U.S. Chamber President Suzanne Clark interviews Kirk Johnson, Executive Director of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

Kirk Johnson knows the importance of working together to get things done. After all, when you’re standing on the edge of a cliff, trying to safely dig up and preserve hundreds of pieces of a T. rex skeleton, you’d better have worked out all your personality conflicts beforehand.

“They are great big puzzles and when you get the right people together, it’s tremendous fun and really satisfying when you do it,” said Johnson, the Executive Director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History.

Johnson, who is a renowned paleontologist, shared his insights on collaboration — both in the field and in the museum — with Suzanne Clark, President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, in her new video series, “5 Business Lessons Learned.” In the series, Clark reaches beyond the boundaries of business to gather insights from world-renowned experts in a variety of fields, including science, music, art and sports. In each installment, Clark examines five core business lessons through the lens of an expert with a unique perspective.

In this edition, Clark and Johnson discuss this year’s massive $125 million renovation of the museum’s David H. Koch Hall of Fossils. It took 500 people more than five years to complete the project. Working together with other paleontologists as well as designers, artists, scientists and a fundraising team meant Johnson had to find ways to get everyone to work together.

 USCC's suzanne clark interviewing kirk johnson of the smithsonian
Suzanne Clark, President of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, interviewing Kirk Johnson, Executive Director of the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. — Ian Wagreich / U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Clark and Johnson discussed five key lessons learned throughout the renovation and his career as a paleontologist, filmmaker and museum director that are applicable to businesses of any kind.

Lesson 1 — Lead through inspiration. If you can get somebody excited about something, you can’t stop them from doing great work.

Lesson 2 — When building a team, look for the soft skills that enable teamwork. At the end of the day, it really comes down to respect and communication.

Lesson 3 — Create a common language. When you put together an exhibit team, the very first thing is getting people to start using the same language. You have to wash all the jargon out of the system.

Lesson 4 — Put the audience first. If you follow someone through a museum exhibit, you start to realize what parts of the exhibit work and what parts don’t.

Lesson 5 — Leadership is learned. You don’t necessarily come fit with the skills. You find your soft spots, your blind spots, your weak spots and figure out how to fix them.

CO— aims to bring you inspiration from leading respected experts. However, before making any business decision, you should consult a professional who can advise you based on your individual situation.

Published October 15, 2019