Sophia Siskel ’99
Through her leadership of cultural institutions, Sophia Siskel ’99 provides a 100-year plan for enduring civic value
By Matt Golosinski
“It’s about the plants,” proclaims the Chicago Botanic Garden’s annual report, and the brilliant pastoral scene on the publication’s cover leaves no doubt about that claim. This setting would have inspired the poetry of Wordsworth or Shelley.
But anyone else looking to escape the grind by retreating into this world-class, 400-acre sanctuary in Glencoe, Ill., 20 miles north of Chicago, also will find more than enough greenery to get reconnected with nature. And about 800,000 people each year do, no matter what the season.
Another critical aspect of the Garden’s mission, though, involves conservation and education — in other words, an emphasis on the planet as well as plants, according to Sophia Siskel ’99, the Kellogg School alumna who is the organization’s president and CEO.
At 36, the Chicago Botanic Garden is only three years younger than its chief executive, a fact that surprises some people, says Siskel. “What the visionaries of the institution created in 36 years is nothing short of miraculous,” she says, noting the contributions of people such as Barbara Whitney Carr, her predecessor. Today, the Garden has entered what the Kellogg grad calls an “aggressive growth period,” and she sees much of her job right now as overseeing the maturation of existing programs to “really get the processes in place and communicate what we do and why we do it to a broad audience in ways that build our international reputation.”
Much of that effort is focused on things that visitors to the Garden immediately see — including some winter holiday initiatives like Wonderland Express, featuring indoor trains, which boosted attendance to 50,000 in December. But other important developments are less apparent to the casual observer.
There’s a lot of science that goes on behind the scenes here, says Siskel, who joined the Garden in February 2006 as vice president of visitor operations before being named to her current position in 2007. In fact, in June the Garden launched a $50 million campaign to build a new laboratory for its plant conservation team, after already being internationally recognized for its existing efforts. When completed, the structure will boast 38,000 square feet with nine laboratories, Siskel says, adding, “Most people don’t know that we already have 23 PhD researchers.” That’s in addition to 250 full-time employees, 45 part-time employees, 170 seasonal staff members and about 1,100 volunteers.
A graduate of the Kellogg Part-Time MBA Program, Siskel is responsible for keeping this team focused on the organization’s mission, which is “to promote the enjoyment, understanding and conservation of plants and the natural world.”
Achieving that goal includes making the Garden a splendid year-round destination for those seeking peace and recreation among the institution’s 2.3 million accessioned plants, more than 13,000 trees, 900,000 bulbs and 24,000 aquatic plants, among other flora. With some 50,000 member households, CBG claims the largest membership of any U.S. botanic garden, and, in June, it was selected by the United Nations Environment Programme to be the sole North American host site for World Environment Day, an educational initiative begun in 1972 that aims to increase awareness of issues such as climate change.
“It’s really a big deal,” says Siskel, who has a track record of helping lead teams at cultural institutions with big ambitions. Her ability to deliver results garnered her a spot on Crain’s “40 Under 40” list in 2002, when the publication lauded her for the rare ability to “understand both art and commerce.”
The daughter of an anthropologist and an architect, Siskel earned a master’s degree in art history from Wellesley College. Her nonprofit career has included directing exhibitions for Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, helping coordinate a 1995 Monet retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago, and serving as a curator at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. In 1998, at the age of 29, she became director of exhibitions at Chicago’s Field Museum, responsible for managing a staff of 100 and a budget north of $10 million. Her efforts there helped the museum bring blockbuster attractions that included the Dead Sea Scrolls and shows about China’s Forbidden City, among others.
Siskel considers her former boss, John McCarter, president and CEO of The Field Museum, an influential mentor.
“I worked nine years for John,” says Siskel. “His leadership and nurturing of my professional growth cannot be underestimated.” She was particularly inspired by McCarter’s team-oriented approach and egalitarianism. “He pulled out the Windex and cleaned his own table after lunch,” she says. “He had a real democratic, populist and nonhierarchical style. He sees talent where talent is and nurtures it. That’s what’s allowed me to be where I am.”
McCarter recalls Siskel’s arrival at the museum. “Sophia came to the Field to curate a small, temporary exhibit and rapidly showed her ability to expand her responsibilities, which, at the time of her move to the Garden, included [oversight] of all our exhibitions and education programs.” McCarter adds that Siskel worked effectively with colleagues at the museum, including scientists, an important constituent group both at the Field and now at CBG.
Throughout her professional life, Siskel says she has tried to do whatever it took to help her team achieve its goals. “I see so many young people today who don’t want to fill the water bottles, so to speak,” says the Kellogg grad. “I really saw my role with each one of my mentors as one of service. You want me to do mail merges for you? I’ll do whatever you need. The concept of service does not put you in a diminutive role. It allows people to trust and open up and share with you their fears and strengths. That’s how you learn.”
When Siskel wanted to strengthen her business acumen in a formal setting, she turned to the Kellogg School.
She says that she has “always been very strong in math and science,” but wanted to expand her skills through her Kellogg MBA education so that she would be better positioned to lead cultural institutions. As a result, she forced herself to take courses like accounting and finance, even though she admits her studies may have been easier had she stuck with offerings in the school’s nonprofit curriculum, which would have been more familiar to her.
“But I knew that in my job I was going to have to do financial analysis,” Siskel says.
Managing a cultural institution, she explains, bears some similarity to leading any resource-constrained organization, although there are key differences too. One of these is the necessity to take a longer-term view on the institution’s mission while remaining aware of the best way to deliver on that mission. “Spaceship rides” — those slick or perhaps gimmicky attractions that may enhance revenue and attendance but that are not necessarily consistent with maintaining high curatorial standards — are among the elements that nonprofit leaders must handle, Siskel says.
She points to a Kellogg course like Nonprofit Board Governance as important for preparing future leaders to meet these and other challenges. In part, she says, the class helps by providing clarity, defining a nonprofit as “an institution created to serve a purpose that is larger and more long lasting than is perhaps a business that’s set up around the consumer industry.”
This framework, says Siskel, involves “looking at our cultural institutions in terms of, say, a 100-year plan, not just focused on how we can close the gap in our operating budget for next year.”
That mentality, she says, is built into the thinking at the Chicago Botanic Garden, which is essentially a museum with a living collection, where an oak tree may need a century to mature. But she believes that approach needs to be part of all cultural institutions.
“I really see cultural institutions in terms of their civic responsibility,” Siskel says. “We’re not only planning for tomorrow, but we have to ask ourselves, ‘What is the enduring legacy of our institution that fulfills our civic responsibility?’”
Posted September 2008