Talking leadership with the head of the Girl Scouts

Marvin Joseph/THE WASHINGTON POST - Thousands of Girl Scout troops from around the nation descend onto the National Mall in Washington, DC on June 09, 2012.

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Anna Maria Chávez is the chief executive officer of Girl Scouts of the USA and a lifetime member of the organization. Prior to her leadership role with Girl Scouts, Chávez served in the state government in Arizona and worked at the Small Business Administration and the Department of Transportation. Chávez spoke with Tom Fox, who writes the Washington Post’s Federal Coach blogand is the vice president for leadership and innovation at the Partnership for Public Service. He also heads up their Center for Government Leadership.

Was there a critical event that influenced your career?

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I grew up in a small town in Arizona where I was a Girl Scout. From a very young age, I understood that I could make a difference because I grew up in a family of public servants. My dad was extremely involved in the philanthropic arena. My mother was an elected official back in the 1960s and 1970s, when that was a rarity for women — especially for Hispanic women.

I learned at the kitchen table. My parents were always hosting people and trying to help them resolve their own issues and create awareness about educational issues in the community. I came about my career in public service from the standpoint of my mother’s favorite saying, “To those who much is given, much is required.” That’s been a family mantra for generations.

How do you apply the lessons you learned from your time in the federal government to your current role?

I was lucky to have been chosen for a program in the federal government called the Honors Attorney Program where I was assigned to the Department of Transportation. Even in the beginning of my federal career, I was excited by how much impact I could have while working on complex issues. I also learned about the value of mentorship. Had it not been for my mentors in the federal government, I would never have had the legal experiences that led me to state government roles and ultimately to senior leadership in Girl Scouts of the USA.

How does Girl Scouts develop leadership skills?

Even though we’re sometimes best known for our cookies, crafts and camping, ultimately we are a girl-centered leadership organization supported by adult mentors. Our girls discover ways to help the world around them, such as working on a badge that deals with understanding how to sustain local food sources. Though it’s critical for girls to discover key issues and how to connect with the community, the secret sauce in Girl Scouts is teaching them how to take action. A lot of organizations will take you through the first two steps — discover and connect — but we actually empower girls to take action on a local, state or national level.

 What challenges does Girl Scouts of the USA face?

Our challenge is to see that the spark continues through the teenage and college years. I am concerned about this. Our internal research found that 61 percent of girls are either ambivalent about leadership or say it’s not important to them. There’s a reason why only 3 percent of CEOs in this country are women and only 16 percent of the members of Congress are women. We’ve found the way girls get inspired is to see role models, but few girls report having had opportunities to interact with women leaders. If we know girls aspire to leadership positions when they see other women in these roles, then we need to put more mentors in their path.

What does innovative leadership look like at Girl Scouts?

Even as a 100-year-old iconic organization, we still believe that there’s always room for improvement. You have to continuously listen to your customer and act on the information. Our customer at the end of the day is the American girl, who has different options than I had while growing up. Back then, there was one way to become a Girl Scout, which was through our troop model. Girls today have a whole host of options outside of Girl Scouts, so we’ve created new pathways into the program. For example, if you’re a girl who’s committed to lacrosse, you can still attend community events, take classes or participate in volunteer work on Saturdays or during school vacations.

Who are your role models and why?

One of my best mentors in the federal government was former secretary of transportation Rodney Slater, whom I worked with as a senior adviser. What I admired about Rodney was that he was a public servant who understood that government is really about working for taxpayers. Rodney was a very compassionate and rational individual. The other person is Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. She’s a lifetime member of Girl Scouts, and she attributes a lot of her success to her scouting experience. She’s given back, too. When I was working for her in Arizona, she hosted many Girl Scout troops, and while she’s worked in Washington, D.C., she’s continued to support Girl Scouts across the country.

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