Expanding a Movement Ms. Rhea Suh, President, Natural Resources Defense Council

Expanding a Movement

A powerful force in the environmental movement, the Natural Resources Defense Council sought a leader with the ability not only to advocate effectively but to expand its reach and redouble its efforts to protect our natural resources.

Over the last 40+ years under the leadership of John Adams, NRDC's founding director and first president, and then Frances Beinecke, the organization's second chief executive, NRDC solidified its role as a pioneering leader in the environmental movement. As the Board prepared for Ms. Beinecke's retirement, they recognized that it was a critical moment in the organization's - and the movement's - history.

Understanding the Current Context

The Natural Resources Defense Council is an international nonprofit environmental organization with more than 1.4 million members and online activists. It has offices in New York City, Washington D.C., Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Bozeman, MT, and Beijing. Since 1970, its staff of lawyers, scientists, and other environmental specialists - who today number close to 500 - have fought for the planet and its people in the halls of Congress, communities across the country, and nations around the globe. NRDC's current strategic priorities include curbing global warming and creating the clean energy future; reviving the world's oceans; defending wildlife and wild places; protecting our health from pollution; ensuring safe and sufficient water; and fostering sustainable communities.

In planning for its leadership transition, the NRDC Board of Trustees worked with the Isaacson, Miller team of Karen Wilcox, John Muckle, and Katie Rockman who drew upon their significant experience in the conservation and environmental fields. Leaders and staff across NRDC agreed it was critical to attract a new president who could deftly steward the organization within the complex, shifting landscape of environmental advocacy. The times called for a president who, given the country's political, economic, and social realities, including the rapidly changing demographics, would energize staff and Board around a vision for NRDC's future and its role within the broader progressive community.

An Inclusive Search Process

Broad staff engagement was a priority for the 15-member search committee. The IM team and representatives from the search committee spent the early weeks of the search in wide consultation with NRDC staff, including meetings with every office and dozens of individual and small group conversations. All 500 staff also had the opportunity to respond to an online survey asking for input on the objectives for the next president and preferred qualifications for candidates.

Near the end of the search, as the committee prepared to meet with finalist candidates, the staff representatives on the search committee convened a series of meetings with colleagues across the country to hear again their perspectives on the leadership challenge. These meetings then informed the final interviews and deliberations.

Leadership Across Sectors

On January 4, 2015, Rhea Suh became the third president of NRDC and the first to step into the top spot from outside the organization. The search committee was immediately impressed by Ms. Suh's deep-seated commitment to environmental causes and her thoughtful analysis of current global realities. Perhaps most compelling, though, was her record of success leading major environmental initiatives across diverse sectors, including senior positions with two national philanthropic organizations and, most recently, a leadership role in the U.S. Department of the Interior (DOI). In the end, the search committee enthusiastically endorsed Ms. Suh, who presented a galvanizing and inclusive vision for NRDC's future.

Prior to joining NRDC, Ms. Suh served as the Assistant Secretary for Policy, Management and Budget at the DOI, and one of the highest-ranking Asian American women in the federal government. In her role, she oversaw financial and management matters for the department, an enterprise with a $12 billion budget and over 70,000 employees. She was instrumental in launching a complex reorganization of the regulatory agency responsible for offshore oil and gas oversight in the midst of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. And she was a leader in developing and securing new policies for the Land and Water Conservation Fund that resulted in landscape-scale protections. Ms. Suh also led a diversity initiative in the Department that included the creation of DOI's first Chief Diversity Officer and a network of diversity champions.

Prior to her appointment at DOI, Ms. Suh managed a $200 million budget at the David and Lucille Packard Foundation, where she was charged with planning a six-year initiative to build ecological resilience in key lands and watersheds in western North America. Earlier in her career, at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Ms. Suh proposed, designed, and managed its highly effective energy initiative, and she led the creation of the Great Bear Rainforest, one of the most successful land protection campaigns in North America. She also consulted for the National Park Service, where she developed educational programs for low-income communities, bringing National Park lessons to public schools.

"I'm honored to join NRDC, our nation's intrepid defender of clean air, safe water, and wild places," said Ms. Suh. "We face formidable challenges to the health and future of our planet, and the bedrock environmental laws that protect the air we breathe and the water we drink are under constant attack. As the mother of a young child, I refuse to leave my daughter a world beyond fixing - and I know it's not too late."

More information about Ms. Suh and her vision for NRDC, including this interview, may be found on NRDC's website: ww.nrdc.org.