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Associations Now

Super Trooper

ASSOCIATIONS NOW, February 2008, Feature

By: Samantha Whitehorne

Kathy Cloninger had big plans for the Girl Scouts of the USA when she took over as CEO—and they were about more than cookies. They were about creating the go-to leadership experience for girls. Here’s a look at where she’s gone and where she’s going.
Summary: Eager to take the Girl Scouts of the USA from its image of cookies and merit badges, Kathy Cloninger jumped into her role as CEO and transformed the organization from the inside out. Here’s what she’s learned about taking risks and being a successful leader today.

When Kathy Cloninger walked into her New York City office in 2003, she may have been the new CEO, but she was far from being a new Girl Scout. That career began as a second grader, when she joined her mother’s troop in Dallas, Texas. Years later, that same Girl Scout would be responsible for the greatest transformation the organization has seen in its 96 years.

Cloninger came in determined to move the Girl Scouts of the USA from its old image of cookies and merit badges to the new image she wanted to create: GSUSA as the premier leadership experience for girls. To reach this goal, Cloninger developed a five-step strategy for revitalizing the organization, which included developing a new volunteer model, streamlining the organizational structure and governance system, and launching a revitalized brand.

Almost five years later, Cloninger continues to push GSUSA into its next phases—and make leaders out of girls. Associations Now had the chance to speak with Cloninger about the success she’s had and what she’s learned along the way.

Associations Now: When you first came in as CEO, what did you see as the most pressing issues facing the Girl Scouts of the USA?

Cloninger: It was the image of Girl Scouting. I thought a lot about our founder Juliette Low, who was out there doing things and putting things in the nontraditional public eye. When I first came in, the public image of Girl Scouting had become unclear. We were no longer “the” place for girls. People didn’t know what we stood for or where we were going.

I wanted to make sure that Girl Scouts remains the go-to place for girls and their issues—as it was when I was growing up. I wanted to reposition us as bold and brave, much like Juliette Low’s girl scouts were and much like our new mission statement says. [The new mission: Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.]

When it came to developing GSUSA’s new mission statement and transformation plan, you developed a crossfunctional and nonhierarchical team of 26 people. How do you think this team contributed to the overall success of the plan and statement?

They were critical. While our core strategy process is at the center, we wouldn’t be where we are today without the energy and commitment of every single member of this team. While national headquarters staff and grassroots communities at the local level had been involved in these processes previously, we didn’t always involve our other partners in the future thinking that we were doing. So the team I set out to form in this process was not only cross departmental, but we included local volunteers and people who were not in top management in order to get the most collaborative team that we could. …

To facilitate the process, we worked with strategy coach Willie Pieterson to reinvent our strategy. He had never tried this with a nonprofit organization and with a team of this size. We wanted to make sure the team was not only geographically diverse but also ethnically diverse. What made it even harder is that everyone wanted to be on it.

I remember sitting with him one day, as we were shaping up what the recommendations were going to be. He looked at me and said, “Do you realize you are sitting on one of the greatest moments of transformation? Are you ready to lead significant transformation? If you’re willing to do it, it has to be from the inside out.” It was at that moment that I realized we were about to do something significant.

As an outsider, it seems like it’s been a relatively smooth process. Has that been the case?

Well, it’s certainly not been easy. We had to narrow down the voices of more than three million people to 26 team members. But in terms of scale, there have been a lot less problems than anticipated. Our volunteers have been working together to merge five or six councils down to one. Volunteer chairs have been willing to give up their duties, because they see the larger picture. And I really think that’s one of the reasons this whole realignment and restructuring has worked. … We have an amazing cadre of women and men who absolutely believe Girl Scouting is the vision for girls around the world. Our staff, members, and volunteers are the biggest proponents of making our strategy more relevant to girls and to developing their leadership skills. The new mission statement has really resonated with people.

We started with some of the change, created the need for change, and were able to harness and show people that Girl Scouts could not continue without change. We developed the mantra, “The status quo has got to go.” We all knew what we had to do—and we continue to do that every day.

One of the major and most difficult parts of your realignment was to reduce the number of local councils from a little more than 300 to 109. Can you talk a bit about this process and where you are with it?

Well, we really wanted to rebrand as part of this movement and develop a whole new leadership of where we wanted to be. So one of the first things we had to ask is, “What’s in the way of keeping us from getting there?”

One was our structure. With 312 different offices, it was difficult for us to move ahead in an integrated, powerful, one-voice way. We were looking to create an infrastructure with different levels of support and structure. We knew it would definitely not be cookie cutter.

A number of criteria were factored into creating the new councils. We looked to incorporate entire media markets and to provide a funding base for each council that could support a number of positions, including a CEO, chief operating officer, chief financial officer, and directors of information technology, public relations, human resources, and fund development. We also made sure to take into account population growth.

Our early adopters started the realignment process in August 2006 after the map of the new councils was approved. Right now we are down to 200 councils. Councils are going through the merger training process and we have consultants out in the field.

The process of merging is difficult, but it will allow us to free up more resources to deliver greater impact to both the girls and our volunteers—and that’s what’s most important to everyone involved.

Girl Scouts is also focusing its efforts on building the leaders of tomorrow. There’s a lot of talk about the leadership shortage that nonprofits will face in the upcoming years. Why is it so important to build this next generation of leadership?

Here we are, sitting in 2008, and we are in a crisis of leadership—very far from what I think is grounded, ethical leadership. I find it very troubling that there are very few women in leadership roles in this country. We have very few women running state government. As an organization, we started to look at what we need to do. In fact, we are about to publish our own research on leadership and girls and why they do or do not aspire to be leaders. [See sidebar on page 30 for some statistics.]

We need to redefine leadership for young people. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there who are not good role models. To me, leadership is really about girls understanding that it is about self-confidence. It’s about showing them that leadership is first an internal grounding, and then it is an empathy and seeing yourself as part of a larger community and making things happen. If we teach them to take action to make the world a better place and care about the greater good, they will live their leadership roles more effectively. It’s not so much about creating a leadership pipeline, but rather it’s about taking a holistic approach to instilling leadership in the next generation.

You are also building the leadership skills of the more than one million adult Girl Scouts—many of whom are your volunteers. Why is this necessary?

They have to understand [leadership] in order to mentor and advise a group of girls. If adults don’t understand leadership from the inside out, they will not be able to have as successful of a relationship with the girls.

Look what we’ve done when it comes to our volunteer structure. We have begun to reach out to volunteers in different places. Traditionally we recruit mothers. But now we have started to expand and have gone onto college campuses to get young women who do not yet have their own children. These women are the individuals these girls will look up to and want to emulate. By giving them leadership skills, they will be able to successfully pass them down to the next group of leaders—and people worldwide will benefit from this.

Moving away from your governance and volunteer structure, I read that one of the first staffing changes you made was to appoint a senior vice president for fund development. Why?

Within the foundation community, only five percent of money goes to women and girls. Since the majority of poor in this country are women and children, we have to get at women and their families and children. It’s just a tiny piece of our philanthropy.

We represent girls and the issues they face daily, so I saw a need to focus on [fundraising] internally. It is an integral part of ensuring the future of girls and women. I was actually wowed when I heard that we did not have an employee who focused on this.

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve learned so far as CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA?

How ready I think our membership and the public at large is for girl scouting to do this work. How much they want us to be the national voice for girls … and how proud they are of this organization.

Another surprising thing? How little time I get to go to the gym.

What do you think it takes to be a successful leader today?

An inner confidence and passion for what you do. If you’re not jazzed about it, it’s going to be really hard to go to work every day fighting for something. I am lucky because that is not at all a concern for me.

It also takes a lot of courage and discipline. You may have to take risks that may not be popular, but you have to have the discipline to stick with it. And even when you feel that it’s just too hard, you can’t give up. And you can’t be stubborn. You have to adjust as you go along.

Most importantly, you really have to care about making the world better. It can’t be about you personally—and it can’t even be about your own company or organization. It has to be about how your organization can make the world a better place.

You’ve taken the Girl Scouts a long way from where it was when you first came on as CEO. Where do you see the organization in the next five years?

As the premier leadership and go-to organization for girls—10 million girls strong with the diverse population of the U.S. reflected in its membership. That’s all I can ask for—and I think we’re more than on our way there.

Samantha Whitehorne is a former Brownie and managing editor of Associations Now. Email:

Kathy Cloninger is CEO of the Girl Scouts of the USA. For more information on the organization’s core business strategy, visit

Related Sidebar:

Let’s Hear It From the Girls
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