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25 June 2015

How Frances Hesselbein Reinvented the Girl Scouts

Influence and impact have historically been difficult for nonprofits, which often labor on shoestring budgets for narrowly focused causes. The role of an influencer can be particularly challenging for women, who tend to manage smaller and less well funded enterprises in the sector and who may struggle to make themselves heard among male colleagues.

Frances Hesselbein, approaching her 100th birthday, has become the world’s leading advocate for management skill in the social sector. As head of Girl Scouts of the USA and then as chief executive of Leader to Leader (now the Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute), she has parlayed her skills as a networker, catalyst for change, and management thinker into a role fostering the excellence and commitment of leaders in three spheres: public, private, and not-for-profit.

When Hesselbein’s son was young, she was asked to assume leadership of a local Girl Scout troop. She had no daughters, but there were no other candidates, so she agreed to take the troop for six months. She found inspiration in founder Juliette Low, who told girls in 1912 that they could “be anything they wanted to be,” including an aviator. Because Hesselbein had been mocked as a child at school for declaring her desire to become a pilot, the statement inspired her. “Imagine a woman saying that in 1912!”

Upon meeting her troop of 10-year-olds, she introduced herself as their leader — “the first and last time I ever announced myself that way.” As an inexperienced newcomer, she let the girls choose what projects to pursue, what badges to work on, even how to handle the proceeds from their cookie sale. The troop flourished, and she stayed with them until they graduated from high school. She then accepted an appointment to chair the board of the regional council.


The scope of Hesselbein’s ambition was apparent from the start. On the first day of her board job, she brought a copy of Peter Drucker’s The Effective Executive (Harper & Row, 1967) for each staff member, having decided that “his philosophy was exactly what we needed for our governance and management.” She rapidly introduced herself to business leaders throughout the region. She persuaded the president of the area’s biggest bank to personally sponsor her first fund drive, doubling the previous year’s result. She also engaged the support of union leaders in the area and enlisted local congressman John Murtha to chair her first fundraising dinner; he continued to do so for the next 35 years. Invited as the first woman to chair the regional United Way campaign, she recruited a leading executive of Bethlehem Steel to host the kickoff luncheon and the United Steelworkers to host the dinner. Bringing leaders with contrasting interests together in pursuit of a common cause was the kind of audacious, inclusive, results-oriented networking that would become her hallmark.

Hesselbein took the job of national executive director of the Girl Scouts of the USA on July 4, 1976, when the organization was losing membership and struggling with how to attract volunteers now that stay-at-home mothers were no longer the norm. She started with what Peter Drucker called the five fundamental questions for an enterprise: What is our mission? Who is our customer? What does the customer value? What are our results? What is our plan? She commissioned research from top universities on trends affecting girls, to identify the kinds of programs that might help them grow up as independent thinkers and self-reliant, successful individuals. She replaced the iconic Girl Scout handbook with four handbooks aimed at girls of different ages, and switched programs and badges to focus less on domestic skills and more on fields like science, technology, and math. She enlisted Vernon Jordan, then president of the National Urban League, and Robert Hill, the foremost researcher on the black family, to help identify ways to appeal to minority girls at a time when scouting was almost entirely white and middle class. She commissioned promotional materials specifically targeted to diverse communities, quickly tripling minority representation.

Just as important were her efforts to dismantle a fairly entrenched hierarchy; like many other youth organizations, the Girl Scouts had adopted a military structure. Hesselbein began a comprehensive restructuring, drawing new org charts using concentric circles to, as she put it, “free people from being stuck in little boxes.” This new “web of inclusion,” as it would later be described, fostered communication across levels and divisions, enabling teams to come together from across the organization, and giving people scope to make their own decisions. “People flourish when they take responsibility,” Hesselbein observes. “Have you ever met a young person who couldn’t wait to be a subordinate?”

Convinced that high-level training was required to sustain the kind of transformation she was putting in place, she approached learning and development as if the Girl Scouts were IBM or General Electric, often persuading people at the top of their field to donate their services to her cause. She recruited the president of MetLife to raise funds for a state-of-the-art conference center in upstate New York, where she engaged thinkers such as John Gardner, an education and leadership pioneer; leadership scholar Warren Bennis; and Peter Drucker to speak to and work with Girl Scout leaders. She asked Regina Herzlinger, the first female tenured professor at Harvard Business School, to create an asset management seminar to improve financial management in the Girl Scout councils.

At work, Hesselbein viewed her most essential role as recognizing what should not be changed: the organization’s bedrock identity and mission. Despite the wholesale transformation in systems, structures, and service delivery, the Girl Scout Promise and Law, its values and soul, remained untouched.

Nevertheless, her efforts stirred pushback, which she diffused by leaving local councils free to reject most innovations. When traditionalists objected to the redesigned Girl Scout pin, they were told the old one would remain in production and could be ordered if they preferred it. When a number of regional offices were consolidated in New York, the move took place in multiyear stages so people would have time to adjust, even if that made the process less efficient. Her concern was to give people maximum scope to make their own choices as well as “a way to save the face and dignity of people who oppose…initiatives.”

“Doing this is a key principle in managing change and mobilizing people around it,” she explains. “If you act in a dismissive way with those who oppose you, they will never support you, but if you give them time and your respect they will usually come around. Leading this way creates tremendous goodwill. And you need goodwill in a transformation.”

Hesselbein recently noted that “technology and society change, but what people want in their hearts doesn’t change.” Her success and the breadth and robustness of her legacy have to a large extent been built on this understanding. Persuading people to serve — and, as author Jim Collins notes, to feel good about it — is not just something that comes naturally to Hesselbein. It is something she has studied, modeled, and taught, which is why so many leaders see her as inspiration, mentor, and even muse.


Sb-blog-Sally-Helgesen-150x190 Sally Helgesen is an author, speaker, and leadership development consultant, whose most recent book is The Female Vision: Women’s Real Power at Work (with Julie Johnson; Berrett-Koehler, 2010).

This article has been adapted with permission from strategy+business magazine, published by PwC Strategy& LLC. ©2015 PwC. All rights reserved. PwC refers to the PwC network and/or one or more of its member firms, each of which is a separate legal entity. Please see www.pwc.com/structure for further details. To learn more, read the full article “Frances Hesselbein’s Merit Badge in Leadership.”


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