Of those responsible the Girl Scouts camping out on the White House lawn, Frances Hesselbein may have been the most important. As the CEO of the Girls Scouts from 1976 to 1990, she helped turn the organization around, tripling minority enrollment, and increasing their focus on leadership, science, technology, and math.

Her work earned her the Presidential Medal of Freedom among other honors--bringing her to the White House--not to mention the growth in enrollment, volunteers, achievements, and satisfaction of the girls she served, their families, and their communities.

But how did she get to become the CEO?

She had to interview like anyone else.

Only how she interviewed wasn't like everyone else. At dinner recently, she told me how, and most of us can learn from her.

When the national organization invited her to interview, she held a leadership position at a local level and had volunteered for years before that. Her position was modest enough that she didn't take the offer that seriously.

She and her husband lived in Western Pennsylvania and she didn't want to move to New York City. Perhaps mostly because he did as a filmmaker, did she agree to the interview.

When they asked her her thoughts about the organization, did she do what most of us would? Most people I know prepare for interviews by researching the organization and interviewer to show off how much they know about it. They believe they are showing their commitment and interest, or something like that.

She didn't show off the facts and information she knew.

She told me that she described her plans for a "total transformation" of the organization: reorganizing its structure, re-inquiring about its values and how to act consistently with them--including groups the organization poorly served or cared about--largely of different ethnicity, and more.

When was the last time you responded in an interview about totally transforming the organization?

We can say they needed a turnaround and that circumstances were right for such a vision. Easy to say looking back, but their declining enrollment, volunteering, and relevance could have pointed to playing it safe. They had interviewed many before her, and maybe that's why the position remained open.

While she benefited from years of working within the organization, so did many others, and they hadn't chosen a CEO from within for generations at that time, so maybe it didn't help her.

What worked

I believe what helped her was speaking authentically, while grounding her voice in caring about those she would serve. If she wanted to advance, she did not for her aggrandizement, but to serve others more.

How many of us speak so authentically? You could say, "I would if I were interviewing for top leadership positions, but I haven't had the chance." I'd suggest that you might not get the chance because you don't speak so authentically. When your model of leading is serving others, you don't have to hold back.

She had the freedom of not worrying about getting the job because she didn't care for moving to New York City, but that's a mental freedom we can all create in ourselves if we practice.


My lessons from Frances:

  1. Speak authentically, even when they're evaluating you
  2. Create mental freedom to enable speaking freely
  3. Focus on those you would serve and their interests