Now That’s a KIPI!: Larry’s Rules

Mar, 01 2018 / In /

*photo courtesy of the NCMA

We call the mojo that sets a high performing organization apart from others, KIPIs – Key Intangible Performance Indicators. Intangible aspects like good decision-making, artistic and managerial expertise, reputation and relationships, intellectual capital, and the quality of the workforce all influence an organization’s performance. We call them KIPIs because these traits are, by nature, intangible; we cannot easily observe and measure them. And yet we all know how important they are. You can learn more about KIPIs in this NCAR video.

Through years of experience, Lawrence J. Wheeler, Ph.D., director of the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA), has developed a set of principles that have guided the museum’s vision and success. He now shares his secret sauce in lectures across the country. These “rules” are part of the museum’s KIPIs and have helped it out-perform its peers.

An article outlining “Larry’s Rules” originally appeared in the Raleigh, North Carolina-based Walter magazine's November 2017 issue; With permission, we repost them for you here.

Larry’s rules

“Enlarge the Picture” is Rule  No. 1. Take a look around. What does the organization do well? Can it do more? Can it be made more relevant to the community and to people’s lives? What is the path to growth? What is the appropriate – but essential – degree of risk? 

Our risk-taking was driven by our belief that Raleigh was ready for blockbuster exhibitions tied to well-known artists and art. They are expensive and complicated to produce, of course. Which is why folks go to New York, Washington, and other big cities to see them. But we enlarged our picture. And sure enough, crowds soared for Rodin, Matisse and Picasso, Monet, Rembrandt, Norman Rockwell, Escher, and Leonardo’s Codex Leicester. The exhibitions funded by sponsorships and ticket sales were financial successes. People discovered the NCMA from all over the world – and from right here in Raleigh. It became clear that we needed to grow in order to support our growing programs and audience.

Therefore, Rule No. 2: “Big Money Follows Big Ideas.” As hundreds of thousands of people discovered the NCMA from everywhere, it became clear that we were not big enough physically to support our growing program, audience, and collection. In 1983, the Edward Durell Stone building had accommodated the entire museum. But by 2000, it was clear that creating more space for expanding education activities, those big exhibitions, and public activities was essential.

And so we planned. We interviewed the leading architects in the world to present their ideas for a bigger museum, and ultimately hired Thomas Phifer and Partners in New York, a young firm with brilliant minds, to design our museum of the future. The price hovered between $50 and $100 million. Where would the money come from? We believed that an exciting architectural vision of international power would excite community leadership and donors. It did. Donors began to commit. And the aggregate commitment by the State of North Carolina and Wake County of more than $85 million made possible the award-winning building that opened in 2010.

Which brings us to Rule  No. 3: “Politics Is Usual.” Ugh, you say. But think about it. Building support for your mission and program is something you do as a leader every day. Developing staff consensus and engaging board support are as much political activities as enlisting powerful voices in whatever governmental framework your organization functions. Getting good people elected (those who support your program) is an important activity. I have found that board members and community advocates are happy to link your cause to their support of candidates. It is a sophisticated and organic process.

The expansion of the NCMA, whether building new buildings or adding parkland, has depended on government investment, most often very large investment. To have the support of governors, mayors, council members, commissioners, heads of appropriations committees, and the president pro tempore of the senate and speaker of the house is critical. Taking the time to get to know these folks will enable a personal connection to your great cause. Use your most effective board members and be persistent and passionate in communicating your value and relevance to social and economic good. Timing is magic – and remember that “Big Money Follows Big Ideas.”

“If It Ain’t Broke, Fix It” is Rule No. 4. In other words, keep your reality real. No organization is ever perfect. Over time things get out of kilter, the community changes, board leadership comes and goes, staff dynamics shift. It is important every now and again to stop and take stock. Is your programming fresh and relevant? Is your communications technology up-to-date and effective? Are you competitive with the best programs in your field? Are you engaging new community leadership?

It is helpful on an annual basis to evaluate your plan with staff and board and agree on timely fixes. Reallocation of resources or even a little extra fundraising for “modernization” may help the fix. Always lead and be on it. And always be identifying and cultivating future leadership.

There are other Larry Rules, of course, but I will save the best for last. Really important, is Rule No. 5: “Listen.” Listen inside. Listen outside. Listen all the time. Also, I encourage young leaders to “Express Yourself.” Your personality and colorful attributes help define your organization to the community. Go wild – a little bit.  And, another rule, “Be Important.” Recognition that comes to you as a leader is shared by all those you lead – staff, boards, the entire organization. So take those awards proudly.

“Take Appropriate Risk,” is another good rule; so is “Partner Up.” It is important to forge alliances with like-minded organizations, with civic marketers, corporate sponsors, and on and on. But partners need attention. Manage them well.

All this brings us to my favorite rule: “Celebrate!” Yes. Parties are really good things if they are really good. They bring your community around you to dance, dine, and drink some wine. So celebrate your staff achievements. Celebrate your board and patron achievements. Celebrate the community you serve. And if celebrations bring some much-needed revenue, all the better. Celebrations scream success. And they raise the curtain on the next stage of success. So don’t hold back. Be creative, break the rules, and release the hidden human spirit. Make celebration a hallmark of who you are in the world. 


The North Carolina Museum of Art’s permanent collection spans more than 5,000 years, from ancient Egypt to the present, making the institution one of the premier art museums in the South. The Museum’s collection provides educational, aesthetic, intellectual, and cultural experiences for the citizens of North Carolina and beyond. The 164-acre Museum Park showcases the connection between art and nature through site-specific works of environmental art. The Museum offers changing national touring exhibitions, classes, lectures, family activities, films, and concerts.

The Museum opened West Building, home to the permanent collection, in 2010. The North Carolina Museum of Art, Lawrence J. Wheeler, director, is located at 2110 Blue Ridge Road in Raleigh. It is the art museum of the State of North Carolina, Roy Cooper, governor, and an agency of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, Susi Hamilton, secretary.