The Most Overlooked Leadership Skill
"Worry less about becoming a CEO and more about getting the skills you need to be a good leader." - Carolyn Miles
This week I connected with Carolyn Miles, CEO of Save the Children. I’ve had the honor of getting to know Carolyn this year when I joined Save the Children’s Board of Trustees. In this interview Carolyn dishes out some incredible insights for business leaders and proves the private sector has a lot to learn from nonprofits like Save the Children.
Josh James: Have you always wanted to be involved in a nonprofit/humanitarian effort?
Carolyn Miles: No, I came to this part a little later after a career in business (big and small). After a few years of post-college work and business school, I worked for American Express in New York and Hong Kong. I also worked on getting a start-up coffee retail operation (ala Starbucks) off the ground across Asia. My aha moment came when traveling with my husband and two small kids, and continually seeing the stark contrast between their futures and those of so many poor children in Asia. That’s when I started down a pretty different path.
James: Well now that you’ve seen both sides of the fence, what are some misconceptions people have about nonprofits or running nonprofits?
Miles: I had them all when I made the switch, including things like these are easier jobs, shorter hours, skills don’t matter as long as you have passion, nonprofits aren’t results-driven or cost-conscious, etc. All bunk.
It’s interesting that so many people still have a very outdated idea about what organizations like Save the Children do. We are trying hard to make what we do real for people by bringing them closer to the challenges—and successes—of what we do for kids.
James: What role does social media play to help make that real?
Miles: Social media is key to inform, motivate and activate hundreds of thousands of people around the issues we care about—like the fact that 7.6 million kids die every year from totally preventable things like pneumonia. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter (where we have more than 400,000 followers), and lots of other social media sites let us tell the story of these kids—and the solutions they need—in a much more personal way.
We are also working to leverage mobile technology, especially mobile phones, to deliver our work in the field. I can go to literally the ends of the earth and I’ll still find at least a cell phone or two (often shared in a village) used to keep people connected.
James: It’s amazing how mobile is the first generation of tech infrastructure in other parts of the world. Now for a completely random question: What is your favorite business book?
Miles: Speed of Trust is one I can recommend from my recent reads!
James: Aside from books, how do you stay up to date with the latest trends and practices in the business world?
Miles: Until recently, I sat on a corporate board of a software company, which really helped me stay up to date on the latest trends. I think it’s critical in a large, complex organization like Save the Children to bring ideas in from outside and use things that already exist and work. Our own board at Save the Children is primarily made up of very high-level business people, and our Chair, Anne Mulcahy, the former CEO of Xerox, brings a huge amount of value based on her corporate experience. I also read a lot of books on my iPad during long trips like the one I’m on right now to Bangladesh.
James: Ha! You must visit quite a few countries. What do you do to foster positive relationships with those governments?
Miles: I appeal to a universal truth: We all want a better life for our kids. Most government officials are also parents, so a lot of times I start there when pushing for better health or education or protection of kids in that country. But you need to come to a government with information and value too. Save the Children works on the ground, and our staff are local people who really know the context and the problems. We present the hard facts and then we offer solutions that we can work on with the government. We bring resources we have raised to match theirs and people with deep skills in programs that work.
At the end of the day, our work will really only last if governments decide to take up our programs to reach all kids in a country. Our real success is when we can leave an area or country because we are not needed anymore.
James: Leading at that kind of a level isn’t easy. Who is the leader you most look up to, and what do you admire most about that person?
Miles: Probably Hillary Clinton. She has the most difficult job in the current administration. The role the Secretary of State plays in the U.S. government’s foreign development policy is not very well understood, but really critical. Secretary Clinton has really driven the idea that Americans must engage and support the development of the poor.
She also brings something you don’t always see in a diplomat: She manages to keep a human face on complex and difficult negotiations and issues. She has been a huge supporter of women and the importance of women’s rights as a driver of a country’s development—a passion I share! And on top of all that she travels manically, which I can say from experience is not easy to keep up.
James: There are definitely a lot of inspiring women out there, yourself included. What advice would you have for women aspiring to be a CEO?
Miles: Worry less about becoming a CEO and more about getting the skills you need to be a good leader. The most critical skills for leadership in my book are the ability to quickly grasp a situation, work with a great team on a solution, and to stand behind, in front of, and push the plan with conviction to make it happen. The good news today is that many more women are having the opportunity to do this, and prove they have these skills. We need to see the same opportunities for women in the developing world. When we do, we’ll see real progress.
About Carolyn Miles
Carolyn S. Miles is President & Chief Executive Officer for Save the Children, the leading independent organization creating lasting change in the lives of more than 85 million children in need in the United States and 120 countries around the world.
About Save the Children
Save the Children is the leading independent organization creating lasting change in the lives of children in need in the United States and around the world. Recognized for its commitment to accountability, innovation and collaboration, its work takes it into the heart of communities, where it helps children and families help themselves. Save the Children works with other organizations, governments, non-profits and a variety of local partners while maintaining its own independence without political agenda or religious orientation.
About Josh James
Josh launched Domo in 2011 to help CEOs and other leaders change the way they do business and obtain value from the tens of billions of dollars spent on traditional business intelligence systems. Before founding Domo, Josh was the longtime CEO of Omniture, which he co-founded in 1996, took public in 2006, and sold to Adobe for $1.8 billion in 2009. From 2006-2009 he was the youngest CEO of a publicly traded company.
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