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Tue, Mar 8, 2011

Global Issues

Her Life In Leadership: Celebrating International Women’s Day at 100 With Frances Hesselbein

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On March 19, 1911, over one million men and women attended rallies recognizing the first International Women’s Day (IWD), campaigning for women’s rights to work, vote, be trained, to hold public office and end gender based discrimination.

Described by organizers as a “global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future,” today recognizes and celebrates the centennial of IWD with events around the world.  There’s plenty to celebrate, particularly when it comes to women in the workplace.

Perhaps no one embodies the celebration of women’s achievements better than Frances Hesselbein, who blazed a trail to the boardroom as the former CEO of the Girl Scouts of America hailed by Peter Drucker as “the world’s best leader.”

Hesselbein’s pioneering career not only helped chip away at the glass ceiling, but also perfectly parallels the rise of women in the workplace from secretary pool to C-Suite.  Her recently released autobiography, My Life in Leadership: the Journey and Successes along the Way, traces her journey while providing a primer to leaders of all generations – and genders.

As IWD celebrates its first century, Monster recently sat down with Ms. Hesselbein to discuss the state of women in the workforce and get her insights into the obstacles women have overcome in the past– and the unprecedented opportunities of the future:

Monsterthinking: Ms. Hesselbein, what changes have you personally seen over the course of your career that are most worth celebrating on the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day?  What’s so significant about this milestone?

Frances Hesselbein: It’s a rather exuberant time, actually.  Even though it’s the 100th anniversary, just look back even twenty years ago at some of the challenges women faced.  Up until then, you’d never find a woman serving on a corporate board.  Then, there was a long period where there’d only be one, who was there primarily as “the woman board member.”

At one time, women were asked to serve because of their gender, but now the best and the brightest boards, business or otherwise, have this wonderful balance of people who bring their special talents to the work.  While their gender happens to add a special dimension, that’s not why they’re there.

MT: What specific attributes, or ‘special dimensions,’ do you feel women bring to the table that men don’t, and why are those important to organizations today?

FH: Having served on a number of corporate boards and non-profits, what I’ve seen is that women bring a unique appreciation of and respect for other members of the board as well as openness to learning new ideas.

I’m not saying men don’t have these qualities, but when I observe women, I observe a distinct appreciation of and respect for the mission that’s reinforced by an appreciation of differences.  In my experience, women don’t see diversity as a challenge, but as an opportunity.

We don’t talk about it, but the reason why we’ve seen more opportunities in the past few years for women leaders than ever before, particularly in the last 10 years, is that we’re able to overcome that challenge and take advantage of those opportunities.

The bottom line is this: the best leaders, whether they are men or women, are successful because of what they share: they’re values based, they care about the mission, they have a powerful sense of what the organization needs to do and an even more powerful sense of what they can do to help it get there.

These days, I think it would be very difficult to find a remarkably successful, dynamic company where the leadership team of today looks anything like it did even a few years ago.  The best organizations advance the best talent.  Period.

As leaders, we always we should be grooming all our people, men and women, equally; we should provide remarkable opportunities for learning and growing.  Increasingly, gender is not the determining factor, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important or shouldn’t be discussed.  It should be celebrated.

MT: Are there any specific strategies that you’d recommend for companies to attract and develop the leadership talent required to succeed in business today?  What impact does company culture play on leadership development?

FH: The best corporations, and the best leaders, in this country remind us that, of course, while they’re responsible for the effectiveness of their organization, they understand that it’s not a matter of choosing between people and profits.  As leaders, they’re responsible for both.

It’s very exciting to hear so many leaders and companies out there saying that “people are our greatest asset,” but this isn’t show business.  You’ve got to live that value to make it meaningful.

As leaders, we’re very closely watched, and one of the most powerful ways to build morale is by showing employees that your organization is not only working towards accomplishing a greater mission, but that you’re doing very specific things to reinforce that mission.

In this time of great anxiety, we’re seeing the lowest level of trust, and the highest level of cynicism, in leaders and organizations than I’ve seen, at least in my lifetime.  Leaders don’t see this as a challenge, but a remarkable opportunity to change lives, to change minds, and ultimately, to change the focus of the organization.

When leaders truly live their mission instead of just talking about it, when you don’t have to look past the individual differences of the workforce to understand the values of the organization as a whole, morale goes up and productivity soars.

MT: Ms. Hesselbein, you’ve been widely recognized as one of the most effective and transformational leaders in business.   Given your philosophy that mission focus is critical for success, what’s your mission?  Looking back at your life in leadership, how close have you come to accomplishing it?

FH: My entire philosophy can be distilled into a few words: “To Serve is to live.”  When we serve, whatever the opportunity, it might seem like an enormous challenge when we’re called upon, but somehow, we’re given the energy and the resources to do what we’re put here to do.

For leaders, it’s never a job: it’s a calling.  That’s why it’s so exciting for me to be celebrating International Women’s Day This Year.  There’s so much diversity, so many opportunities, and while there’s so much to be proud of looking back at the past 100 years, it’s the future that’s the most inspiring.

And I think next year can be one of the most inspiring years in all the years we’ve been celebrating International Women’s Day.

March 8, 2011 marks the global centenary of International Women’s Day, a global day celebrating the economic, political and social achievements of women past, present and future. MonsterThinking will be recognizing IWD’s 100th anniversary celebration by looking at the issues, and ideas, confronting women in the workforce.

For more on International Women’s Day, Excelle, Monster’s professional community for career-minded women,has handpicked the best articles and advice to help you get your foot in the door. Check out their 2011 International Women’s Day coverage by clicking here.

About the Author

Frances Hesselbein is the President and CEO of the Leader to Leader Institute (formerly the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management) and its Founding President. Mrs. Hesselbein was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States of America’s highest civilian honor by President Clinton, in 1998. The award recognized her leadership as CEO of Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. from 1976-1990, her role as the Founding President of the Drucker Foundation, and her service as “a pioneer for women, volunteerism, diversity and opportunity.” Her contributions were also recognized by the first President Bush, who appointed her to two Presidential Commissions on National and Community Service.

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