Adventures of a CEO: Learning In Public

I'm convinced that I just landed in the best job in San Diego. That's not to say it's particularly easy or without challenges, it's more that the problems are interesting, and it feels like a little piece of heaven for a lifelong learner with a love of natural history. My plan in starting this blog is to learn in public about being president and CEO of the San Diego Natural History Museum: sharing the adventure, highlighting the quirky and fascinating aspects of life in a natural history museum, and showing how an old dog learns new tricks.

I am a bit of an old dog, having worked for the past 30 years at the Smithsonian Institution, studying birds in Panama and serving as a curator, environmentalist, illustrator, web developer, educator, and finally, associate director, in at least six different museums and research units in Washington, D.C.  Somewhere along the way, I learned that admitting what I don't know is not a sign of weakness, that it often turns out to be a position of strength. 

I shouldn't have been surprised about how much I had to learn on this job, but frankly I was so focused on wrapping up decades of life in D.C. and making the move to the West Coast that it wasn't until I arrived that I realized how little I really knew about the Museum. Sure, I had met key staff and pored over the financials and background material. I knew we were 142 years old, had nearly eight million specimens, 120 staff, 380,000 guests each year, and not nearly enough parking. I knew our strength came from our focus on studying the bioregion that stretches from Point Conception near Santa Barbara to the tip of the Baja California Peninsula in Mexico, and that as an independent museum we have to create all the revenue to support our spending. I had no idea of the size and complexity of our operations, the range of talents of our multitasking staff, or the captivating stories in our collections and our history.

In this blog, I'll explore the nooks and crannies of our historic building, get lost in the wet range among the jars with fat coils of rattlesnakes, and the dry collections holding everything else—from beetles to bobcats. I'll take to the field with our scientists, hike with our Canyoneer naturalists, head to sea with our Whaler volunteers, and meet the amazing staff, Board, volunteers, and supporters that fuel the creativity and energy of our gem of a museum. Even the chore of signing checks is fascinating—in a single packet I have purchased glass eyeballs, elevator inspection, jumbo-sized photos, fuel for paleontologists to get to their field sites, material for collecting insects, coffee, scientific journal subscriptions, uniforms, warehouse rental for our whale bones and exhibit storage, and countless other items that are essential to keeping a museum afloat. 

Rachel Carson wrote: "Those who dwell, as scientists or laymen, among the beauties and mysteries of the earth, are never alone or weary of life." At theNAT we have beauties, mysteries, humor, and astoundingly interesting experiences. There's a lot more here than meets the eye, and I’m happy to share in the privilege and pleasure of being the new CEO.

Image: Curator of Birds and Mammals Phil Unitt took me on a tour of our incredible bird collection. Here, we're looking at MacGillivray's and Mourning Warbler specimens.  

Posted By President and CEO Judy Gradwohl.

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