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Thought Leaders: Frances Hesselbein on Leadership and Diversity

By Melissa J. Anderson

“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,” said Frances Hesselbein, former CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA 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. 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 received 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 is linked to her love of her country. “How can we sustain democracy if we don’t know the power of inclusion?” she asked.

Focus on Diversity

Hesselbein explained that, growing up in a coal mining town in Pennsylvania, she was exposed to people of different nationalities at an early age. “I grew up… with kids whose grandfathers came from every part of the world.”

She explained that the defining moment in her life was when, as a little girl, her grandmother told her a story about a neighbor, Mr. Yee, a Chinese immigrant who ran a laundry service in the town where Hesselbein’s mother grew up. Mr. Yee was subject to the racist taunts and abuse by many of the town’s children, and when he decided to leave the country and return to China, he presented a gift of two vases to Hesselbein’s grandmother, explaining that her family members were the only ones in town who spoke to him with respect and called him by his own name.

“I cried my eyes out for Mr. Yee,” she said. From then on, Hesselbein said she valued the importance of respect and inclusion.

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… as CEO who was a leader of a local Girl Scout council, I had on the ground experience.”

From the very beginning she implemented a plan to improve diversity – and quickly tripled the number of its minority membership.

But she did meet some resistance, particularly implementing the diversity measures so early in her tenure as CEO. 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.”

Hesselbein instilled the importance of diversity and inclusion into the fabric of the organization. She recalled the first time Drucker visited the organization’s headquarters in 1981. “He said ‘I can tell a great deal about an organization from its building. The culture is pervasive. There’s very little tension. There’s no mean-ness.’”

She continued, “He loved it, and from then on he gave us two or three days of his time.”

Importance of Crisis Communication Training

During the interview, Goldsmith asked Hesselbein what she felt was one of the most serious challenges she faced during her tenure as CEO of the Girl Scouts. She recalled the “pins in the cookies” hoax in the 1980s.

A man had gone on television in St. Louis, saying that he had found a pin in his Girl Scout cookie – and from there, “pin in cookie” cases began to explode all over the country – over 300 of them. The organization was in the middle of its annual cookie sale. It was a public relations disaster, and if it got worse, many troops would miss out on their biggest fundraising opportunity of the year, ultimately hurting the girls themselves.

Hesselbein enlisted the help of Burson Marsteller, the public relations firm that had helped Johnson and Johnson through its Tylenol crisis. The firm advised Hesselbein not to speak to the media or stop any cookie sales until the FDA completed its investigation of the Girl Scouts’ 7 cookie factories.

One board member disagreed and fought Hesselbein saying she wanted to go on television and dispute the charges, but Hesselbein stood firm. “She backed down,” she recalled.

Three days later, the FDA concluded there was no way the initial pin got into the cookie before the consumer opened the box. Soon, the FBI got involved and levied a $25,000 fine and 20 years in jail for anyone perpetuating the hoax. “Immediately, the pins in the cookies disappeared,” she recalled.

Hesselbein said she learned two valuable lessons from the situation. First of all, she said, was the importance of “obeying marching orders,” and the second was “the importance of crisis management training.”

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