Dec 17, 2019

CEO Who Led Red Cross From Brink Of Disaster Reflects On Leadership Lessons Learned - #1199

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Devin Thorpe
Some of the world's great changemakers join host Devin Thorpe to share leadership lessons you can use to increase your impact.
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Gail McGovern, 67, became the eighth CEO in five years at the American Red Cross in 2008, as the country entered its most severe economic downturn in seven decades. Today, she remains at the head of what is once again a fiscally healthy nonprofit. Looking back, she reflects on what she learned. The $3 billion annual revenue organization responds to 60,000 disasters every year, ranging from single house fires affecting one family to natural disasters that impact hundreds of thousands. At the time she took the helm, the large nonprofit had drawn down its available credit lines and was nearing the brink of its own disaster. McGovern successfully steered the organization through the crisis and credits the leaders of the organization for their resilience during the challenging period. She had been through challenges before; in fact, she often sought them out early in her career. Along with 1900 men, she was one of just 50 women admitted to Johns Hopkins University the first year that women were allowed. She joined AT&T doing technology “back when dinosaurs roamed the earth,” she quips. She nearly had to beg for an opportunity in sales, defending her candidacy by noting she’d sold Girl Scout cookies. A series of other lateral moves prepared her for a trajectory that landed her in the executive suite. Later, she would join Fidelity Investments as president of Fidelity Personal Investments, overseeing an operation with 10,000 people and $500 billion under management. After leaving, she spent four years at Harvard when the challenges at the Red Cross created an opportunity there. It appealed to her “give-back gene” so she took the job. “After 28 years in the for-profit world, you would think I had learned what I need to learn,” McGovern says. Referring to her experience leading the Red Cross, she adds, “But it taught me to be a different and better leader as a result of that experience.” McGovern shared what she learned about being a leader, lessons she says would have applied perfectly in her for-profit experience to make her a better leader. “Back when I was in the for-profit sector, you know, I would tell people, ‘Calm down. It's just telecommunications. We're not saving lives here,’ or at Fidelity, I'd say, ‘Calm down. You know, it's just managing money. We're not saving lives here,” she explains. “That schtick doesn't work at the American Red Cross.” “What I've learned at the Red Cross is it's possible to not only lead with your head, but also lead with your heart.” She says, in the for-profit world, it was her style to seek input and build consensus, but she and the team knew that at the end of the day, she had the authority to make decisions and she did. “I would say, ‘OK, we’re going to do this. Everybody jump!’ And people would say, ‘How high?’” She says, working with 300,000 volunteers and a relatively small staff of just 19,000 mission-driven people, that approach doesn’t work. She says, directing volunteers is different. When you say, “’OK, everybody jump!’ And they say, ‘No, I'm not ready to. You can convince me. I don't understand how that's going to help our mission.’” Her success suggests she learned to adapt quickly. “What I've learned is, first of all, you can lead to the power of your ideas, not the power of your office.” Read the full Forbes article and watch the interview here: