January 4, 2018

Success Story: ThinkingAhead Lands New Leader for Appalachian Trail Conservancy

By ThinkingAhead

Chris Spagnola and Jessica Martinez, accomplished executive-level recruiters for ThinkingAhead, had no idea that their reputations had preceded them. But a previous client, impressed with their thorough and unique approach to search and placement, had recommended them to the Board of the iconic Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) as a team that would be capable of securing an organization’s outgoing president and CEO.


The then-president of the ATC was retiring, and the historic organization needed to find a successor who understood the mission of the organization and had the wherewithal to succeed at its head. That person needed to be a dynamic, entrepreneurial leader who could successfully collaborate with Appalachian Trail stakeholders, conservancy board members and staff, volunteers, partner organizations and agencies, and preserve a nationally and internationally renowned American treasure.


Spagnola and Martinez, to their surprise and delight, were approached by the ATC hiring committee following their referral. They developed and presented to the committee a few considerations that they perceived to be pertinent to the securing of a new ATC president with the full understanding of the unique attributes an incumbent would require as president of such a revered conservation organization.


The ATC, founded in 1925 and headquartered in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, maintains and protects the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. The president reports to a 15-member board of directors and provides strategic leadership in operations, fundraising, marketing, human resource, technology and programmatic strategies. There are also 60 professional staff members to oversee.


Impressed by what they saw from the Spagnola-Martinez ThinkingAhead team, the ATC selection committee confirmed their desire to work with the group, and an intensive search process kicked off in June 2017. According to Spagnola, “We checked in with the ATC search committee every two weeks, conducted surveys, made calls, and provided the search committee with extensive information.”


The search team gave the task the special attention it required considering the significance of the ATC and its president as a leader and symbol of US cultural heritage. Top of mind for the search team was diversity and inclusion, and the team reached out to over 200 potential candidates.


“We interviewed 45 candidates, and nine in total were shortlisted. Seven of those underwent video interviews from which the hiring panel chose four for second-round interviews. Three finalists were selected, and these individuals met the selection committee and staff in person in September and October.”


Ultimately, it was Suzanne Dixon, senior director of regional operations at the National Parks Conservation Association, who stood out as the best candidate. She had most recently helped to establish San Antonio Missions National Historical Park as a World Heritage Site.

Ms. Dixon was selected and has become the first female president of the ATC, embodying the culture of diversity and vision that the ATC sought. “The Appalachian Trail is an American treasure, and I’m privileged to lead this team as we celebrate the recreational, economic and cultural significance of the trail,” said Ms. Dixon. “I’m excited to be an ambassador and collaborator with communities up and down the Appalachian Trail as we move forward in protecting the trail and its surrounding landscapes. By working directly with the public, we will strengthen our ability for families to enjoy this precious resource for generations to come.”


ThinkingAhead’s role was one of collaborator. The team aided the selection committee in crafting the right questions for interviewees and planning the hiring process. ThinkingAhead was committed to keeping the process on track and ensuring the right fit for the leading voice of such a significant US cultural institution. Thanks to the expertise of Spagnola and Martinez and the ATC selection committee, the recruitment journey was an open and transparent one with dialogue that facilitated the achievement of the ATC’s goals and intentions.

Spagnola and Martinez lived up to their client’s expectations and their roles as expert recruiters of non-profit professionals and top-caliber executive leadership talent. But they, for their part, appreciate the willingness of ATC to follow their unique recruiting strategy.


According to Spagnola, “the Appalachian Trail Conservancy was an ideal client to work with!”