Hole-in-the-Mountain Prairie, Minnesota. © Richard Hamilton Smith

New Chief Operating Officer Lois Quam Chats with Mark Tercek

I’m delighted to welcome Lois Quam to The Nature Conservancy as Chief Operating Officer. Lois joined the Conservancy in early April. She is the former Special Advisor to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, and an experienced leader in the public and private health sectors. You can read Lois’ full biography here.

Lois Quam, The Nature Conservancy's Chief Operating Officer. Photo © Devan King
Lois Quam, The Nature Conservancy’s Chief Operating Officer. Photo © Devan King

Lois and I recently discussed her background and views on The Nature Conservancy and conservation:

Tercek: You led President Obama’s Global Health Initiative at the U.S. Department of State. What did you learn about the linkage between a healthy environment and the well being of people?

Quam: I remember a trip I took to Senegal, where I met with local leaders to talk about ways to save the lives of mothers by making labor and delivery safer and how to save the lives of kids through vaccinations. One community we visited was literally choked with plastic bags and other pollution. We know that when people live in places that are so degraded, their health and quality of life suffer. Unless we have access to clean water, clean air and functioning natural systems, our health suffers. The connection between a healthy environment and human health is unquestionable.

Tercek: How has your experience in the public and private sectors shaped your expectations for your work at The Nature Conservancy?

Quam: The greatest thing I have witnessed in my career is the miracle of what a group of committed people can accomplish with vision, collaboration and hard work. Big ideas can be brought to life to solve big problems. I’m inspired by the big ideas that founded and sustain The Nature Conservancy and all the remarkable work done to date. I really like the summary of our evolution in the recent article by Peter Kareiva and Craig Groves in the Journal of Applied Ecology.

I see boldness of mission in the projects, programs and strategies we are pursuing. Coming from Minnesota, I have seen first hand some of the Conservancy’s great accomplishments produced through science, collaboration, and a commitment to getting things done. We have so much knowledge from our staff spread across all 50 U.S. states and 35 countries. I want to use what I’ve learned in health care about how to take big ideas to scale and work with our talented people to make the impossible possible in conservation.

Tercek: You will be overseeing the Conservancy’s Marketing and Membership functions. How can broadening our base of support advance our mission?

Quam: It is so important to get the word out about the role nature plays in sustaining our lives, and to let people know that there is still time to protect it. We need more people involved in conservation. We need more people speaking up to protect the land and water on which all our lives depend.

For me, a trip I took to visit family in Arctic Norway changed my life. I saw first-hand the scary realities of a warming planet, but also exciting advancements in sustainable energy. Since that trip, I have been on a professional journey to work at that intersection of the environment, sustainability and health.

So, to connect with more people, we need to reach their hearts. To be a part of their values, we need to be a part of their personal experiences. We have an important and exciting role to play in inspiring people and giving them real opportunities to engage and have a voice in the decisions that affect their lives and the environment around them.

Tercek: You were a board member of the National Wildlife Federation, so you’ve seen a large conservation organization from a governance standpoint. What lessons did you learn from that experience?

Quam: I was so honored to be on the NWF board and helped develop a new strategic plan to guide the organization. We tackled tough questions, such as how can we help wildlife adapt to a changing climate. Seeing a conservation organization from the Board perspective really opened my eyes to the power and opportunity of partnerships and collaboration. I look forward to helping the Conservancy grow and deepen its work with others.

Tercek: You were named three times to Fortune magazine’s 50 most powerful women in American business list. What did that recognition mean to you?

Quam: Well, first, I must say that the recognition I find most important is being the mother of three. The Fortune recognition is humbling. As a woman, I feel indebted to all the women who came before me who fought to create these opportunities. Think about how far we’ve come. My grandmothers, Thora Quam and Agnes Hammer, didn’t have the right to vote when they were born. We still have a lot of work to do. What I have taken from the Fortune recognition is an obligation to do what I can to continue to build opportunities for the women leaders of tomorrow. One way I do that is mentoring younger women.

Tercek: Any advice for women leaders looking to make their mark in the non-profit sector?

Quam: My advice for all leaders, but especially women, is to think through what your deepest priorities are. Be clear about those priorities. Give your best energy to them and let other things go by the wayside. Bring your full self to work and be authentic about who you are. Always find ways to learn and new ways to confront the challenges we face in our lives. Take our powerful experiences, whether it’s bearing a child or caring for an elderly parent, and apply them to leadership challenges at work.

Tercek: If your travel budget allowed you to visit just one place in 2014 to get a sense of the scale of TNC’s work, where would you go?

Quam: Mongolia. It’s the frontier of what’s happening globally—a resource-rich country with a strong culture tied to the landscape. It’s one of those places where there’s a big opportunity to get it right, and a chance to show the world how to grow sustainably.

Meanwhile, in my first weeks at the Conservancy, I’ve been able to visit our programs and some of our great work in Maine, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Ohio and my native Minnesota.

Tercek: Speaking of growing up in Minnesota, how did that landscape shape your sense of place?

Quam: I grew up in Marshall, Minnesota, a town of about 12,000 people on the Great Plains; roughly 150 miles southwest of the Twin Cities, 10 miles from the South Dakota border and 40 miles from Iowa.

Just outside of Marshall, there’s a place that’s so flat you feel like you can see the curvature of the earth. The openness there is beautiful. Much of the land there is now cropland, but there are still places of native prairie and wetlands that are full of wildlife. There’s a Nature Conservancy preserve not far from Marshall called Hole-in-the-Mountain Prairie. From places like that, you can get a sense of what it must have been like before the arrival of settlers. I draw a lot of inspiration from my home state. It will always be a part of me.

Hole-in-the-Mountain Prairie
Hole-in-the-Mountain Prairie, Minnesota. © Richard Hamilton Smith

Tercek: You have 22-year-old twin sons graduating college, and a 24-year-old in the working world. What do they think of your new job – saving the planet?

Quam: Recently, my oldest son, Ben, came to visit me here at work. We had lunch in my space, and then toured the GIS lab with two of our scientists. I was so happy to have him come visit and have him get a sense of the energy that fills this place. I’m touched to say that I think all three boys are very proud to have their mom working for The Nature Conservancy.

Tercek: You’ve had papers published in leading medical journals, including the New England Journal of Medicine, and you’ve emphasized innovation throughout your career. What does innovation mean in the non-profit space?

Quam: Innovation means finding new ways of working – the new solutions, the new ways of being – that will allow us to achieve our goals. Innovation is at the heart of scientific discovery. The greatest risk we face as an organization is not being able to get our good work done fast enough or at a scale big enough to make a lasting difference. This organization has accomplished so much throughout its history, yet if we only continue what we are doing now, it won’t be enough to conserve the lands and waters on which all life depends. I feel so lucky to be able to work on this challenge with all my colleagues at the Conservancy.

Tercek: What’s been you’re biggest surprise in your first month on the job.

Quam: Let’s just say that this is the first job I’ve ever had where I’ve been asked what size waders I wear. I love it!

Mark Tercek is the president and CEO of The Nature Conservancy. You can follow Mark on Twitter @MarkTercek.

Lois Quam is Chief Operating Officer of The Nature Conservancy.

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  1. Lovely article. Ton of great information. Love the idea on Mongolia.

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