By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
At the headquarters of the Girl Scouts of the USA on Tuesday, the organization welcomed home its beloved leader Frances Hesselbein, who served as its CEO from 1976 to 1990. Upon taking the reins, she led the faltering organization to a new era of dynamic success, by implementing new delivery methods and ushering in a host of initiatives aimed at improving diversity. At the event, Hesselbein recalled the lessons she has learned throughout her life and career.
Now President and CEO of the Leader to Leader Institute (formerly the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management), Hesselbein’s model of servant leadership has inspired powerful people around the world, and in 1998, she was awarded the Presidential Model of Freedom, the highest honor a civilian can receive in the US. She is the recipient of over 20 honorary degrees, and her work on leadership and management is respected globally. As Marshall Goldsmith, who moderated the event, explained, “In the world of leadership she is the role model.”
Hesselbein, who is deeply patriotic, said her commitment to diversity comes from her love of her country. “How can we sustain democracy if we don’t know the power of inclusion?” she asked.
Democracy and Diversity
“How can you sustain a democracy if you don’t have respect and equal access and equal opportunity for all people?” Hesselbein asked.
In fact, she said, diversity was a key part of the turnaround of the Girl Scouts. She explained, “When I came in, and because I was the first person in 67 years [to be named] CEO, who was a leader of a local Girl Scout council, I had on the ground experience.”
She continued, “And one of the first questions I asked was how many of our three million plus members came from racial or ethnic [minority] groups.”
The organization didn’t know the answer – and, they said, they felt it would be discriminatory to ask. Hesselbein explained that there was no way to improve the diversity of the membership if they didn’t have a way to measure it. “So I said it would be discriminatory not to know. And we found out it was 97 percent white – in 1976 – and, fortunately, that was intolerable to the organization.”
Working with Dr. Robert Hill, at the time Director of Research for the National Urban League, the organization found that every ethnicity group wanted their daughters to be able to join the Girl Scouts. “But they didn’t know how to access it,” she said.
“We asked the Council how they felt, and they said, ‘That’s wonderful. We’re just waiting for them to come in.” The team implemented a plan, and quickly, the organization tripled the racial/ ethnic minority representation. “It was wonderful. Everyone came together.”
Throughout her conversation, Hesselbein’s modesty shone through. She credited by name people who had helped along the way, and pointed out that the GSUSA’s current CEO was also a former troop leader – the second in 100 years (after herself) to lead the organization.
She mentioned those who had done work for free – including Goldsmith, Peter Drucker, and other big names. In fact, upon meeting Drucker in 1981, Goldsmith came into the organization to do 360 degree feedback on its management team. “He said we start with you, and moved across the organization. It was one of the greatest gifts we ever had,” she said.
Asked her proudest contribution, Hesselbein responded, “I think that one great change that marvelous people brought about was when the organization said this is an organization for all girls. And we built a wonderful organization that Peter Drucker said was the best in the world.”
She explained that implementing the diversity measures early in her tenure as CEO did meet with some resistance. She recalled how very successful corporate leaders told her she would lose her sponsorship dollars. “We raised ten million dollars that year,” she said with a chuckle. “The country was ready.”
Finally, Goldsmith asked her her best advice for those in leadership.
Hesselbein recalled an event when Drucker interviewed her on stage in front of 335 Girl Scout council CEOs, asking what she wanted the brass plaque under her portrait to say. “And I heard myself say, ‘I hope it will say she never broke her promise.’”
Drucker responded, “No. It will say ‘she kept her faith.’”
She continued, “I think keep the faith is the most powerful message you can carry and travel with.”
Editor’s Note: event attendees received a copy of Hesselbein’s new book My Life in Leadership: The Journey and Lessons Learned Along the Way.