INTA Bulletin

November 1, 2017 Vol. 72 No. 19 Back to Bulletin Main Page

Molly Fannon: How the Smithsonian Is “Reimagining ‘International’”

The Smithsonian Institution was founded in1846 and today is the world’s largest museum, education, and research complex. It features 17 museums and galleries as well as the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., and the greater National Capital Area, and two museums in New York City. Its collections include about 159 million objects, of which only about one percent are on display at any given time.

The job of fostering the many international relationships involved in finding and acquiring these collections falls to the Smithsonian’s Office of International Relations and Global Programs, which is headed by Molly Fannon. Whether she’s hopping on a plane to build a partnership for the Institution somewhere around the world or taking conference calls and meetings in Washington, D.C., Ms. Fannon is continually working with others to ask the “big questions” and challenge the institution’s notions of its role as perhaps the most important disseminator of cultural knowledge in the world.

Ms. Fannon will speak during the Leadership Enhancement and Development (L.E.A.D) session at this year’s Leadership Meeting in Washington, D.C., from November 7-10, where she will share with registrants her unique insight on successful leadership. She gave the INTA Bulletin a preview of some of the topics she will address and what she hopes INTA members will take away from her talk.

Can you describe the role of the Office of International Relations and Global Programs within the context of the Smithsonian’s larger mission?
In many ways, we think of the Office of International Relations like a startup within a larger organization that has been around for a very long time. The Smithsonian has always been an international organization; in fact, we were founded by a gift from a British citizen, James Smithson, who had never before stepped foot into the United States, but left his entire estate to the U.S. government to create an institution for the “increase and diffusion of knowledge.” Our mission has stayed the same ever since.

I’ve had the great honor of working to reimagine what an Office of International Relations can do for an institution like the Smithsonian.

What has been your personal role in helping the office to expand its objectives?
When I walked through the doors more than four and a half years ago, the Smithsonian was working in more than 150 countries, doing everything from climate change research, to biodiversity conservation, to global health, to predicting emerging pandemics, to working on disappearing languages, to protecting cultural heritage at risk, to engaging contemporary local artists—you name it, we were doing it. But there was no central office at the time that was looking across our many museums and research programs to tease out bigger questions of interest to the Institution and the world. For instance: What’s our overall global impact as the world’s largest museum research and education complex? What unique responsibilities might we have to address certain global challenges that we all face as a human community? How do we elevate and better coordinate our work both internally and with external partners so that, at the end of the day, we fulfill that mission of increasing and diffusing knowledge?

Molly Fannon on the Smithsonian’s Approach to Protecting IP and Traditional Knowledge

“Because we work with so many communities around the world, issues of IP and indigenous knowledge come up a lot. The first time I thought I might want to work with the Smithsonian was in 2005 when I attended a lecture the Institution was hosting around IP rights for indigenous cultural practice. That is what made me think it would be an incredibly interesting place to work. The United States doesn’t have any written protection for traditional knowledge, but the Smithsonian works hand in hand with the communities to understand their collection, whether they’re physical objects or intangible heritage. We’ve even had tribes ask that we not share information from our collections with the public, and in those cases we don’t. That’s coming out of a sense of respect for our relationships with those individuals. It’s not legally required, but it’s part of the soul of what the Smithsonian is.”

I took it upon myself to build a team that can act as a bit of a renegade, asking the tough questions that would challenge the Institution to think very differently about the way it did its work in the world and the kind of responsibility we have. We’ve made huge strides over the last four years. One of the interesting things I’ll talk about [during the Leadership Meeting] is leadership by building coalitions. The Smithsonian is a very large organization with 6,000 employees. We are dispersed across multiple museums and research centers around the world and the country, and we are largely decentralized. In order to get an institution that large and established to move in a new direction, we really needed to build relationships to reach a growing consensus about this new idea of global responsibility. We’ve done that, and my job now—together with other leaders at the Smithsonian—is to help orient the Smithsonian toward a more ambitious global perspective, to help it be poised to tackle the issues that matter the most to our current situation, as well as to future generations, and to build the partnerships and funding sources and relationships that make that possible. Our role is to be a big broad thinker and rally the troops across the Institution to make change happen.

My personal role was to be the first to ask those questions, and then to go out and build coalitions as well as a really dedicated and whip-smart team. Now, what I spend most of my time doing is working to motivate my team. My strongest asset as a leader is to identify very talented people and then get out of their way pretty quickly, realizing my role is to empower them to do work they feel passionate about.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in trying to make these changes?
All of the biggest challenges have been rooted in our most significant strengths and assets, really. First, we are an incredibly diverse organization—we can be anything to anybody, really—from astrophysicists searching for evidence of life in the cosmos to entomologists understanding social systems through the study of ants … to modern art—we have it all. It’s all the Smithsonian. So, working to define a shared sense of ourselves as an institution is a challenge we all face, and are continuing to address through our most recent strategic plan. Focusing in on the global strengths and aspirations of an organization so diverse is quite a challenge. And yet, the trick of it is to not lose that diversity … all while focusing a bit more.

Likewise, we are a very established organization and brand. There are fantastic advantages to that, and yet the impetus to try new things and break out of your comfort zone can be more difficult for established organizations. We’ve been pushing the Institution out of that comfort zone by working with others with the appetite to try new things, and it’s worked so far—we’ve built great momentum and success. Success is catchy.

When you come into an organization and your mandate is to “reimagine ‘international,’” that’s a big challenge. I think our success is that we were inspired by the challenge, not frightened by it. We didn’t seek to quietly and incrementally build a platform—instead, we immediately set our sights high. I always tell our team we need to be “unabashedly ambitious.” When I joined, we really had no budget and very few staff, and I still said “Okay, the new mission of this office is to leverage the creativity and assets of every part of this institution to create meaningful change in the world.” I bet many laughed at that when they saw our reality—a mission without a penny to spend on it. But by setting our sights high, it’s really paid off. We’ve grown our staff by more than ten times in only four years, and our budgets by tens of millions.

Fun Fact

The Smithsonian has about 159 million objects in its collections, of which only about one percent are on display at any given time. Most are housed in collection care facilities, where conservators consult closely with tribes and other indigenous communities to ensure proper care. This includes how to care for them from a traditional conservation perspective as well as spiritual care. “There are some objects that are supposed to be fed and nourished, or some that are supposed to be lying down or standing up,” says Ms. Fannon. “We’ve incorporated all of those practices—to the extent that we know of them—into our collections management policy as a matter of principle. It’s all about the relationships that we build with the communities and the good faith.”

How has your work in the private sector informed your approach to leadership in a public institution?
I was lucky in that the organizations I worked with in the private sector were mission driven, which is probably why I was attracted to them in the first place. While profit certainly was a major measure of success, it wasn’t the only one. And I’m glad to see more and more organizations thinking this way—whether as B corporations or as organizations embracing the notion of “shared value” along value chains.

I think too often the private sector is pitted against the public or nonprofit sector as though they were polar opposites. I believe strongly that both have strengths that can benefit and inform the other. And that they really aren’t all that different. I’ve embraced my private sector background at the Smithsonian. We apply a private sector mentality in my office to this mission-driven organization. We think about profit, just in different terms. We consider opportunity cost. We analyze deals, we project future scenarios. We’re able to be savvy with very few resources because we’re thinking with this private sector mindset. We’ve combined the best of both of those worlds.

What will you focus on in your address at the INTA Leadership Meeting?
I won’t talk much about me as an individual, but about how all of us—no matter what role we have—can lead and effect change. I’ll talk about strategies that I personally have learned can be effective, such as identifying talent in others, nurturing that talent, and creating free runways so that talent can take off. Knowing how to build coalitions and relationships so everyone can work together and finding the right mix of humble confidence are other key elements. And all of those then translate to institutional leadership—how do I lead as an individual, how do I lead as an office within the Smithsonian, and how do I help the Smithsonian to take a leadership role on a global stage on major issues? Those three levels of leadership are all important. I’ve really come to believe that, no matter your station in life, there are solid ways you can effect change through leadership.

How do you think your talk will be applicable for INTA’s audience?
None of what I’ll be talking about will be foreign to an audience of attorneys. What we wrestle with on a global stage are the issues that affect all of us as human beings and that are the most critical issues of our time. How are we going to deal with climate change? How will we protect the Earth’s biodiversity for future generations? How will we maintain our individual cultural identities around the world while still ensuring mobility of people and ideas across the world? They are the big, critical issues we all hold in common and that all disciplines have something to contribute to. In order to find solutions to these big issues you have got to draw on a multidisciplinary approach. I hope in telling the story of learning to be a leader—because I don’t have it down pat yet—that everybody can see how they too can be a leader on some of these issues that are connected to them personally. And we deal with legal issues all the time, including intellectual property issues. Plus, some of the colleagues I most enjoy working with at the Smithsonian are our attorneys in our Office of the General Counsel.

What are you most looking forward to about attending and speaking?

I’m really excited to attend the meeting and give this talk. I’ve appreciated the chance to reflect on what I’ve learned over the last couple of years. I’m also very excited to see the global diversity of the audience that will be there. I hope people will be engaged and not too shy to ask questions because I love a vigorous back and forth. I hope it will be an eye-opening and exciting talk that will make people realize how much they have in common with us here at the Smithsonian.

L.E.A.D Subcommittee Co-Chairs

The L.E.A.D Subcommittee of the Leadership Development Committee is led by Co-Chairs David M. Perry (Blank Rome LLP, USA) and Christopher Chaudoir (Chevron Corporation, USA). The INTA Bulletin spoke with them about the subcommittee’s overall goals and what to expect from this year’s L.E.A.D session. 

What is the purpose of the L.E.A.D session and how do you choose speakers? 
Dave Perry (DP): We want to take less of an academic or clinical approach to choosing a speaker and instead find people who come from interesting backgrounds. They are decidedly not trademark focused necessarily, but leadership focused. 

Chris Chaudoir (CC): We also want something topical to where the meetings are located. The concept has always been to provide a different lens to look at leadership outside of the law. INTA members are already familiar with how lawyers interact and lead and how to develop themselves in their law firm or in-house positions; we wanted to give members something they might not have thought about before. 

Why did you choose Molly Fannon as this year’s speaker? 
CC: After brainstorming, the committee quickly determined that the Smithsonian is the preeminent institution in Washington, D.C., if not the United States, and one that is involved with all sorts of international issues. Molly is a dynamic speaker and has a unique perspective on leadership. She has adapted her leadership style in various contexts internationally as needed, while also motivating a substantial volunteer workforce. 

How do you think Ms. Fannon’s talk will help INTA members in their role as leaders within the Association? 
CC: By definition, we’re an international organization and one of the few where that component is so vitally connected to the law that we practice. Interfacing with folks who aren’t from our geographic location or country requires a different skill set and Molly has a unique view on collaborating with an international audience. I’m hoping she’ll bring a whole lot of suggestions on how to do that effectively. 
What have you learned about leadership through your work on the subcommittee? 
DP: I’ve learned a lot more about the concept of contracting yourself to allow more room for the committee to fill in the void and lead themselves. We want to allow everyone to participate in different ways. You learn to step back and realize you may be doing a better job leading by allowing others to weigh in. 

CC: I think that’s right. The biggest takeaway has been that leaders aren’t necessarily the president or vice president of an organization. Everyone has a role to play. Borrowing from one of my favorite quotes, “Being a leader doesn’t require a title; having a title doesn’t make you one.” 

What do you hope people take away from the session? 
DP: We really want to give attendees something practical to take back with them. Molly understands that we’re trying to have our cake and eat it too—we want an interesting and engaging speaker showcasing an amazing institution, but we also want to give an audience of trademark professionals some thought-provoking ideas they can take back with them to all of the different kinds of positions they hold. 

CC: What we’ve been trying to emphasize is that members shouldn’t look at this as another training session on how to be a good trademark lawyer or about the latest trends in trademark law. It’s about learning how different people approach situations and how they lead. I want to challenge our members to attend the session with an open mind and take away something new on how to lead. We have an amazing opportunity to learn from Molly’s example.

Although every effort has been made to verify the accuracy of items in the INTA Bulletin, readers are urged to check independently on matters of specific concern or interest.

© 2017 International Trademark Association