Book Review: ‘Tough Cookies: Leadership Lessons from 100 Years of the Girl Scouts’

Tough CookiesIn this engaging revelation of the organization behind the cookies, Girl Scouts’ national CEO Kathy Cloninger boldly envisions the future of women in America and inspires us to encourage girls to get there.

The mint cookies that arrived with my review book revived warm memories of girlhood as a Brownie and Girl Scout. According to a national poll, Cloninger and I join two-thirds of professional women who share such memories. Few realize how pivotal the cookies are. The annual cookie sale, says Cloninger, is a “$700 million education program that brings to life Girl Scouts’ true brand: developing leadership in girls.”

We “fail to understand the mix of qualities that create great leadership, and the strengths that girls and women can contribute,” Cloninger says on the opening page of this galvanizing call to “invest strongly in our girls.” While the female half of our population provides only 3 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs and 17 percent of the U.S. Congress, Girl Scouts offers “a three-million-girl model of how to unleash and develop the powerful potential of girls,” she says.

Unfortunately, our society undermines girls’ development as leaders. Cloninger cites a recent Parents Television Council study revealing that the top 25 TV shows watched by young people ages 12 to 17 “regularly depict teen girls as highly sexualized and objectified.”

From a Dallas family without college history, Cloninger chronicles her own path toward leadership in a series of short-term jobs interspersed with part-time college studies. At 32, having earned a master’s degree with counseling and business courses, Cloninger recognized her lack of career goals. Moving to Colorado to lead the Mountain Prairie Girl Scout Council included Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) leadership training and mentoring from its CEO. GSUSA consulting jobs took Cloninger to several western states until her mentor recommended her for “the job of a lifetime,” managing school-reform grants at the W. K. Kellogg Foundation in Michigan. Uncomfortable in this traditional male-led company, Cloninger returned to the “women-centered” model as leader of Tennessee’s Girl Scout Council in Nashville for 10 years.

A veteran of at least 16 jobs, she became National CEO of GSUSA in New York. This organization of 2.3 million participants retains its values of “service to country, active work and play, self-sufficiency, and the warm power of sisterhood,” Cloninger said.

The Girl Scout Research Institute examines girls’ challenges in American society. Its 2009 study of moral values discovered that “girls are more likely than boys to value diversity, give to charity, and volunteer in their communities.” Its 2006 study revealed that many girls doubt their ability to develop sharp minds. Thinking “it’s uncool to be smarter” than boys, they conceal or fail to develop their skills. In its 2008 nationwide survey on leadership, boys expressed a desire for power, money, and being their own boss; whereas, girls defined leadership as “standing up for values and beliefs, bringing people together to get things done, and trying to change the world for the better.” Yet, girls are uncertain that they have the skill to lead, especially when boys might see them as bossy.

“My point in this book,” Cloninger says, “is that we all are suffering a lack of leadership benefits that girls can provide.”

Women have become a majority in the workplace as breadwinners in almost two-thirds of U.S. families, yet they hold just 18 percent of leadership positions, which many leave due to scarce nourishing relationships with male colleagues. Believing that men and women working together could combine decisiveness with empathy and compassion, Cloninger calls on women leaders to help girls understand how a feminine leadership style works, as in Camp CEO, a Girl Scout program that pairs “aspiring high school business leaders with high-ranking corporate women in a sleeves-rolled-up camp mentoring session.”

About halfway through, the book becomes a dramatic account of how Girl Scouts of the USA – one of America’s largest nonprofits with an annual budget of $750 million and 1 million volunteers – transformed after Cloninger became its CEO in 2003. Membership had been declining. Within two months of her arrival, “we were deciding to reinvent the entire Girl Scout movement,” she says.

Cloninger formed a team of 26 volunteers and staff to evaluate outdated traditions, multicultural relevance, an undefined patchwork of activities, and the loss of Scouting’s core principle of girl-adult partnerships. In an era of flashy technologies, what would entice girls to join a group perceived as campers?

Like an overgrown plant, Girl Scouts’ program needed pruning so the whole could survive. Her strategy team began by defining the reason for Girl Scouts’ existence: “We develop leadership in girls.”

Revisiting founder Juliette Low’s vision, Cloninger realized how revolutionary it was to cultivate girls’ confidence as “change agents in their world” in 1912, before women had the right to vote. “The Girl Scout movement had drifted from shaking up the status quo to riding along with it,” Cloninger says. “We need to make Girl Scouting revolutionary again.”

A new mission statement made a start: “Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence, and character who make the world a better place.” Strategic priorities included creating a program model for girls’ leadership development and streamlining 312 councils to 109.

The 100th birthday of Girl Scouts in 2012 became an “opportunity to tell the world about the new Girl Scouting,” Cloninger says.

An organization must measure outcomes to prove that it is doing what it promises. Cloninger’s team designed a Discover, Connect, Take Action leadership model: Girl Scouts would develop girls who discover and trust themselves, connect with others in healthy relationships, and take action to serve their communities.

Cloninger says this “groundbreaking work” will “encourage progress on many girls’ and women’s issues.” Among top challenges for youth in the U.S., she lists spiraling obesity and health issues, teen pregnancy, an abysmal high school-dropout rate, and 35 percent of African American and Hispanic youth in poverty.

Cloninger asserts that U.S. philanthropy lacks focus on girls’ welfare because private giving and “philanthropic organizations are largely run by men.” To generate funding for girls’ programs, more women must join “the ranks of the highly paid.”

The revitalized 100-year-old Girl Scouts’ “audacious goal,” Cloninger announces, is to raise $1 billion from 2012 to 2016, helping the world see girls as “a crucial investment.”

Just as audacious are Cloninger’s conclusions that women must fill “every boardroom and center of power in the nation” to reverse our spin into the economic decline created by men. She urges us to put “the equivalent of a moon rocket under girls and boost them into the vital challenges of leadership.”

To conclude, Cloninger urges adults to volunteer in the renewed Girl Scouts, including male volunteers who wear T-shirts saying, “Are you man enough to be a Girl Scout?”

This process of a youth organization’s reinvention is not only a valuable blueprint for others engaged in similar exercises but also a fascinating journey of discovery. Cloninger’s critique of male dominance in our society and its effects on all females offers constructive suggestions for coming together. Cloninger herself is a potent example for young women of investing imagination, self-knowledge, and a sense of adventure in a worthwhile career.

She retired in late 2011. All proceeds from sales of this book go to Girl Scouts of the USA.



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