Behind the career: Kathy Calvin

February 3, 2013

Kathy Calvin

Position: President and chief executive of the District-based United Nations Foundation.

Kathy Calvin was 26 years old when she was asked to be then-Sen. Gary Hart’s press secretary. After working on his unsuccessful presidential bid, she then moved to journalism, joining U.S. News and World Report at a time when it was introducing content online. That spawned a deep interest in the Internet, where she went on to run the communications office at AOL. She took an interest in the company’s foundation, and in 2003, became an executive at the U.N. Foundation. Now after five years of heading the foundation’s operations, she will now take its top job.

Which business skills are most helpful in leading a nonprofit with a global mission?

In business you have to get things done. There’s a bottom line, and you’re measured. You have to be accountable. Sometimes in the government or nonprofit world, getting things done isn’t as high valued as talking and getting consensus.

Secondly, I learned the value of incentivizing. One of the things that was brilliant about AOL was that everyone was incentivized. Let the best idea come forward because we were all shareholders. Everyone got stock as part of the employment package. It put a value on the best idea coming forward.

Thirdly, I recognize that what was happening in business is now happening in the nonprofit sector. That was the democratization of everything that the business world had been in, whether it was the democratization of finance and the stock market with e-Trade, the democratization of selling with online sales. I think we’re just now seeing that same democratization in the nonprofit world, where the big institutions need to make room for and listen to the individuals who are just as motivated to have the good ideas and to make a difference.

Are there any business skills that don’t translate as well?

There’s a tendency in some businesses to be top-down. That’s got to change. I know many companies are. AOL wasn’t all that top-down. The other things I learned at AOL, which I’m sure is not true for many companies, is that everything we’re doing is a marathon and not a sprint. There are times when you have to sprint, but to have the long-term vision, as well as the short term, is not so common in business.

How have you grown most as a leader since your days as a 26-year-old press secretary for Gary Hart?

The first is my overall confidence. I was typical of many young women that I worked with who did almost every little thing to perfection. I think I’ve since grown to understand that it’s very important to do a good job, and it’s very important to connect your work to others. That’s been my growth as a leader is looking at how everything is connected in an organization, and how it needs to connect to the work that’s going on around the world. Getting people outside their own work product and broadening it.

Secondly, I’ve always been a big champion of women in the workforce and their advancement. I learned a lot along the way in thinking about my responsibilities as a woman to other women. I’ve tried to bring that with me all along my way, to the top. That doesn’t mean preference for women, but just making sure I’m leading a healthy workforce and work environment that does serve both men and women’s total lives. [A work environment] that gives them an opportunity to do really good at what they’re doing, but also that has well-being and balance.

Thirdly, I think it’s impossible to over-communicate. It took me a while to learn that. I think when you’re young, you assume that things are self-evident or things are understood on their merits, but I’ve come to realize how important constant and repetitive communication is. It’s something I work on today, to share vision and recognition to others as a learning tool, so people can constantly keep growing.

Which business books are you reading?

I just bought Dan Pink’s book, [“To Sell Is Human”]. He’s a big thinker. He makes the case that nine jobs out of 10 are about telling a story and convincing someone to take an action. I believe that. Almost everything we do is to create an opportunity to invite people to join us, to buy something, join a movement or care about the things we care about.

— Interview with Vanessa Small

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