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Driven by Nature

Power advice with Jennifer Hecker, executive director of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program



Most people are taught to look at an issue from all sides. It’s clear that in her career choices, Jennifer Hecker took that to heart.

Now executive director of the Charlotte Harbor National Estuary Program, Hecker has been involved in the environmental field from all angles. She has progressed “from scientist to lobbyist to policy director and now executive director of a program that interweaves all of the above,” she says. She’s gone from government to nonprofit and back again.

“My nature is to be driven and push boundaries, motivated by the desire to create positive change,” Hecker says.

On behalf of eight counties and 10 cities, Hecker’s job is to be the chief protector of water resources on a $1 million budget, subject to federal funding. A staff of three full-time employees join her in managing the water concerns of municipalities “from Venice to Winter Haven to Bonita Springs,” about 4,700 square miles. Naturally, the municipalities don’t always have the same priorities.

In addition, there are four committees to work with: a technical advisory committee; a citizens committee; a management committee of public and private organization leaders; and a policy committee, whose members are elected officials from throughout the area.

The combination of the large area served, the numerous municipalities and the committees—plus a mandate to educate and empower citizens about how they can make a difference in the environment—add up to the job equivalent of walking and chewing gum while also pushing a wheelbarrow and singing an aria.

“It’s a matter of trying to build consensus,” Hecker says. “We work really hard to maintain a safe, neutral atmosphere where all opinions are expressed.” For one way of ensuring that, Hecker instituted the use of a new software program that enables people to interact in real time and anonymously.

“I’m always looking for new ways to improve,” she says.

That includes improving herself.

Hecker worked at her post as director of resource policy at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida for nearly 121⁄2 years, and in most ways it was her “dream job,” she says. “I was at a point to stretch myself,” she says, explaining her move two years ago to CHNEP. “Just when you’re comfortable, take the risk to fail, or struggle. I find it necessary and invigorating.”

“I’ve learned from almost everybody I’ve ever worked with,” she says. “I see what works for them and what I can borrow.”

She describes herself as a “high-energy multitasker,” which must contribute to that need to grow, and also predisposes her to believe that the most upsetting thing to her as a leader is apathy, not failure.

No matter which position she holds on the environmental landscape and for what entity, she values adaptability, particularly with a small staff such as CHNEP’s. “We can’t operate well unless every single person is willing to be adaptable and flexible,” she says.

That doesn’t mean everyone on a staff will go about that in the same way. “Everyone isn’t built the same,” Hecker says. “The challenge of being a manager is learning how to deal with those people who are not like you, but still achieve what you need to as an entity.” 

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