- Wendy Taylor
A Time for Everything Under the Sun
Updated: May 25, 2022
Two non-profit leaders discuss knowing when it’s time to transition to a new role and how leaving well can harness the power of change to propel your organization forward.
The Northwest Arkansas Land Trust is proud to announce that Grady Spann has been chosen as the organization’s next leader to succeed Terri Lane who has served at its helm for the past decade. Grady recently retired as the director of Arkansas State Parks with “no plans of stopping,” and Terri will move into her new role as the director of the Arkansas Wildlife Federation later this summer.
Both conservation leaders admit that leadership transitions can be challenging but can also be a time of great opportunity. Below is a conversation with Terri and Grady about their own professional journeys and leadership philosophies as they navigate a mindful leadership transition.
Where did the term “leadership window” come from, and what does that mean?
Grady: The leadership window is a term or concept I think accurately describes the timing that leaders must have to effectively maximize an organization’s forward movement to its next level. Every leader’s window must focus on maximizing the effectiveness of their organization and team. A leadership window has a time limit. When a person moves to a new position, I believe they have a limited amount of time to build an effective professional team and lead them to accomplish meaningful and impactful goals. In some cases, leadership windows close quickly due to the organization’s mission, talent of the team and the goals to be achieved. Other times, the window can last for years based on the complexity of the organization, the task or mission at hand, the challenge of building an effective team and guiding the organization to the goals that need to be accomplished. Recognizing when your window has closed or is limiting the progress of the organization allows effective leaders to transfer leadership in an effective way to new leadership that will benefit the organization and its teams.
Terri: When Grady talked about leadership windows being finite, it really resonated with me. That is exactly how I feel about leaving the land trust. I’ve contributed my unique skills and passion to launch and grow the organization over the past 10 years and it’s time to pass the torch to its next leader. Change can be a really good thing in moving organizations and individuals forward with new energy. I think it is an important thing for all leaders, especially those of mission-driven organizations, to consider.
What does a “mindful leadership transition” look like?
Terri: Two words I find myself using all the time are “mindful” and “intentional.” You don’t build something great without being mindful and intentional, and you certainly don’t want to hand it off in a haphazard way. To me, there are key components of a mindful leadership transition: 1) having a strong organizational foundation to start with; 2) understanding where the organization needs to go next and finding the right leader to take it there; and 3) having enough time (but not too long) for the outgoing and incoming leaders to work alongside one another in a deliberate way to ensure smooth onboarding, continuity, and comfort for everyone involved. After that, the outgoing leader needs to get out of the way and let the new leader do what they’ve been hired to do.
Grady: I agree with Terri on the two words—mindful and intentional. Legacy leaders, like Terri, will approach leadership transition as an important and significant part of their job and mission. When mindful leadership transition occurs, the very foundation and core values of an organization are empowered and reassured to continue on a path to success. This is what keeps great companies and organizations operating at their most effective potential for years.
Transferring leadership is an action that must be well thought out and purposeful. Some transitions are implemented by identifying the new leader within the organization and then working closely with that person to mentor them, give them the opportunity to learn the job, understand the opportunities, and understand the direction of the organization. Other effective leadership transitions bring the new leader on board to work side by side with the outgoing leader like we have done with the land trust. Terri has prepared a transition plan to cover every aspect of the executive director’s responsibilities, individual team meetings, project updates, financial understanding, partner meetings, administrative actions, and strategic planning. Terri’s mindful leadership transition has allowed the current land trust professionals to get to know me and how I lead. Their comfort level with how I lead is a critical part to a mindful and intentional transition of leadership. When your team believes in and trusts the new leader then remarkable things are going to happen. This is critical to a successful transition.
Let’s talk about organizational culture. How do you define that, and why does it matter?
Terri: We spend a lot of time at work. It should be a place of joy where we thrive and contribute our unique strengths in a meaningful way. And as the saying goes, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” You can have the best strategies and the smartest people on your team, but if you aren’t intentional about building and nurturing a positive organizational culture, you will not be effective. It starts by defining what is important to you and creating methods and team traditions to promote it. At the land trust, we defined a culture of learning, personal growth, appreciation, celebration, collaboration, shared leadership, empathy, flexibility, and mutual support. We are also very intentionally a “strengths-forward” organization. I believe one of a leader’s most important roles is to be a fierce keeper of the organizational culture.
Grady: An excellent work culture is critical to the success of any organization. I come from a strong positive work culture that enjoyed significant accomplishments. I recognized very quickly that NWALT has that same positive can-do culture that I encouraged as the state parks director. A good and effective work culture allows and empowers a team to accomplish their jobs. Sustaining an effective work culture that cares for each team member in a environment of collaboration and open communication, is creative and forward thinking, seeks opportunities and resolves problems, understands why people work for the organization and what drives them, which is critical. The best work culture is one that is built around relationships and service to others. Terri and I have the same priorities that will continue to support and build on the foundation of the work culture that is already present and an important part of the NWALT fabric.
You mention being a “strengths-forward” organization – what does that mean?
Terri: A mentor once said to me, “Know thyself, know thy team,” and I’ve kept that at the forefront of my approach to team development. A key component of that is in building a strengths-forward organization. This involves taking the time to identify, share, and discuss as a group the unique strengths of each individual team member. When we understand our own strengths and those of our teammates more deeply, we can then “job craft” individual roles and work best with one another to achieve much greater outcomes and personal job satisfaction than we could otherwise. Pounding square pegs into round holes just doesn’t work. At the land trust, we utilize the Gallup Clifton Strengths assessment, and we touch back on this often.
Grady: Knowing your team's strengths and passions is critical to supporting their work. Each person that works for the land trust is passionate about what they do. Supporting that passion and creating opportunities for success will be a priority for me. When people do what they love, they do it incredibly well and are totally committed to the success of the work they do. Creating a strength-focused organization will build a work environment that is collaborative, fun, creative, open and enables us to realize great achievements.
How would you each define your leadership philosophy and where did you find synergy?
Terri: There is so much I could say on this subject, but I go back to mindfulness and intention. Know what drives you, what are you good at, what brings you joy, and lead from that place. I work with staff members to assess their core strengths, own their unique “superpowers,” and identify areas where they want to grow. Then support them and then let them fly. I guide, I don’t micromanage. We should all enjoy what we’re doing and be given ownership of our role. Accountability and success are natural results. Like one of our staff members said, “ We want a leader, not a boss.” Grady spoke the same language, coming from a place of inner wisdom and lots of experience. He shared a leadership guide he had created while he was at state parks and I felt like many of the words came right out of my own mouth. I knew our team would be in good hands.
Grady: My leadership philosophy has always been focused on serving others. My leadership has always been focused on guiding people to be their best. I appreciate that the dedicated team members and professionals at the land trust are open about what their strengths are and the encouragement that they bring to the team. Leadership is thoughtful, caring, engaging, supporting, encouraging, creative, empathetic, passionate, understanding, and about people supporting a vision and mission that is shared by all. I have a lot to learn as a leader of a great and important organization like the land trust and I know that the team we have today will guide me as I support their work. With my passion for serving, guiding, and encouraging others, I know that we will continue the great legacy that Terri has built over the last ten years. We will continue to build on the solid foundation that so many have worked so hard to build that is today’s Northwest Arkansas Land Trust.
Talking about legacies, what do you hope your legacy to be?
Grady: I have thought quite a bit about lasting legacies and what they mean and how to build one. A legacy starts when a person decides to make a difference. I have worked hard for many years to build a legacy that will impact others in a positive way through the enjoyment of outdoor recreation and the preservation and protection of Arkansas’ most iconic and special places. Legacies are not built in a day but take years. Where I find myself today is each of my legacies continues to develop and be defined even after leaving a career like Arkansas State Parks. Having the privilege of serving as the executive director of the land trust continues to build on my legacy, I have invested a lifetime in. I hope that the legacy I leave with the land trust is one, like Terri’s, that can continue to serve all residents of NWA in conserving and protecting special places in nature and all things that depend on these spaces. We must continue to protect the natural landscape of our fast-growing region. That is the legacy of the land trust. That is the legacy we should all embrace together and work hard to accomplish as we move forward.
Terri: I’ve worked in conservation for over 20 years now, but it’s the past 10 years building the land trust that I’m most proud of. Saving land is a legacy. Conservation and preservation are a legacy. It’s in the nature of what we do, and I am very proud to know that the land trust is what it is today because of that hard work fueled by an intense passion for the mission. To help build a lasting organization, permanently protecting over 6,000 acres so far (and counting), which will benefit all current and future residents of our region is immensely rewarding. And I’m not done yet. As Grady comes in to lead the Northwest Arkansas Land Trust into its next exciting chapter, I look forward to entering my own next “leadership window” at the Arkansas Wildlife Federation. All in all, I can’t think of a better legacy than to help protect our natural world and the wild things that call it home.