The Nature Conservancy Case Analysis

December 23, 2011

The Nature Conservancy Consulting Engagement

Upon the request from the Board of Governors of The Nature Conservancy (TNC) we have conducted a thorough analysis of the change initiative proposed and being implemented by the President and CEO of the organization – Steven McCormick. Our analysis is focused on evaluating how the change initiative reflects the goal of achieving organization’s mission, as paraphrased by the CEO, of becoming “…powerful, catalytic, transformative institution that profoundly shapes the quality of life for this and future generations around the globe.” In this evaluation we specifically analyze how adequately the changes address the findings of the 7-S analysis that had been conducted earlier by the external organizational-development consulting company. We also look at the content and the processes of the change initiative and their alignment with the overall mission and values of The Nature Conservancy.

The need for the change in TNC has been an ongoing concern since the 1990’s when McCormick’s predecessor John Sawhill introduced a number of steps to bring the organization on par with its increased prominence and global reach. Sawhill’s initiatives focused on upgrading the skills levels throughout the Conservancy and uniting its autonomous state chapters and international programs under the “One Conservancy” motto.  Those initiatives brought positive changes in the organization, but they still were not far-reaching enough in establishing and growing the global posture of TNC.

Steve McCormick’s change initiatives were aiming to radically overhaul the organization in order to finally achieve its mission of preserving and protecting “the diversity of life on Earth”, versus the Conservancy’s past overbearing focus on the domestic programs in the US. These changes were going to affect almost every facet of the organization as it was presented in the 7-S analysis:

  • Shared Values
  • Structure
  • Strategy
  • Systems
  • Style
  • Staff
  • Skills

In general we agree with most of the conclusions made by the CEO based on the findings of the 7-S analysis, namely the need for the change if TNC wanted to stay relevant and effective in achieving its goal of becoming the globally-minded organization. However we find that some of the conclusions and approaches that Steven McCormick utilized in order to implement those changes could be done differently and bring more effective and predictable results.

The Nature ConcervancyFirst, we believe that McCormick overestimated the degree of buy-in into the new global strategy of the Conservancy from a very critical group of the stakeholders in the organization – the local trustees of the state chapters. Historically the state chapters were founded by the local volunteers who were originally driven by the mission focused on the local conservation issues. Therefore their passion was originally about their immediate local needs. This attitude was reflected in the nature of close relationship between the state boards of trustees and the state professional managers of the Conservancy, as well as in the fundraising and budgeting practices, where the states exercised incredible autonomy from the central office.

Essentially, the CEO McCormick took these groups of people and their role in TNC for granted. In our opinion it was a critical oversight on the side of the CEO. It ultimately led to the unnecessary friction and the unexpectedly high level of resistance to otherwise noble objectives of the changes proposed by McCormick. We believe that the local governing boards should have been included in the development of the new strategy from the onset. Even though their original focus was on the local conservation problems, we believe that given the appropriate consideration and appreciation these people could be the agents of change instead of becoming the resistance force. Our opinion is based on the fact that TNC was founded in the 1950’s, when the global conservancy issues were not so evident as they became in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s.  Also until the 1990’s the international programs were much less feasible due to the geopolitical divide of the world and relatively underdeveloped transportation and telecommunication infrastructure.

Therefore we believe that with the appropriate amount of attention, education and communication from the Conservancy headquarters and its executive staff, especially President McCormick, the local trustees could be won over to the new strategy and become the strong advocates for the new cause, just like they had been on their local issues in the past.

Second, this situation of strained relationships between the TNC headquarters and the local boards of trustees leads us to a broader problem that we found in the CEO’s handling of the transition to achieving the stated mission of the Conservancy. It is obvious that Steven McCormick has been quite effective in maintaining regular and open channels of communications with the executive staff of TNC, state managers, and program directors. However it seems that he adopted a more hands off approach to communication with the rest of the organization’s personnel, people who were in the field and “in the trenches”.

This approach of delegating communication to lower level managers is not only appropriate, but required in the course of normal operations of any big organization. However in the time of the dramatic changes that were underway in the Conservancy, the role of the CEO as a visionary and the leader should be more obvious and communicated more clearly and directly to the whole organization, including its “rank and file” employees. This lack of direct organization-wide communication is evidenced by the fact that the executive level staff demonstrated more support for the change, while the criticism of the change processes comes mostly from the lower level employees.

To summarize the situation, we believe that the CEO McCormick made the right decision in his move to re-align The Nature Conservancy with its stated mission of “protecting the diversity of life on Earth”.  His assessment of the organizational state, and the initiatives he undertook to bring the organization to the new global challenges are mostly right on target and appropriate for the situation. We recommend he take corrective measures on the few issues mentioned above to ensure the overall success of the organizational change.