Frances Hesselbein
Frances Hesselbein

By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

On Tuesday, the Women’s Network for a Sustainable Future held its 7th annual summit, entitled “Sustainability, We Get it… Now What?”

Ann Goodman, Ph.D., Executive Director of WNSF, said, “By now the term sustainability has entered the vernacular. Now that everybody gets sustainability, how can we use it to drive [business].

Kathy Robb, Head of Environmental Practice at Hunton & Williams and a WNSF board member, explained explained that WNSF was founded around the belief that “women in business want to bolster sustainability efforts in their companies.”

She continued, “Caring about the environment allows companies to attract and retain women employees, customers, stockholders, and stakeholders – and create a better world for everyone.”

Dr. Goodman introduced the program’s keynote speaker, Frances Hesselbein as a personal “she-ro.” Hesselbein, Chair, Leader to Leader Institute; Chair, Study of Leadership, West Point Military Academy; former CEO, Girl Scouts of the USA is someone who has accomplished much, including being awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the US’s highest civilian honor. Yet, in spite of her achievements, Goodman said, Hesselbein continues to be “generous, friendly, down to earth, straight forward, direct, [and] empathetic.”

Hesselbein opened her discussion on creating a sustainable society with a poem:

Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words.

Be careful of your words, for your words become your actions.

Be careful of your actions, for your actions become your habits.

Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character.

Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.

– Anonymous

“Today is all about destiny,” she began.

Creating a Sustainable Society

Hesselbein spoke at length to the importance of education in creating a sustainable democracy. She said, “There are two institutions that have sustained democracy,” in the United States. The first of which, the US Army, she said, was going strong. But, she continued, the second, public education, is faltering. “The kindest thing you can say is that the house is on fire.”

She continued, “How can we sustain a democracy if we do not educate our children?” According to Hesselbein, only one in two children graduate in New York City. And in Los Angeles, only one in five. “For those of us committed to sustainability, those are not invisible children. Education of all our children is [critical] to democracy.”

But Hesselbein is not cynical or pessimistic about the future. She joked, “Even my blood type is B positive.”

“I get my hope, my positive future, from them. I have a feeling that this generation of young men and women is different from earlier generations. When I say ‘to serve is to live,’ this generation says, ‘of course.’”

Developing Girls into Leaders

Having served as the CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA from 1996 to 1990, it is natural that Hesselbein would place a lot of faith in the next generation of leaders. Hesselbein, in fact, is charged with transforming the organization. She recalled, “When I came to New York, I never wanted to be CEO of the Girl Scouts I never wanted to leave Pennsylvania – ever!” In 1976, she said, the program hadn’t changed in 12 years. “It had lived through the trauma of the 1960s and early ’70s,” without an update, she said.

“In 67 years, they had never had anyone from the field” lead the organization, she explained. So, when she went in to interview, “I didn’t think they were serious.”

Asked what she would do to change the organization, she said, “I suggested a huge transformation. We would focus on math, science, technology. We would throw out the hierarchy and institute flexible, circular management. I had a great time describing all we would do for them,” she said with a smile.

Two days later, she got a call asking her to come back. She accepted the job, and promised new handbooks within a year.

Hesselbein’s efforts changed the GSUSA dramatically, in both its management structure and its work developing girls. In fact, when she asked how many women in the room had been (or continued to be) girl scouts, at least half of the room’s hands went up. She said, “Only the best is good enough for those who serve girls.”

Getting Girls into Math and Science

When asked how best to engage today’s girls in math and science in order to fill the STEM career pipeline with women, Hesselbein replied, “We’re not telling the story.”

Girls need to see real-life role models in those fields. “It can’t just be a brochure,” she said. “We need to give [women in STEM fields] a platform where young women can hear, ‘I’m the chief engineer of –.’ They need real life examples.”

She continued, “All over the country we have many remarkable role models. We need to bring them together.”

Hesselbein talked about the importance of mentoring, saying she mentors three women herself. She also reiterated the importance of education.

She said, “In terms of volunteerism, this generation is often compared to the generation of the 1930s and 1940s, which we now call the Greatest Generation. One of the things that made that [title] possible was college scholarship. For this generation, that opportunity is shrinking. How do we give them that opportunity for education and internships?”

She continued, “This generation has a passion for making a difference.”