Every year, thousands of visitors and hundreds of students come to ruggedly beautiful Appledore Island to learn about the work of the Shoals Marine Laboratory. The island weaves an alchemy of the mind and soul, transforming learners into scientists—the leaders who will see us make wiser and more sustainable use of our marine ecosystems.
That mission to nurture next-generation leadership is why Alnoba has been a longstanding supporter and strategic partner of Dr. Jennifer Seavey, Executive Director of the Shoals Marine Lab. With roots going back 11 generations to fishermen working the rocky shores, Jennifer has Appledore Island in her blood.
So much of Appledore’s impact has been in its geography—the granite coastline, wind-swept and rich with history. The Shoals Marine Lab is an organization deeply rooted in its physical place. What happens to its mission when access to that place is cut off by a global pandemic?
Dr. Seavey was responsible for answering that question earlier this year when COVID-19 shut down the island. For Jenn, the crisis wasn’t a disaster but an opportunity to put strong leadership principles into practice.
“This moment has truly been a gift,” Jenn says, echoing one of Pinnacle’s first Keys to Leadership in Crisis. “But that doesn’t mean it’s been easy. It‘s a profound challenge that has given us an opportunity to truly innovate.”
Faced with the shutdown, Jenn fell back on a smart leadership decision her organization had already made—a redundancy plan that provided an alternative way for the lab to fulfill its mission.
“We had a back-burner idea that was perfect for this moment,” she says. That idea was to bring the Shoals curriculum and experience online, translating their work on the island into a virtual format in the most active, live and engaging way possible.
“It was something we had always been really hesitant about,” Jenn admits. “I mean, we’re a place-based organization. The pandemic pushed us to change our perspective and face this idea we’d been talking about for so long. We realized it doesn’t have to be ‘either–or.’ We can be both placed-based and digital—we can bring the place online and make that virtual experience really unique.”
If you don’t emerge stronger, you have only survived, not succeeded. That’s the third of Pinnacle’s Keys to Leadership in Crisis, and Jenn’s plan exemplified it. Not only did it allow the lab to continue to serve its existing students, but it broadened their reach to tap into new audiences who couldn’t have made the physical trip to the island. Expanding their programs internationally opened up new grant opportunities. “We have lots of growth potential here,” Jenn says. “This is an exciting new frontier for us.”
The lab is also using the shutdown as an opportunity to put more resources and time into their physical facilities, so that they will be ready and stronger when people return to Appledore.
Recognizing these opportunities and making brave leadership choices has another positive impact: it has brought Jenn’s team closer together. “What we’ve done is extraordinarily hard,” Jenn says. With her team still working and living together on the island, they sat down and wrote up an agreement about what their shared life in a pandemic would look like. Ground rules were laid, and every team member made a commitment that was necessarily deeply personal.
“It has taken an immense amount of work, but we’re all very proud of what we’ve done,” Jenn says. “It’s built morale, confidence and resilience. Don’t get me wrong—I’ve never been this tired in my life, but there’s also this sense of accomplishment. We helped our students, and that always feels good.”
Looking forward, Jenn recognizes there is still a great deal of work to be done finding ways to mingle the lab’s strength for in-person, hands-on learning with their new distance learning innovations. There will also be challenges adapting to a changing public health landscape. Jenn knows this will require her organization to be flexible and nimble as things play out.
When asked what wisdom from this experience she would like to share with emerging leaders, Jenn has a ready answer. “Be brave and believe in your team,” she says. “Make a plan and go all in.”