June 2009
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Frances Hesselbein

Frances Hesselbein is a pioneer in her work with leadership and social service. She was a founding president and CEO of the Leader to Leader Institute, also known as the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management, from 1990 to 1998. Before that, she served as the CEO of Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. from 1976 to 1990.

Hesselbein currently sits on a variety of nonprofit and private sector corporate boards including the Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics and the Mutual of America Life Insurance Company, New York. She has co-edited a selection of books, the most recent of which is The Organization of the Future 2: Visions, Strategies, and Insights on Managing in a New Era. She is also a recipient of the United States' highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Q| What was your first job, and what lesson did you take away from it?

I think the journey to leadership begins before your first professional job. Long ago, in the mountains of western Pennsylvania, the young mother of an eight-year-old found herself the senior leader of Girl Scout Troop 17. The troop had lost its leader, and I explained that I knew nothing about little girls or Girl Scouting so I would take them for six weeks until they found a real leader. I was in charge of 30 ten-year-old girls in the basement of the Second Presbyterian Church in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. We ended up staying together for eight years until Troop 17 graduated from high school.

Along the way, I found myself the chairman of the local Girl Scout Council, and then I was called to serve on the National Board of Girl Scouts of the USA and on a world committee that met in Switzerland twice a year. Then one day, I was appointed the executive director of my local council, the Talus Rock Girl Scout Council. I was there four years, and then a councilman in eastern Pennsylvania called and said, "We want you to come here." So I went there for 18 months to serve as their executive director. Then I got a third call from the Girl Scouts of the USA, the largest organization for girls in the whole world, and they said, "Come to New York and talk to us about our CEO position."

I was CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA for about 13 years. I never had a bad day. I had a few tough days. My last year was the most exuberant year of my whole career. Leaving well is the last great gift a leader can give to the organization. So my first job was leader of Troop 17, and then I had a series of professional jobs with the Girl Scouts, and I never applied for one of them. Each one opened another door for me.

Q| What was the idea behind founding the Leader to Leader Institute?

Six weeks after I left Girl Scouts of the USA as CEO, Bob Buford, chairman of Leadership Network, Dick Hubert, who had been with the Red Cross, and I were talking about how not enough people in the nonprofit world knew about Peter Drucker and used his work. All three of us had been enormously influenced by Peter in our careers.

We decided, "Why don't we fly to Claremont (where Peter was teaching), and present whatever we developed together to Peter?" After brainstorming, we decided that we would found the Peter Drucker Foundation for Non-Profit Management, a foundation that would deal in intellectual capital rather than in money, and it would move the Drucker philosophy across the non-profit world.

The next morning, we took turns presenting our brainchild to Peter Drucker. Peter listened with absolutely no expression, and we couldn't tell what he was thinking. Finally, he said, "We will not name it for me. I'm not dead yet, and I do not intend to be an icon." Well, he lost that battle, and it's the only battle he ever lost. "Number two. We will not focus on me. There are a lot of good people out there, and you will bring them in." Already, he had expanded our vision.

Bob and Dick thought that I should be the chairman of the board. After all, I had just left the Girl Scouts CEO position and would have time to chair several board meetings a year for the new Drucker Foundation.

Peter looked at me and said in a very tough voice, "You will not be the chairman. You will be the president and CEO and run it, or it won't work." So just six weeks after leaving one of the largest voluntary organizations in the world, I became the CEO of the smallest foundation in the world with no staff or money, but just this powerful vision about bringing Peter to the wider world and forming the social sector.

The rest is history, and it's well-documented on our website, in our 27 books in 28 languages, and in our Leader to Leader journal. Since 1990, we have had 400 great thought leaders who have written for us, spoken for us, and traveled with us.

In 2000, Peter was becoming frail, and we thought the most generous thing we could do for the family would be to return his name to them. We would take the name of our journal and become the Leader to Leader Institute. But we are still also the Peter Drucker Foundation for Non-Profit Management. We carry Peter's vision, his work, and his inspiration around the world. I never make a speech where I don't quote him.

Q| What is one quality of a great leader that often goes unnoticed?

I think it's the indispensible quality of integrity. We notice bottom lines, events, awards, and successes. But if a great leader doesn't have integrity, he or she has nothing. I define leadership as a matter of 'how to be,' not 'how to do.' We spend most of our lives learning how to do and teaching other people how to do, and yet, in the end, it is the quality and character of the leader that determines the performance and results. So integrity is the 'how to be' of a leader. In today's world, can you imagine any quality needed more?

Q| Do you have any anecdotes that stick out in your mind from your time serving as CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA?

One of our most important initiatives was one that we began immediately when I came in. We asked ourselves, are we reaching all of the girls and potential leaders in all of the racial and ethnic communities in our country?

And so we did a very careful study. Dr. Robert Hill, who had just published a book on the strength of black families, conducted solid research for us. He found that all five groups, whether they were Asian-American, African-American, or Hispanic, wanted Girl Scouts for their daughters, but didn't know how to access us. Within our organization, we found that over three-quarters of a million of our own people were very eager to reach all of these communities, but they had been waiting for them to come to us.

We then started the most passionate initiative to move out into all five communities. It meant education, communication, and leadership development focusing on mission, innovation, diversity, and building an organization that reflected the population of our own country. The results were impressive. We more than tripled racial ethnic representation at every level of the organization. In addition, our visual materials were richly representative, and that also helped bring about the transformation of the Girl Scouts.

Another story is we had a number of Girl Scout Councils pleading for a program for five-year-old girls. Brownies were six-years-old. The councils said that these five-year-old girls and their parents needed a program. We had some educators conduct research, and they found that five-year-olds were ready for a group experience that we could provide, and it would be very valuable to them. We worked with them to develop the Daisy Girl Scouts program.

We brought our program idea to our National Council meeting because everyone votes on any kind of major change or initiative. That year, there were only 70 Girl Scout Councils out of 330 that wanted the Daisies program. In the end we said, "This program is only for the Girl Scout Councils who want and need it. We're going ahead with it, but only for those who want it." You could hear sighs of relief. We said, "In July, we will have the training, and then in September, we will launch the program." Well, at that point, only 70 councils wanted it, but once the training began, that number was over 200. Today, it's one of the most popular programs, but we respected the people who said they weren't ready.

Another memorable story was when we redesigned our Girl Scout pin. We had looked at our Girl Scout pin. It was very similar to the Boy Scout pin in that they both had eagles on them. But it did not represent who we were, an organization designed to meet the needs of girls with a great focus on diversity and the future.

So we had graphic designer Saul Bass design a new pin for us that would reflect our organization. He used the traditional trefoil shape, and on it are the profiles of three girls, obviously diverse, facing the future in profile. We brought the design to the National Council meeting.

At the meeting, which had a couple thousand people, we brought forth the pin, and Saul Bass explained its symbolism using a graphic presentation. You could tell that maybe half the people were very resistant about redesigning the pin saying, "My grandmother wore this pin. I will never change it." Finally, I got up and said, "This is the new contemporary pin. It is the logo we will be using on all printed materials. But I promise you that as long as there is one member in our whole organization who prefers to wear the traditional pin, it will be manufactured." Well, that took all the heat out of it.


In both of the last two stories, we brought an issue to our members that could have divided us, and yet, both times, because we respected them and made it their choice, we were enormously successful.

Q| What are your thoughts on corporate social responsibility, as viewed through your extensive work with social-sector organizations?

I believe that corporate social responsibility is one of the key responsibilities of every corporation in the country, and every social sector organization has an equal responsibility to reach out to corporations and develop indispensible partnerships with them, because the most successful nonprofits have a great focus on corporate social responsibility. It is amazing what can be achieved with the corporation and the social-sector organization in partnership.

There are thousands of remarkable examples. For 14 years, the Leader to Leader Institute has been going out to California to Chevron (formerly Texaco). It's the same program every year. Chevron brings 25 or 30 social sector CEOs to their campus for a week-long corporate management seminar for nonprofit organizations. It's some of the best management training that I've ever been part of.

Q| What is one change you hope to see in the field of leadership development within the next ten years?

I think we will have to move away from the old hierarchical structure and language of up-down, top-bottom, superior-subordinate, and people in boxes. The leaders and organizations of the future that still have their people in the old hierarchy are going to throw that out and move into a circular, flexible, and fluid management leadership system where people will move across the organization. This system releases the energy of the people, and morale and productivity go up. We become the organization of the future.

Q| Are you working on any new books or projects?

I'm traveling twice a week speaking across the United States, and then, three times a year, I speak abroad. I just got back from Germany, and in June and October, I go to South Korea and China, respectively.

I'm trying to finish my autobiography. Marshall Goldsmith and I are also about to begin editing The Community of the Future. We will have probably 20 chapters written by great thought leaders on this subject.

A third priority is moving the 3rd edition of Peter Drucker's organizational self-assessment tool, The Five Most Important Questions You Will Ever Ask About Your Organization, around the country and world. We will be training hundreds of trainers and facilitators. We also have a number of countries that are purchasing the publishing rights.

Another project that is under way is the University of Pittsburgh is establishing the Hesselbein Global Academy for Student Leadership and Engagement.

Q| How do you enjoy spending your free time?

Reading, writing, mentoring, and swimming.

About the Author

The Association for Talent Development (ATD) is a professional membership organization supporting those who develop the knowledge and skills of employees in organizations around the world. The ATD Staff, along with a worldwide network of volunteers work to empower professionals to develop talent in the workplace.

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