A Leader Redefines Management
In place of the old chain of command, Frances Hesselbein urges diversity, an eye on the basic mission, and a participatory atmosphere where all feel comfortable bringing questions to the boss
NEW YORK — `LEADERSHIP is a matter of how to be - not how to do it." Frances Hesselbein distilled this definition years ago while preparing a speech on the subject. "Since then, everything I've done and observed simply reaffirms that," she says.
Mrs. Hesselbein, former national executive director of the Girl Scouts of the USA, is now president of the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management.
"Leadership is not a basket of tricks or strategies or skills that you pull out," she explains during an interview at her New York office. "Leadership begins with the quality of the person."
Soon after Hesselbein retired from more than 13 years leading the Girl Scouts, management guru Peter Drucker told Business Week: "If I had to put somebody in to take Roger Smith's place at GM [General Motors], I would pick Frances." He cited her strong customer focus and proven ability to turn around large, tradition-bound organizations.
When Hesselbein took the helm of the Girl Scouts in 1976, membership was on a steady decline, and the organization was serving mostly white, middle-class communities.
She recommitted the Girl Scouts to its mission of "helping each girl reach her own highest potential" and updated everything from the girls' uniforms to the organization chart. Overall membership skyrocketed and minority membership tripled.
Hesselbein, who is soft-spoken and elegant but unassuming, now spends much of her time giving lectures across the country, visiting business-school campuses, and giving management advice to nonprofit groups.
Her experience with the Girl Scouts, where she began as a volunteer in the early 1950s, has provided powerful lessons in leadership and management.
Hesselbein's ideas are now studied at business schools throughout the United States. Harvard Business School has turned her work with the Girl Scouts into a case study.
All this from a woman who attended the University of Pittsburgh but never graduated. She now has five honorary doctorate degrees. Building on diversity
Inclusiveness is the essence of Hesselbein's leadership style. "One of the management imperatives in the '90s is managing diversity," she says. "Whatever the organization, when the constituents of that organization look at the board and management staff, they need to find themselves."
Corporations and nonprofit organizations that build on the richness of diversity are going to be the ones that thrive in the 21st century, Hesselbein predicts.
Along with managing diversity, "managing for the mission" is one of Hesselbein's favorite phrases. "Everything flows from the mission," she says.
"The real leader redefines or defines the mission in a very powerful way so that people understand it; it permeates the organization."
Hesselbein is well-known for redesigning the traditional organization chart. She threw out the hierarchical chain of command in favor of a circular management structure, dubbed the "bubble chart." The traditional hierarchy is flattened and replaced by a circle with the boss in the middle, surrounded by staff.
This circular management system is the key to successful leadership, Hesselbein says.
"The more power you give away, the more you have," she says. "I truly believe in participatory leadership, in sharing leadership to the outermost edges of the circle."
Her management structure is designed to promote "circular communication," where everyone feels comfortable bringing questions to the person in the center of the circle.
"Challenging the gospel" is another Hesselbein management mantra. She encourages managers to "question everything - every assumption, policy, practice, detail."
Some say Hesselbein's circular organizational structure reflects a distinctly "feminine management style."
"That's fair," she responds. "Women can be less hierarchical. And yet, you and I can go out and find lots of women who are wedded to the hierarchy."
Hesselbein maintains that "management is like money, it has no gender.... In the end, it is the quality and the character of the person that determine the kind of leader." Women break barriers
But she doesn't discount the special qualities that a woman can bring to an executive position. "I think women may be more intuitive," she says.
The last 10 years have brought great strides in the number of female leaders, and Hesselbein has played a significant role in that process.
"I can't even count the number of corporate and nonprofit boards where I have been the only woman," Hesselbein says.
"It never bothers me because I never thought of myself as `the woman on the board.' I always thought of myself as a board member who had something to bring to the enterprise. I never assumed that I was there because I was female."
While many of the barriers to women seeking top positions in the corporate world have fallen, Hesselbein says that some obstacles remain.
"Sometimes there are minor barriers that are self-imposed," she says. "I think sometimes women have believed in the `glass ceiling' and have been inhibited by it. And other women have decided, `I don't see a glass ceiling' and have moved right through it. This is not always true, but I think that women are moving ahead just by sheer numbers, experience, and ability."
She expects to see even more progress in this area over the next 10 years. "On every side you see examples of the momentum.... For a long time, there weren't that many role models of effective women in top positions. Now, there are lots of them."
Hesselbein is optimistic about the next generation of leaders.
"I think this next generation, thanks to superior educational opportunity and - I hope - some of the work that has gone on before, will have the kind of self-confidence to lead in a very turbulent world."
In addition to the enduring need for personal integrity, the new leaders will have to be strong, confident individuals. Hesselbein describes our future leaders as "the people who do not have to have the absolutes, who can deal with ambiguity and navigate waters that no one else has navigated.
"People are hungry for a vision of the future and a way to find themselves in it," she says. "So these leaders are going to have to be able to describe their vision of the future of the enterprise in terms that have meaning for the constituents, the team, the people around them."
"Management is a tool," concludes Hesselbein. "It is a means; it is not the end."