Leadership in Practice: Peter Raven, Ph.D. of the Missouri Botanical Garden

Leadership in Practice

A Conversation with Peter Raven, Ph.D., President, Missouri Botanical Garden

Q: Can you give me a two minute synopsis of how you got to where you are now?

A: I was interested in biology from the time I was a little kid and I went to UCLA in graduate school for plant sciences. Then, I taught at Stanford University for 9 years in the department of biology. As that went along, I came to think that I would rather do something that was more diverse and interesting. So, I chose to move to this job at the Missouri Botanical Garden. I came here with relatively little administrative experience, but I grew into it over the years as the place grew. I picked up lots of things on the job. I had lots of good mentors from the business community in St. Louis, such as Tom K. Smith, Jr. who was head of our Board at that time, Howard Baer, Warren Shapleigh, and a number of others who gave me a lot of good practical suggestions and tips.

Q: You mentioned a few of your business mentors. Were there also mentors in the nonprofit world?

A: I had little experience in botanical gardens before I came here. I started out visiting other gardens and seeing what they were up to and got a lot of good points that way. Locally in the not-for-profit world, Peter Pasterreich, who was the executive director of the Symphony when I arrived here, was a very fine director and very fine student of the not for profit world. He was an excellent mentor for me. Michael Newton, who was executive director of the Arts and Education Council, was also a good mentor and a kind person. I was introduced very favorably and in a very welcoming way to the not-for-profit world in St. Louis.

Q: How have you seen your leadership style grow and change over the years?

A: One of the first things I learned was not to try to figure out everything yourself. Hire good people and take their advice very seriously, and then back them in their decisions and actions even if they don’t always work out. Don’t assume that you are going to agree with them100% of the time. I have never tried to second guess people about the actual design of the Garden or anything like that. I have just always hired good people and I have had a good sense of screening for them. You learn very quickly how well other people do in their jobs depends to a degree on your attitude. That makes it important to be decisive, fair, and evenhanded. I have learned about the importance of inclusiveness in employment. For me it works to be very explicit about inclusiveness, equal opportunities for women, equal opportunities for people of all races, lifestyles, and so forth. That has been a very important aspect of whatever success we’ve enjoyed.

Q: You said that you do a good job screening people when you are trying to find the right people. Do you have anything in particular that you look for?

A: A lot of it has to do with chemistry. I tend to look for good teamwork, good records in mentoring. I look to see if people are confronted with choices and they make a choice with the best knowledge and then comfortably make a decision.

Q: What role do you see mentoring playing in your leadership style or the style of the leaders at the Garden.

A: I encourage people to look very carefully at that and select relatively few objectives. Richard Mahoney, who used to be the CEO at Monsanto, used to pull out a 3×5 card at the beginning of every month and list in order his 10 objectives for that month. Then he would monitor closely the top 3. He would take reports on the next 7 and if anything was not on that list, barring an emergency, he wouldn’t do it. I think that is a very good style. I have often recommended that to other people. I encourage people to think carefully about how they are allocating their time. Because people can so easily get eaten up by details in pursuing lots of matters that are relatively trivial and then are led to avoid or delay making the big decisions that are most important to the future of the organization.

Q: How does that show up in how you have been able to manage the Garden and grow it to where it is now and keep it vital and thriving?

A: By trying to get people to focus on the big picture. By trying to have a vision. By trying to see what would appeal to the community and then find ways to get it done. By trying to understand the personalities of individual people, some of whom like suggestions much more than others. By trying not to be frustrated when people don’t love your suggestions!

Q: Are there certain things that the organization does or that you do in order to instill that culture of leadership in the leaders in the organization?

A: We don’t do nearly as well on that as I would like to. We haven’t offered enough training opportunities or enough opportunities to develop people’s management skills. I strongly advocate doing a lot more of it than we have been doing. Opportunities for training are very important parts of ones career; quite properly, people feel valued and that they can then grow within the organization. I try to create an atmosphere where that can happen.

Q: Are there things that you and your leaders do to get the next generation ready for some longevity?

A: We have gone through all the key positions in the Garden looking at whether we have people on board who could take over if the top leaders left. Obviously, in every organization there turn out to be some unique individuals whom you won’t really replace as exactly themselves; then you have to start thinking about how you are going to redo the function. We are trying to conduct such a review through the whole organization, especially since we are in the middle of a search for a replacement for me now.

Q: Are there other thoughts you have or anything else you want to add?

A: You have to really like and value people to do well. I think part of the reason that I may have done well is that I do like and value people. I view new people as welcome, productive, excellent human beings and I enjoy them. I look at my role as that of being an encourager. I try to think about what anyone brings to the party, taking a realistic and open view of people and encouraging them, because everybody can contribute something. By looking at life within and outside the organization in a positive way and trying to encourage our employees and volunteers to do the best they can, the whole organization does as well as it can.