A Nonprofit CEO’s Success Formula that Could Work for For-Profit Companies

Patricia Mooradian, CEO, The Henry Ford

Over her 12 years as CEO, Patricia Mooradian has built The Henry Ford from a regional museum into a national force in areas ranging from tourism to technological innovation to educational curricula to television programming.

And while the task has been complex, Mooradian has followed a relatively simple formula for leadership in accomplishing it: empower her team to think big, work smart and grow wisely while balancing culture, commerce and the community.

It’s an approach that CEOs of for-profit entities could learn from even though The Henry Ford is a not-for-profit brand.

Mooradian oversees not only an iconic and very popular museum of American cultural and economic history and the open-air Greenfield Village historical attraction, but also a charter high school, a children’s TV show that airs on CBS every Saturday morning, and other brand-extending initiatives, in a multifaceted operation that employs about 1,800 people full- and part-time.

Under Mooradian, the institution founded by Henry Ford in 1929 has grown in nearly every measure including visitorship, to 1.8 million a year.

“I look at my job as thinking about, ‘What does it mean to be a museum today?’” Mooradian told Chief Executive. “How can traditional museums think differently and act differently and redefine the paradigm of being a museum for today’s world?”

Here are the four essential elements of Mooradian’s highly successful management philosophy, each of which could apply to any private-sector CEO.

1. Think big. Technological disruption, changing norms in culture and education, and other forces have made it imperative for the leader of a traditional regional museum (albeit with national stature) to consider ways of making The Henry Ford relevant in new ways to new generations of Americans.

“So, lots of times here, we’ll say, ‘What if we could do X, Y or Z?’” Mooradian said, “or, ‘What if we could attract a different audience to the institution? What if our reach was global?’ And then we break it down to how we think about who we are, always with the vision and mission in mind. We want to think about how we accomplish or reach new levels of engagement for the institution with the resources that we have.”

That think-big approach, for instance, is how The Henry Ford came to establish its own charter high school on the premises two decades ago. More recently, it also figured in the decision to partner with CBS for its weekly TV show on innovation, starring Mo Rocca, a from the network’s CBS Sunday Morning show, whose viewership has climbed to 1.6 million during its third year.

“A mid-level manager came to me with a ‘what if’ idea for this, and if the think-big idea wasn’t pervasive in our organization and something everyone thought about,” Mooradian said, “it might not have happened.”

2. Work smart. CEOs need strategic plans, Mooradian said, “but just as important is communicating the plan, getting your team excited about the plan and having them help author the plan and make it active in the life of all employees of the organization. How can we bring everyone around the table and energize [them]?”

Relationship-building with partners and employees is “vital to our philosophy” of working smart, she said. And so is communicating the importance of those relationships, as well as the plan for moving forward.

“We want people to feel like their work matters, whether they’re serving food in the cafeteria or doing maintenance, or they’re on the security team or the program staff. We want everyone to recognize the role they play in creating a great museum experience. That means we have to communicate that plan.

“And we also have to be flexible because we need to recognize opportunity when it shows up, and be entrepreneurial. If we’re not working smart within our plan, we might miss the opportunity.”

3. Grow wisely. Mooradian believes that “slow and steady wins the race” when it comes to growth, and her track record with The Henry Ford certainly has demonstrated that.

“We try to grow in a way of thinking for…long-term sustainability, not necessarily short-term gains,” she said. “We’re risk-takers, but when we are taking risks, we will calculate the best- and worst-case scenarios, so we know what we’re in for. We plan for growth very strategically but implement that plan tactically over time.”

4. Balance culture, commerce and the community. This precept refers to The Henry Ford’s specific not-for-profit mission, of course—but also, Mooradian emphasized, to creating an internal culture that is driven to fulfill the institution’s goals.

“It’s about tapping into people’s passion for our mission and also caring deeply not only for our staff but for all our stakeholders,” she said. “We want them and our work to matter, and it’s important for our people to know how their work matters and fits into making a difference.”

There’s also the brand’s mission to the community as an educational institution. “We need to make sure we are outward-looking, using our resources and assets to help the community,” she said.

Balancing those needs are the commercial aspects of The Henry Ford, which include restaurants, retail stores, licensed products and hosting special events. In that regard, Mooradian has priorities and concerns typical of any private-sector CEO who is constantly weighing and acting on the needs of various constituencies and aspects of the business.

“We have to make sure,” she said, “that all the pieces fit together.”

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Dale Buss
Dale Buss is a long-time contributor to Chief Executive, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal and other top-flight business publications. He lives in Michigan.

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