Leadership learnings from Frances Hesselbein

For many people in business, leadership is synonymous with Frances Hesselbein. As President and CEO of The Frances Hesselbein Leadership Institute (which was established in 1990 as The Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management), Mrs. Hesselbein has committed her career as a management consultant, business strategist and thought leader to bettering her community, shaping the leaders of tomorrow and improving the world around her.

From 1976-1990, she was CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA and credited with globalizing the brand, increasing its minority membership, turning around the organization and solidifying the core values it still holds, an accomplishment that led to her receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998. She sits on numerous boards, earned myriad accolades and has accepted 21 honorary doctoral degrees.

A prolific writer and popular speaker on business management and leadership topics, she’s still busy at age 99 (she turns 100 on November 1st) continuing her life’s work—to foster leadership that is grounded in the passion to serve, the discipline to listen, the courage to question and the spirit to include. Her leadership institute also runs an academy to help cultivate mission-driven leadership.

As brandchannel contributor Nicole Diamant can attest, she remains humble, ever-grateful to her mentor Peter Drucker and firmly committed to the belief that the actions of one person can better the future for us all.

The Huffington Post has called you “one of the greatest leaders of our time.” If you were starting out in the business world today, would you be a different kind of leader? Has leadership changed?

I think that leadership is 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, yet we know in the end it is the quality and character of the leader that makes the impact, the performance, the results. The leader [must be] mission-focused, values-based and demographics-driven. We manage the mission; we manage for innovation.

When you describe leadership—mission, values, demographics, innovation, diversity—we have to live the values and be mission-focused in all we do. That’s my message today; it was my message a long time ago.

How important was Peter Drucker’s mentorship in your development as a leader and what role did it play in your ability to transform the Girl Scouts brand?

Peter Drucker’s philosophy, books and films had an enormous impact on my work and my own philosophy. His mentorship helped me in my leadership of the largest organization for girls in whole world and had a powerful impact upon the organization at every level. After I met Peter he gave us two to three days of his time every year to speak at large national meetings and had this remarkable impact on my own philosophy, my own work and my own life.

Two days after I left the Girl Scouts, after 13 remarkable, perfect years, I found myself CEO of the brand new Peter Drucker Leadership Institute, and Peter was with us [at the institute] for 12 years. It’s very important to have a great mentor. Having Peter as mine moved [the Girl Scouts] into a role as a global leader at every level.

You’ve championed a number of business initiatives that we now consider to be table stakes for successful brands, including diversity and corporate citizenship. Why were these initiatives so important to you? How can brands take things a step further and spur growth?

Today, where every day is a gift, we want to help people in an organization reach their ultimate level of leadership. Again, we find they must be mission-focused, values-based, demographics-driven. We try to help people, through their language and their actions, to move across an organization.

You throw out the old top/bottom, up/down, superior/subordinate concepts—have them gone forever, and we make sure they aren’t in anything written or on film. We move to a circular [vision of] business. We move across the organization. No matter how large or small your business is, you have to have a very positive outlook, philosophy, values and a plan of work that moves you right into the future.

You pioneered the idea of a customer-centric outlook, something most successful brands today champion. Was this challenging at the time?

Many, many years ago we began to question, “Who is the customer?” And then, instead of saying “and we know what is good for them,” the question for the organization was, “What does the customer value?” We shocked many people in organizations who said, “But we know what is good for them!” Today, digital marketing makes it easier when we are totally engaged [with our customers]. We say, “Who is this customer?” – and not, “We know what is good for them”—and “What does the customer value?” The relationship between brand and customer is circular.

If you were to sit down with a CMO of a major corporation, what advice would you give for growing his or her business?

We keep emphasizing a round circle [of business relationships], and whatever we do must be driven by the power of mission. Peter always said, your mission should fit on a t-shirt – which is no more than about seven words. Sometimes you ask people, “What is your mission?” And they go on and on and on. But why do we do what we do? Your mission must express why we do what we do.

Bonus questions: You have so many accomplishments and received many honors. At this stage of your career, what challenges you? What keeps you up at night? What do you aspire to change?

You say the word “challenge” and I translate that into opportunity. What keeps me up at night, what “challenges” — your language — me today is reaching our Millennials, 18-28, and partnering and supporting this demographic of young leaders in every way we can.

What keeps me up at night is thinking of all the ways to open doors, engage and support our Millenials because these are our leaders of the future. The Institute publishes articles and books, but we work to translate materials in a way that excites Millennials. We want to find all the ways that we can communicate with this group. Work with them. Partner with them. This is so important: finding ways to open doors to engage these young leaders. To support them. They are the leaders of the future.

We look at our own mission: change that creates a new dimension of performance. We’re not here to say,  “Well, we’re going to do everything the way we’ve always done it. We’re just going to be the way we’ve always been.” No, no. Cherish the past, but build the future. And we look at the hows and the whats and all the ways we need to change. Change that creates a new dimension of performance. I just see a bright future. So what I aspire to change is finding all the ways Millennials can be supported and the ways they can be acknowledged.

Another thing that keeps me up at night is knowing that in New York City, where we have our offices, there are thousands of 15-year-old boys not in school. Today in New York City, one in 800 15-year-old Black and Hispanic students is in school. Nobody knows that. But it is the way it is. Where are the other 799?

I have made a personal commitment [to look for] great neighborhood organizations, churches, and non-profits, and we say to them, “Please look out the window — adopt a school, make sure it has textbooks, and a library, and support its teachers.” A few years ago, New York had a program where leaders were invited to adopt a school, and you were “principal for a day,” and you could choose the school you wanted. I said yes, and I would like a school with limited resources and a few challenges.

The gentleman [who invited me to participate] said, “You realize what you asked for?” I said, “Yes, I do.” He said, “We’re sending you to one of the poorest schools in New York City—it has never graduated a high school class.” So I said, “Fine, I want that school.” So I went, and before I taught classes all day, I asked if I could meet with the student council — six of the most marvelous young people you’ve ever seen. And I said to them, “I am so honored to be here—before I leave, I want you to tell me, if resources could be found, what are your three greatest needs?”

I went [about my day] and I walked into this gorgeous, big, old room that said “library,” and there was not a book in sight. And I noticed as I walked from class to class, there were textbooks on the teachers’ desks, but students had pieces of paper. At the end of the day, I met with the six lovely young people. And they said, “Mrs. Hesselbein, our greatest need is a library. We don’t have one and wouldn’t it be wonderful for all of our kids if we could have a library? Two. Textbooks. Only the teachers have a textbook. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every kid could have a textbook? Number three. Remember this morning when you talked about the community and that we can all work together to make it a better community for everyone? Could you find us a mentor who could help us with a project that would make the south Bronx a better place for everyone?”

I said, “You’ll hear from me.” I called a friend and told him my story and said, “I have a list for books for students this age. It would cost $6,000 to buy all of them and I don’t want to buy a few. If I find $3,000, could you find $3,000?” He called me back and said, “My company said, ‘Tell Frances we will buy all the books.’ And they did.”

I made some phone calls to the New York department of education in March; a woman called me back, and I told her not one textbook was in the school. “Oh, Mrs. Hesselbein, I’m so embarrassed. We just found the box of textbooks that should have been delivered last July. We’re delivering them today.” That May, we graduated 15 students; six had college scholarships and number seven was off to the US Airforce Academy. All they needed was a library and textbooks.

Find and inspire great organizations in a neighborhood—every church, business, non-profit. Have them adopt a school and make sure it has textbooks and a library and ways to support its teachers. It isn’t theory. I lived it.

This interview originally appeared on brandchannel.


Director of Marketing, InterbrandHealth