– By Regina Carswell Russo
Dion Brown, the new president and chief operating officer of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, likes to say he doesn’t know a lot about history because he’s an “operations and numbers guy.” But that’s not exactly true. Brown is a person who is curious, with a certain level of understanding of the subject and the courage to learn more about it – like most visitors to a museum. What sets Brown apart is his wisdom. Real-life experience has made him as wise as any scholar or academic. The tenacity of his single-parent upbringing; the discipline, team-building and problem-solving skills from his military career; and the interpersonal skills from his work in human resources helped him shape several successful museums.
This earned wisdom is one of the reasons Brown stood out among the four finalists who hoped to fill the shoes of Dr. Clarence Newsome, former Freedom Center president and current board member. According to the Rev. Damon Lynch Jr., chair of the center’s board, Brown is “winsome, outgoing and down-homey.” His military career also was a plus. “That leadership, regimen and discipline are valuable, and he actually knows how to run a museum,” Lynch said. “He’s done it. It’s a win-win.”
Finding A Path
Brown earned a degree in human resources while in the Air Force, where he served 21 years before retiring. His first job after military life was with a science museum in Wichita, Kansas – the Exploration Place. Just six months into his HR job, the museum’s president, Alberto Meloni, tasked Brown with cafe operations. Brown turned $38,000 in business into a $168,000 operation. He soon took charge of all earned-income operations, and Meloni said he would teach him how to be president of a museum. Brown soon realized his gifts: seeing things from an employee’s view, fixing systems and growing revenue. His museum career was set in motion.
Brown developed nationally recognized signature programs, increased attendance and reduced organizational debt as executive director of the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Mississippi. He was founding executive director of the National Blues Museum, a St. Louis attraction the New York Post labeled a “must-see.”
With the Freedom Center’s strong and growing endowment, its rise in attendance and memberships, what does this self-proclaimed fixer see as his challenge? The answer, according to Brown: “I’m here to turn great into greatness.”
Lynch has a pragmatic view. “He’s tenacious about the budget,” Lynch noted. “He hopes to expand the endowment. His real-world knowledge will bode well for the staff and [the Freedom Center].”
A positive company culture combined with increasing earned income, attendance and endowment all would be wins for Brown. He’s laying out several strategies to achieve this.
First, he knows it’s important to grow talent from the inside – something he learned in the military. “You find out the hidden passions of people, and you put them in a position to fulfill that, if they have the capacity,” he said.
He also is exploring ideas to build on the Freedom Center’s strengths: a great location, world-class facilities and programming. In addition, he will tap into his people skills – something he learned from his family – to “meet the visitor where they are.” He is exploring the idea of breaking barriers and doing that with empathy. “That’s the beauty of a museum,” Brown said. “It’s a place to have those hard conversations. It allows you to come out of your comfort zone. There’s something here for everyone.”
Brown’s strongest asset, Lynch said, is his leadership style: a strong desire to mentor and bring out the best in his team. Brown calls this style “transformational.”
“To be a good leader,” Brown said, “you have to be a good follower. I always want team members to know that nothing is beneath me.”
This leadership philosophy is something he learned from his upbringing. His faith and his family are his greatest influence and motivation. In fact, when he talks about his wife of 33 years, his mother, grandparents and three adult children, his eyes well up. “My family is everything,” he said. “I do everything for them. It’s family first, always family first.”
He treats his co-workers like family, too. He never misses an opportunity to impart wisdom or a positive word. He gets that honestly from his grandfather, he said. Brown credits that man with the best advice he ever received: “Don’t go on what you think. Get up and get out and see for yourself.” He is banking that more visitors to the Freedom Center will take him up on that in the years to come.