Developing the leaders of tomorrow’s Smithsonian

“Great vision without great people is irrelevant.”

With this quote from Jim Collins, author of Good to Great, Secretary Wayne Clough, in a letter read by Alison McNally, Under Secretary for Finance and Administration, congratulated the 11 newly graduated participants in the Smithsonian’s inaugural leadership development program. He also challenged them “to expand the contribution that the Smithsonian makes to our society and the world.”

Photo: (Click on thumbnail for full-size image.) Front row, from left: Salim Mawani, Debbie Nauta-Rodriguez, Pherabe Kolb, Dianne Niedner, Francisco Dallmeier, Richard Kurin. Middle row, from left: Alison McNally, Elizabeth Duggal, Karen Avery, David Allison, Mary Augusta Thomas. Back row, from left: Roger Brissenden, Scott Miller. (Photo by Michael Barnes)

Designed to “create a pan-Institutional leadership team across museums and research centers,” the pilot program has been an intensive, 18-month journey. In 2005, senior Smithsonian staff and the Board of Regents identified the need to develop high-performing managers and staff as the “Leaders of Tomorrow’s Smithsonian.”

After a competitive, open application process, an initial group of 11 was selected in 2006. However, because of changes in Smithsonian leadership, the program was put on hold until October 2007, when it kicked off with the support of then Acting Secretary Cristián Samper, and his Acting Under Secretaries, Alison McNally, Richard Kurin and Ira Rubinoff.

Despite this “bumpy start”—as one graduate wryly termed it—the group

National Museum of the American Indian

National Museum of the American Indian

quickly rose to the challenge of helping to create a leadership development program that addresses the issues that currently define the Smithsonian—its collections, research, exhibitions and educational outreach—but prepares for the Institution’s future challenges and opportunities.

Leaders from across the Smithsonian volunteered to provide key insight and expertise to the program, which incorporates best practices of executive-level leadership development.

“I, for one, felt inspired by the initiative,” Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture Richard Kurin said. Kurin led one of the key educational components of the program: a series of Socratic discussions of seven different texts that covered everything from the history of the Smithsonian to its architecture and its purpose, priorities and place in society. 

Meetings with senior management, Smithsonian National Board members Barbara Barrett, Richard Herbst and Russell Palmer, workshops, site tours and major management projects added a uniquely Smithsonian perspective to the challenges these future leaders will face. Graduate Pherabe Kolb explained, “The opportunity to develop relationships with dynamic and experienced colleagues from across the Institution and learn more about how the work they do intersects with my own has been both personally and professionally rewarding.”

Their explorations took them from the elemental and potentially fleeting experience of the endangered species studied at the Conservation Resource Center in Front Royal, Va., and the National Zoo to the eternal mysteries of the universe being uncovered on a daily basis at the Harvard-Smithsonian Astrophysical Laboratory in Cambridge, Mass.


The design concept for the new National Museum of African American History and Culture submitted by Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup.

The design concept for the new National Museum of African American History and Culture submitted by Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup.

They studied how one museum’s journey from concept to creation—the American Indian Museum—can inform and contrast with the Smithsonian’s new Museum of African American Culture and History.

At SI facilities in Maryland and via many other programs, program participants investigated how the myriad unseen support systems of people, policies and programs work together to produce the living mosaic that is the vibrant Smithsonian community—and at the same time identified critical fault lines of where lack of resources pose risks for the future.

The inaugural class is working on management projects and reports that will serve as guidelines for future endeavors—endeavors that members have already been asked to lead.

As Richard Kurin told the graduates at a ceremony in the Castle on April 22, “Bravo! Congratulations, salud, mubarak ho, mazel tov. And welcome to the hot seat!”

The graduates of the very first Smithsonian Leadership Development Program are:
• David Allison, Chair, Information Technology & Communications, Museum of American History;
• Karen Avery, Director, Foundation Relations, Office of External Affairs;
• Roger Brissenden, Associate Director, High Energy Astrophysics Division and Manager, Chandra X-Ray Center, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics;
• Francisco Dallmeier, Director, Center for Conservation Education and Sustainability at the National Zoo;
• Elizabeth Duggal, Associate Director for External Affairs and Public Programs, Natural History Museum;
• Pherabe Kolb, Senior Executive Officer, Office of the Under Secretary for Finance and Administration;
• Salim Mawani, Financial Policies and Procedures Division Manager, Office of the Comptroller;
• Scott Miller, Deputy Under Secretary for Science;
• Debra Nauta-Rodriguez, Project Executive, Office of Facilities, Engineering, and Operations, Office of Planning and Project Management;
• Dianne Niedner, Senior Program Officer, Office of the Under Secretary for History, Art, and Culture; and
• Mary Augusta Thomas, Deputy Director, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.

Posted: 15 May 2009
About the Author:

Sue Tillotson joined Office of Human Resources in 2007, as the program manager for the newly created Smithsonian Leadership Development program. Her goal is to create leadership development opportunities for every level of employee, from the newest individual contributor to the most seasoned senior executive.