Gail McGovern, 67, became the eighth CEO in five years at the American Red Cross in 2008, as the country entered its most severe economic downturn in seven decades. Today, she remains at the head of what is once again a fiscally healthy nonprofit. Looking back, she reflects on what she learned.
The $3 billion annual revenue organization responds to 60,000 disasters every year, ranging from single house fires affecting one family to natural disasters that impact hundreds of thousands. At the time she took the helm, the large nonprofit had drawn down its available credit lines and was nearing the brink of its own disaster.
McGovern successfully steered the organization through the crisis and credits the leaders of the organization for their resilience during the challenging period.
She had been through challenges before; in fact, she often sought them out early in her career. Along with 1900 men, she was one of just 50 women admitted to Johns Hopkins University the first year that women were allowed.
Credit: Mike McGregor 2017
She joined AT&T doing technology “back when dinosaurs roamed the earth,” she quips. She nearly had to beg for an opportunity in sales, defending her candidacy by noting she’d sold Girl Scout cookies. A series of other lateral moves prepared her for a trajectory that landed her in the executive suite.
While working at AT&T, she worked with Dan Schulman, now president and CEO at PayPal. “Gail McGovern is a great friend, a valued mentor, and an outstanding leader. We first worked together many years ago at AT&T – and I have appreciated and benefitted from her wise counsel and support all along the way. I’m so proud of what Gail is achieving at the Red Cross and thrilled that PayPal can support her team’s life-saving initiatives,” he told me.
PayPal supports the Red Cross year-round, helping with digital fundraising and working closely on the annual “Missing Types” blood drive. “The American Red Cross and PayPal share a common commitment to improve the lives of people and communities around the world. The Red Cross is a trusted and necessary organization that mobilizes quickly to support those in need. We are honored to be their partners,” he said.
After leaving AT&T, McGovern, she joined Fidelity Investments as president of Fidelity Personal Investments, overseeing an operation with 10,000 people and $500 billion under management.
After leaving, she spent four years at Harvard when the challenges at the Red Cross created an opportunity there. It appealed to her “give-back gene” so she took the job.
“After 28 years in the for-profit world, you would think I had learned what I need to learn,” McGovern says. Referring to her experience leading the Red Cross, she adds, “But it taught me to be a different and better leader as a result of that experience.”
McGovern shared what she learned about being a leader, lessons she says would have applied perfectly in her for-profit experience to make her a better leader.
“Back when I was in the for-profit sector, you know, I would tell people, ‘Calm down. It’s just telecommunications. We’re not saving lives here,’ or at Fidelity, I’d say, ‘Calm down. You know, it’s just managing money. We’re not saving lives here,” she explains. “That schtick doesn’t work at the American Red Cross.”
“What I’ve learned at the Red Cross is it’s possible to not only lead with your head, but also lead with your heart.”
She says, in the for-profit world, it was her style to seek input and build consensus, but she and the team knew that at the end of the day, she had the authority to make decisions and she did. “I would say, ‘OK, we’re going to do this. Everybody jump!’ And people would say, ‘How high?’”
She says, working with 300,000 volunteers and a relatively small staff of just 19,000 mission-driven people, that approach doesn’t work. She says, directing volunteers is different. When you say, “’OK, everybody jump!’ And they say, ‘No, I’m not ready to. You can convince me. I don’t understand how that’s going to help our mission.’”
Her success suggests she learned to adapt quickly. “What I’ve learned is, first of all, you can lead to the power of your ideas, not the power of your office.”
Reflecting on the lesson, she points out how she might have led differently in her for-profit career.
“I just wish I said, ‘People, this is important work. We’re connecting people to the people that they love and the information that they need.’ Or ‘People, this is important work. We’re making people’s financial dreams come true,’” she explains. “Everybody wants to be part of a higher purpose. And, you know, I learned that while I was at the American Red Cross.”
She credits the team for the success she’s had. “Red Crossers are a special breed,” she explains, noting that they made sacrifices, including frozen salaries for a time and a year without a 401k match. “People were just so bound and determined to save the institution that for the most part, we really didn’t hear squawking. It was amazing.”
Their passion devolves in part from the breadth and importance of the mission. In addition to responding to disasters, they also provide blood products to thousands of hospitals and provide first-aid and related trainings to help build resilient communities. One lesser known program is the support provided to America’s armed forces.
USAA and The USAA Foundation have been long-term supporters of two military programs, including the Home Fire Campaign and the Services to the Armed Forces in addition to the disaster relief programs.
Harriet Dominique, senior vice president of corporate responsibility at USAA, told me, “The American Red Cross’ mission is to bring help and hope to individuals and communities affected by disasters. Their mission aligns to USAA’s mission – both catastrophe response and military support – that all underpins military family resiliency. We recognize the American Red Cross as a world-class leader in disaster relief, and through their leadership and strong team, do so much more for individuals and communities, including the men and women who serve our country.”
For more than a decade now, that leadership reflects the lessons Gail McGovern learned about leading with both her head and her heart.