Tuesday, July 22, 2008

In the Presence of Greatness – A Visit with Frances Hesselbein

I first became aware of Frances Hesselbein a few months ago when she spoke at a leadership dinner sponsored by the West Point Society of New York. This diminutive dynamo held the crowd spellbound as she told stories of advising U.S. Presidents and top-ranking Army generals. She is well known for having turned the Girl Scouts of America from a predominantly lily-white organization to one that has come to embrace the ethnic and racial diversity of our land. Long past the age when most folks have chosen to retire, Mrs. Hesselbein maintains a schedule that would challenge executives several generations her junior. She is a wonder and an inspiration. Fortune Magazine named her “The best non-profit manager in America.”

A few weeks ago, I was having lunch in Boston with a friend of mine who has founded and built a very successful non-profit organization. The organization has become so successful that they are being challenged to replicate the model in other metropolitan areas across the U.S. Lisa asked me if I had any ideas on how they might go about expanding their organization to a national level. “No, but I think I know someone in New York City would might be able to give you some good ideas.”

Not long after my conversation with Lisa, I was introduced to Alex, a very successful businessman based in Atlanta. As Alex and I got to know each other, our phone conversation covered a wide range of topics. One of those topics prompted him to quote from his “friend and fellow Board member, Frances Hesselbein.” Coincidence? I don’t think so. So, I told him about my recent dialogue with Lisa. Alex was kind enough to offer to check with Mrs. Hesselbein’s secretary to arrange for a meeting.

And so it was that Lisa and I found ourselves being ushered into Frances Hesselbein’s office on Park Ave. She serves as Chairman of the Leader to Leader Institute, formerly the Drucker Foundation - an organization that seeks to develop leaders in the non-profit sector. For the next hour, Lisa and I sat enraptured as Frances led us through a series of surgically precise diagnostic questions about Lisa’s organization and her vision for the future. Interspersed among her questions were comments and anecdotes from her own experiences in building successful organizations on a national scale. While I listened with my ears and with my heart, my eyes swept around the room to take in the 20 honorary doctorate sheepskins she has been awarded, the Presidential Medal of Freedom that President Clinton presented to her and numerous other awards. In her typical self-effacing manner, she commented: “I am somewhat embarrassed by all these awards hanging on the walls, but I think it would be ungrateful to accept a gift and then stick it away somewhere to gather dust.”

Three things stand out in my mind from the hour that Lisa and I were privileged to sit at the feet of this great leader. The first would be her personal warmth and graciousness. She made it clear that this was one of the busiest times of the year for her and her organization, but that because her friend Alex had made the request for the meeting, she was pleased to squeeze us in. I told her that we were delighted “to be squoze!”

My second strong impression is of how often in the course of our conversation she returned to the theme of the absolute and supreme importance of distilling the vision of the organization into a concise Mission Statement. She gave examples from her own work and suggested how it might work for Lisa’s organization.

Finally, I was awe-struck by the wisdom that she demonstrated when she responded to my question about how she had been able to achieve diversity within a tradition-bound organization like the Girl Scouts of America when she served as their CEO. She talked about the importance of her learning to really listen to each of the communities they were trying to reach out to – and how important it was to tailor the message to fit the sensitivities of each community. She talked in detail about how they reached out to make Black Americans and Hispanic Americans feel truly welcome – as scouts, as volunteers and as leaders. Then she spoke of her special desire to make sure that the organization effectively was able to reach out to the Native American community. She quoted the poster that was developed for use in reaching Native Americans and making them feel truly welcome in the Girl Scouts: “Your names are on our rivers”! What a brilliantly poetic way to build a bridge to a community that is often left out of the main stream of American society.

As we prepared to leave, Frances made Lisa a gift of a book that she had written and then she gave me a copy of a recently published book that she has edited: “Leader to Leader – 2” In an upcoming posting, I will review that book, which I am finding to be as full of nuggets of wisdom as was the hour that Lisa and I spent with Frances - in the presence of greatness. It was an hour than neither one of us will ever forget.

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