terminal illness. The early October wedding and the story of the couple was featured in Parade Magazine in December.
Also under her new leadership, the Nature Museum began using Facebook and Twitter to increase public outreach and to reinforce the new mission and vision and Lahey’s CEO brand.
Results: The CEO and leadership transition campaign proved that it’s hard to resist “Mother Nature” when she has a directed message platform, takes her message publicly, demonstrates a passion for nature and her community, and delivers positive business results. Lahey is well entrenched as the new CEO and as the face of the Nature Museum that has gained wide publicity and results.
• In 2010 media coverage of the Museum increased 36% to include 330 placements.
• The campaign helped Lahey secure the Museum’s first exhibition corporate sponsor in three years. Nature’s LunchBox gained sponsorship from major grocer Dominick’s. Lahey and Dominick’s CEO Don Keprta announced the sponsorship at the opening of the exhibition, and the check was presented at VIP Grocery Store Gala attended by a who’s who of Chicago’s elite.
• Lahey’s increased communication with the Board of Trustees helped focus the board on the new strategic direction, increased board confidence, and helped increase board giving to 50% over the previous year.
• The new CEO weekly staff newsletter inspired team building and celebrated successes and built staff confidence.
• Under new leadership the Museum finished 2010 with a balanced budget and a gain in attendance ranking the Museum 6th among cultural institutions in Chicago, a level never before accomplished.
With her growing public image as a nature lover, community leader and leader of a major Chicago institution committed to connecting urban dwellers with regional nature, Lahey is taking the Nature Museum to new level of success.