Several weeks ago, I arrived at a meeting in Washington at the same time as Kathy Cloninger, chief executive officer of Girl Scouts of the USA. I hadn't seen her for a while, so I reached out to give her a hug and a big hello.
"Nice to see you," she said in a hushed tone. I strained to pick up her words. Obviously something was wrong.
Cloninger had mysteriously lost her voice a few months before. For some reason, which her doctors still haven't pinned down, one of her two vocal cords had become paralyzed. For a while, she couldn't talk above a whisper. A recent injection of medication had helped her to raise the volume slightly, but even such modest relief, she told me, would be only temporary.
My first reaction was to tell Cloninger how sorry I was that this had happened. It wasn't long before my mind veered from sympathy to curiosity. What was it like, I asked, to run an organization with 10,000 employees and more than 3 million members—and suddenly have such a hard time being heard?
As Cloninger describes it, she has gleaned from her ordeal three vital lessons, all of which Peter Drucker—who was such a close adviser to the Girl Scouts that he was honored with a lifetime membership—surely would have advocated.
a greater understanding of stigma
The first has to do with the customer. Cloninger has been widely praised for encouraging girls in the scouting movement to have empathy for others and embrace diversity. Her struggles with her voice have given her an even deeper appreciation of young people who find themselves set apart from the crowd.
"I've been thinking a lot about our work with girls who are different in some way," Cloninger explains. "This is the closest I've come to really understanding what that must be like," including how stigmatized some must feel, she says.
The message for managers everywhere: There is no better way to conduct customer research than to actually experience what the customer does. While in Cloninger's case, the opportunity to do this stemmed from an unfortunate illness, others can be proactive about it. Drucker pointed out, for instance, that the 19th-century orchestra conductor Gustav Mahler used to require his musicians to sit in the audience so that they could hear what the music sounded like in front the stage. Likewise, Drucker said: "The best hospital administrators I know have themselves admitted once a year as a patient."
Cloninger's second lesson pertains to empowering people. Because of her condition, she has had to rely more than ever on colleagues. This has caused her to discover strengths in some employees who previously lacked such opportunities to shine.
giving the spotlight to subordinates
"I've too often let myself be the organization's spokesperson," says Cloninger, who has overseen the Girl Scouts since 2003. "Because I lead very well verbally, I haven't really given others the chance" to play this role.
For Drucker, one of the essential ingredients of exemplary leadership is finding a way to step out of the spotlight so as to bring out the best in others. "An effective leader wants strong associates; he encourages them, pushes them, indeed glories in them," Drucker wrote in his 1992 book Managing for the Future. "Because he holds himself ultimately responsible for the mistakes of his associates and subordinates, he also sees the triumphs of his associates and subordinates as his triumphs, rather than as threats."
Drucker believed, moreover, that organizations must give knowledge workers in particular more and more responsibility if they are to remain satisfied and productive. This, he asserted, "will have to be done by turning them from subordinates into fellow executives, and from employees … into partners."
The third lesson Cloninger has absorbed is about the importance of listening. She has always prided herself on being an excellent listener. But her current circumstances—in which she participates in large conference calls by typing out e-mails that are then read aloud by one of her staffers—have made Cloninger pay attention more intently. "I have to listen for the spaces where I can get into the conversation in an efficient way," she says. "Your listening ear really has to be acute."
Drucker: "Listen first, speak last"
Above all, Cloninger now realizes that her long periods of silence are just fine. "I'm not going to be valued less if I don't speak up," she says. To be a leader, she adds, "you don't have to have an opinion on everything."
Drucker would have been pleased with this insight. One of his favorite bits of management advice—frequently quoted by Frances Hesselbein, the former Girl Scouts CEO who now runs the Leader to Leader Institute in New York—couldn't be more straightforward: "Listen first, speak last."
In the time since I met with Cloninger, her voice has improved about 60 percent. Nevertheless she continues to manage the Girl Scouts differently from the way she once did. "I still lean on others more than before," she says, "and I am much more conscious about giving others a chance … versus just jumping in and taking charge."
Learning from adversity is a hallmark of great leadership, and Kathy Cloninger is a great leader. It's a quality that, even when she's quiet, comes through loud and clear.