The digital publication of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)

Lessons from the Noyce Leadership Institute

This is an extended version of an article that appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of Dimensions magazine.
The Noyce Leadership Institute (NLI) began in 2008 to help prepare the next generation of leaders for science-intensive museums, with a particular emphasis on gaining the skills and perspectives needed to increase the engagement of those organizations with their immediate communities.

After the conclusion of the seventh and final cohort in May 2015, 123 Fellows and 92 Sponsors will have participated. These individuals represent 91 institutions from 27 nations across the globe. NLI was created by the family of Robert Noyce, co-inventor of the integrated circuit, and generously supported by funds from the Noyce Foundation, as well as from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, David and Lucile Packard Foundation, and the (U.S.) Institute for Museum and Library Service.

Using “action learning” principles, NLI’s concepts, tools, and resources are coordinated closely to ensure immediate application of the learning in each Fellow’s work environment. Fellows bring real-life issues into the program—seeking insights and solutions from interactions with faculty, executive coaches, program advisors, and their peers. NLI encourages participants to select large, boundary-spanning projects that are collaborative, risky, and have unclear outcomes. Leadership is learned as a skill that is highly dependent on context, not a personality trait or a routinized set of steps. Throughout the fellowship and continuing into the alumni program, NLI provides these leaders with access to knowledge, alternative approaches, promising practices, and professional networks to sustain and advance innovation in their own institutions and in the field. Ultimately, NLI aims to create a cadre of executives for informal science organizations that can successfully guide the next era of organizational and community change.

We asked NLI alumni to reflect upon leadership, community engagement, and their NLI experiences.

Geno Schnell, director, and Jennifer Zoffel, associate director, Noyce Leadership Institute
Why does leadership matter at this time for science centers and museums?
Leadership matters now because if our organizations are to survive into the next century, we need to welcome healthy evolution and intentionally explore new and different ways to connect with our communities. There are some things that we do now that we will be doing in 100 years, but I believe we will only survive and stay relevant by actively devoting some resources to experimenting, asking hard questions of ourselves, and listening when it is easier not to. Each museum’s explorations will be different because each community is different. Leaders take risks. Taking the long view, it might be riskier not to take new risks every day.

Stephanie Ratcliffe, executive director, The Wild Center, Tupper Lake, New York, NLI Cohort 1 (2008)
Leadership matters in children’s museums and science centers more today than ever before. And the length and tenure of leadership, not just at the top, but throughout the organization is critically important. We rely on those with tenured experiences to teach, inspire, and coach others into roles of leadership. One of the great benefits of being a part of the Noyce Leadership Institute for me has been in the relationships that developed with my peers, the faculty, coaches, and other leaders who shaped the experience for us.

Jeff Barnhart, chief museum officer, Omaha Children’s Museum, Nebraska, NLI Cohort 4 (2011)
Our field is changing rapidly, as are our communities. Successful leaders will be those who ask, listen, and learn. You may not be able to deliver 90% of what your community wants from you, but you can blaze new trails when there’s a match with your mission.

Jennifer Rickards, associate director, Montshire Museum of Science, Norwich, Vermont, NLI Cohort 6 (2013)
Because leadership always matters, especially in the nonprofit sector, and because science centers and museums face particular challenges as they respond to the fast-changing cultures of science and technology in the 21st century.

John Durant, director, MIT Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, NLI Cohort 1 (2008)
Museum professionals have a unique mission in society: We are in charge of creating spaces where people can pursue and develop scientific, artistic, and technological interests; engage in inquiry-based experiences; and reflect upon those experiences through conversations and connections with others.

Above all, museums and science centers are places where people gather and exchange ideas with each other and the museum itself. Nowadays we are facing a new era in which museums are building relationships with visitors to create a community that participates as equals in the development of content and experiences.

In this new environment, leadership is needed to provoke a sense of urgency in addressing the challenges that our institutions face, including funding, diversity, and inclusion. Leadership is needed to build alliances with an interdisciplinary focus and in a collaborative spirit. Leadership is needed to develop a vision and a sense of direction that will help to align all efforts toward a clear and delimited goal. Leadership is needed to inspire others to advance the field through innovation, creativity, and cultural humility.

Amparo Leyman Pino, education consultant, Palo Alto, California, NLI Cohort 6 (2013)
I don’t believe there has ever been a time when the purpose and meaningfulness of museums and science centers has been so much in question. Even the concept of people going to a “place” where educational activities occur needs a lot of thought given the constraints on family and school-related time. Leaders need an ear to the ground in our respective communities and a sense of what differentiates our institutions from other competing educational and noneducational efforts, including the internet, gaming, sports, and media.

We can’t just be filling in the gaps. We need to be visionary in our approach and able to guide our organizations away from traditional approaches that—for many reasons—are attracting only those who can make those approaches work within their changing lifestyles.

People lead busy lives, and we need to make using our services easy and convenient by using, for example, digital registration systems. They might want to purchase tickets in advance, and teachers need to be able to quickly tell you what they need from a tour and what they expect. Many people would prefer to talk to someone in person, but that often means playing phone tag back and forth—not efficient for either the visitor or the museum. This often means we need to reconsider how we deliver programs so they are as flexible as possible.

In addition, we can use digital interpretive tools that engage visitors in content without lecturing or requiring them to read and that encourage social interaction. People go to museums for a social experience more than to learn, and we need to meet them halfway. We need to put more people on the floor that can help families formulate questions and seek answers, or engage their imaginations so they want to learn more.

Margie Marino, executive director, North Museum of Nature and Science, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, NLI Cohort 2 (2009)
 What advice do you have for new and emerging leaders, based on your NLI experience?

Always remember your core values, and don’t neglect to reach out to other leaders, who may be feeling just as lonely and exposed as you do yourself.

John Durant, director, MIT Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, NLI Cohort 1 (2008)
Take advantage of every opportunity to think strategically, not just operationally. Always go beyond your current responsibilities and understand how the entire institution is organized and why. It’s great when upcoming leaders see the need and have the passion for change. But the best organizations operate synergistically—every part ties into another part. The worst mistake any emerging leader can make is to come into a situation thinking they know the answers or to look for simple answers. Make the time to learn about the particular psychology of a community—whether that is the region you serve or the interdependent parts of your own institution.

Always remember the joy that brought you to the museum and science center field in the first place. That joy will get you through a lot of rough spots. We all have our own story to tell about why we love what we do. Express that as often as you can and in as many ways as you can. Take the time to meet all the people you serve. Take a break from the day-to-day work and meet the people who visit your organizations. Those exchanges will energize and refresh you and give you renewed passion for your work.

Read. Go to community meetings where the connection to your institution is not readily apparent. Encourage your staff to get off site and get to know more about where they live. Look for ways you can help—where support for your organization doesn’t just go to you, but to a great variety of people and places that make where you live a better place.

Margie Marino, executive director, North Museum of Nature and Science, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, NLI Cohort 2 (2009)
There is a need to create a continuous process of training future leaders; it starts with the junior staff, and it goes throughout our organizations. We need to create capacity and give tools to our staff that will prepare them for a museum that works closely with the community. The future of museums and science centers relies on the leaders that are emerging, yet we need to work together to transform these emerging leaders into strong personalities that will build strong institutions.

Emerging leaders: You are not alone. One of the many practical exercises I experienced during my fellowship was to interview other leaders. These conversations will give you a new and refreshed point of view about anything you are working on.

Leadership is half acquired and half a natural skill. For the part that is acquired, leadership programs such as NLI are of great help. It involves a lot of practice to master something important in life. Leadership takes time, guts, and the ability to be comfortable with failure. Leadership programs propel individuals to experience new and different ways to tackle obstacles and embrace challenges.

Amparo Leyman Pino, education consultant, Palo Alto, California, NLI Cohort 6 (2013)
Leadership is a journey of self-discovery and rising strength. As I reflect on my leadership, there are three key skills I have honed that continually help me resolve organizational issues and create and implement a new vision for the museum. The skills are self-knowledge and awareness, leadership and organizational culture, and strength.

Becoming more self-aware is a skill that helps me capitalize on my strengths, but more importantly reminds me to identify and understand the personalities of the people on my team. This awareness and understanding of myself and others, leads to more effective communication, trust, and collaboration. Board and staff look to leaders to set the vision and course for the organization. However, when the vision and course include dramatic organizational change, be prepared for unforeseen problems and resistance. During these times, it is key trust oneself, but just as important to have a support network of trusted confidants that help you progress and work through issues.

At times, leadership is a test one’s tenacity, commitment, and values. However, most of the time leadership is a wonderful journey of building personal courage, trust, and strength.

Jill Measells, CEO, The Works Museum, Bloomington, Minnesota, NLI Cohort 6 (2013)
Push yourself outside your comfort zone and stay true to your own, individual leadership style. You can do both.

Jennifer Rickards, associate director, Montshire Museum of Science, Norwich, Vermont, NLI Cohort 6 (2013)
Never stop learning. In a way, we are all trapped by our degrees and our professional experience. The world is changing so fast; we need to constantly be open to new ideas and perspectives. There is huge advantage to formalizing partnerships across your community, state, and nation into networks, thereby bringing the thinking of multiple organizations into your own. Having partners can help you connect to the external environment, which makes you more aware of shifts “out there.” Of course, part of your job is now to help your partners be more successful, too.

Charlie Walter, chief operating officer, San Antonio Children’s Museum, NLI Cohort 3 (2010)
One of the greatest leadership opportunities I have found is simply increasing our responsiveness to our community, especially those who might not traditionally feel a sense of belonging in museums, higher education, or science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). In my opinion, to truly respond to diverse needs and interests in our communities, we must slow down and authentically connect, listen, and co-create with those we exist to serve. I find that such engagement consistently leads to better results and brings greater joy and meaning to our practice. This has been particularly true in spectrUM’s efforts to help our partners on the Flathead Indian Reservation seed and lead a vibrant—and now award-winning—initiative to inspire tribal youth about STEM and higher education.

Holly Truitt, director, University of Montana spectrUM Discovery Area, Missoula, NLI Cohort 6 (2013)
How have you shared your NLI experience with others, and how might we “share the wealth” when any one of us participates in a program like this?

We have a tradition of brown bag lunches at the Montshire Museum. When one or a small group of us has a special experience like NLI and or has attended a conference, we try to share the highlights and important lessons over a casual lunch. The conversations can lead to ways to embed the most important pieces into our work.

Jennifer Rickards, associate director, Montshire Museum of Science, Norwich, Vermont, NLI Cohort 6 (2013)
I’ve participated in conference calls, webinars, and conferences as often as I can. I am well aware that one of my roles as a leader is as a mentor to my staff and to others in the community, including the young people we are trying to help. I always pass around juicy references and articles when they have special meaning to me. My board of directors likes to get these articles on occasion as it helps them understand what is on my mind, and I love to get information like this from others, including the staff. It shows me that they are excited and engaged in the work of the organization and that they see their work as having broader application to the world at large.

Opportunities such as NLI are a privilege, and I do feel a great obligation to make sure they benefit others as much as me. I think that everyone is aware that even a single idea can have an enormous impact on a life—it can spark a new direction, make a friend, start a new enterprise, or fulfill a need. There are no small impacts, only small aspirations.

Margie Marino, executive director, North Museum of Nature and Science, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, NLI Cohort 2 (2009)
We can share the wealth by not being afraid to use our networks to encourage emerging leaders to enroll in such programs.

John Durant, director, MIT Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, NLI Cohort 1 (2008)
One of the unique aspects of NLI was how they encouraged alums to support and sponsor other leaders in our organizations to apply for the program. Sponsoring Jeff Barnhart (NLI Cohort 4) as a Fellow in this program helped me grow as a leader by supporting his growth in leadership.

For a dozen years, I have also participated in a separate roundtable of museum directors, an eclectic group of leaders that meet regularly to share industry best practices, work through leadership challenges, and connect professionally. I have found myself sharing with them the insights and, in some cases, the practices of leadership that were instilled in me as a Fellow of NLI.

I live in the home place of Warren Buffett, whose standing advice to young folks is “invest in yourself.” NLI invested in many of us as individual leaders. The return on that investment is up to us as alums to continue to pay forward the lessons we learned.

Lindy J. Hoyer, executive director, Omaha Children’s Museum, Nebraska, NLI Cohort 1 (2008)
As an NLI alum, I feel a strong need to “pay it forward” on the lessons learned and encourage my peers, both on our team here and at other institutions, to seek out as many friends, colleagues, mentors, and support groups as possible. Even when you feel you may disagree with them, seek out the moments when you can come away having learned something new. This will allow you to knock out ideas, share lessons learned, and give or get advice when needed. This has been the “priceless” opportunity of being a part of the NLI program.

Jeff Barnhart, chief museum officer, Omaha Children’s Museum, Nebraska, NLI Cohort 4 (2011)
NLI has changed my definition, understanding, and approach to leadership, and hopefully that is demonstrated through my work every day. Beyond sharing my NLI experience with my board and staff, I started a local community leadership group. It is a small group of women leaders with the purpose of building a network to support, share, and learn from one another.

Jill Measells, CEO, The Works Museum, Bloomington, Minnesota, NLI Cohort 6 (2013)
What is the next frontier for community engagement in your organization?

In a recent visionary session with our board, staff, and members of the community, the suggestion was made that in the future, the museum could be “carried around in our pockets” and made accessible in new ways that are convenient, relevant, and ubiquitous. We would like to see ourselves as a place where others can spark their interest, satisfy their curiosity, and engage with friends and family. We are suspicious of opportunities that isolate one generation from another. We see supporting families and parents as a key aspect of our mission. This requires extreme sensitivity to the particular challenges of families today

Margie Marino, executive director, North Museum of Nature and Science, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, NLI Cohort 2 (2009)
I think we’ve made great strides and yet we’re only scratching the surface. I’m excited about new ways to encourage dialogue in all aspects of our organization.

Jennifer Rickards, associate director, Montshire Museum of Science, Norwich, Vermont, NLI Cohort 6 (2013)
Through NLI, I had the opportunity to work with the Center for Digital Storytelling ( The experience opened my mind and expanded my toolbox in many surprising ways. I have learned the power of good organizational storytelling, which helps me share our impact with others in compelling ways.

Storytelling has become part of my leadership voice. This was one of the most important aspects of my NLI experience that I shared with my staff. Everyone has caught the storytelling bug and we have begun to infuse it into certain projects. There is something about the process and the resulting video stories that people seem to be hungry for. Our field laments that it is difficult to measure impact. Our story work may not be measuring but it does capture aspects of our relationship with our community.

Stephanie Ratcliffe, executive director, The Wild Center, Tupper Lake, New York, NLI Cohort 1 (2008)
We are moving to a new, gateway position that will enable the MIT Museum to be a genuine meeting ground for scientists, innovators, and members of the wider community.

John Durant, director, MIT Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts, NLI Cohort 1 (2008)
About the image: Four members of NLI’s Alumni Steering Committee work together to plan continuing programming. (From left to right: Holly Truitt (NLI Cohort 6), Marilee Jennings (NLI Cohort 2), Andrea Durham (NLI Cohort 4), and Blake Wigdahl (NLI Cohort 5).) Photo by Jennifer Zoffel

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