3 Practices CEOs Can Learn from the Girl Scouts

Girl Scout Cookie BoxesIn most communities, January through April is the time of year when the girls in green are out in full force selling Girl Scout cookies. Can you imagine a world without Thin Mints®, Tagalongs® and Do-si-dos®?  Sadly, they were once at risk.

There was a time in the mid-1970s when the Girl Scouts were struggling and their future looked uncertain. Fortunately, Frances Hesselbein came to the rescue. Although she had no daughters, Mrs. Hesselbein had begun her association with the Girl Scouts when she agreed to help with a troop of 30 girls in Johnstown, Pennsylvania that had lost its leader. It wasn’t long before Hesselbein’s experience with Troop 17 developed into a lifelong commitment to Girl Scouting. In 1976 she became CEO of the national organization, Girl Scouts of the USA.

With membership falling, and the organization in a state of serious decline, Mrs. Hesselbein put sound management practices in place. During her twenty-four-year tenure, Girl Scout membership quadrupled to nearly three and a half million, diversity more than tripled, and the organization was transformed into what Peter Drucker described as “the best-managed organization around.” Hesselbein accomplished the amazing turnaround with a paid staff of 6,000 and 730,000 volunteers.

Here are three practices that helped Frances Hesselbein put the Girls Scouts on a track for success.

1. Create an “Inspiring Identity”

Hesselbein gave the Girl Scouts an inspiring identity by showing women how important it was to reach out to girls, given the threats they face such as drugs and teen pregnancy. She helped women to envision the Girl Scout organization as a professional, well-managed organization that carried out this important work.

2. Promote “Human Value”

Mrs. Hesselbein’s leadership style, in fact, it seems her purpose in life, is to bring out the best in the people she meets. She has a high regard for people that shows she values them. She has written that good leaders have an “appreciation of their colleagues individually and the dignity of the work their colleagues do.”

Hesselbein “walks the talk.” Her words and actions embody human value. On her watch, she built a conference center to train Girl Scout staff and invested in improving Girl Scout leaders’ people skills.  As a role model, she effectively increased human value in the Girl Scout culture and multiplied her actions as other leaders across the organization adopted her leadership style. She kept up with what was going on in the lives of the people around her and personally reached out to them when congratulations or consolation was in order.

3. Increase “Knowledge Flow”

Knowledge flow is key to innovation.  It creates a marketplace of ideas so that people are more likely to spot new opportunities to improve the organization. The energetic Hesselbein increased knowledge flow by approaching communication in an inclusive way, expanding information in ever-larger circles across the organization. Rather than lecturing, her style is to ask insightful questions to draw out relevant issues. In planning and allocating the Girl Scout organization’s resources, she introduced a circular management process that involved virtually everyone across the organization.

By the time Mrs. Hesselbein resigned from the Girl Scouts in 1990, the organization’s future was bright. Peter Drucker paid Frances Hesselbein the ultimate compliment by recruiting her to be the head of the Drucker Foundation (which was renamed the Leader to Leader Institute and more recently renamed the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute).  Through its activities, including publication of the award-winning Leader to Leader journal, the Institute is dedicated to carrying out the mutual passion that Peter Drucker and Frances Hesselbein shared for strengthening leadership in the social sector.

As you move from authority to influence in leading people, particularly in a volunteer organization, the challenge of inspiring employees increases. How can you employ the elements of inspiring identity, human value, and knowledge flow to increase your effectiveness?

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