By Dave Hendrick

Red Cross CEO Gail McGovern said there were two themes running through her professional career: a love of learning and a love of working.

Speaking at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business as part of a Leadership Speaker Series event, McGovern said both themes were present early in her life, where in high school she held positions at a general store, in a factory, cleaning showcases for a department store and working in a fast-food restaurant.

“I took a lot of wacky jobs,” McGovern said. “I didn’t need to, but I loved it.”

After college at Johns Hopkins — where McGovern said she was one of 50 women among 1,900 men — s took a job as a computer programmer at AT&T, a job she said she loved until she grew bored with it.

It was a pattern that repeated multiple times at AT&T, where McGovern worked in multiple units during her career at the communications giant, from R&D to marketing. It wasn’t a career ladder, but a career lattice, McGovern said, saying she took “tons of lateral jobs at AT&T.”

And when she decided she wanted to learn something new again, McGovern took a position as president at Fidelity Personal Investments in an industry she said she knew nothing about. Her stint at Fidelity coincided with a rash of high-profile cases of corporate malfeasance with companies like Enron and WorldCom, which led McGovern to the “romantic notion that if I could just touch tomorrow’s leaders, I could make a difference.”

So she did, taking a position teaching marketing at Harvard Business School.

“I loved it,” said McGovern. “I was learning, I was publishing and it was great fun. But then I started getting itchy to run something again.”

The something this time was the Red Cross, the 138-year-old disaster relief and humanitarian aid organization, which McGovern joined in 2008 as its ninth CEO in five years.

The job was a turnaround effort. The organization in 2008 had a $209 million operating deficit and was taking out loans to make payroll. There were 720 Red Cross chapters “doing their own things,” McGovern said, with separate marketing messages, procurement and IT functions.

If the goal of shared services and bringing messaging cohesion to the organization was obvious, making the plan happen proved tricky. McGovern said her board quickly disabused her of the notion of barging in with a fully baked plan, warning her it would be difficult to gain traction if she presented the effort as a new mandate from on high. Instead, McGovern said a long buy-in process eventually helped most chapter leaders see their fingerprints on the final plan.

McGovern distilled the lessons from the two-year turnaround, and her previous professional roles, into five key tips for effective leadership:

  1. Attract, retain and motivate the best people
  2. Be inclusive and create missionaries
  3. Listen generously, communicate incessantly
  4. Embrace change, admit mistakes and course correct quickly
  5. Lead from the heart and the head

Regarding the final lessons, McGovern said she wished she had brought more heart-driven leadership to her previous roles at AT&T and Fidelity, helping people discover the higher purpose they were working toward.

Said McGovern, “I wish I had tapped into that innate need that people have to help others and be a part of something bigger than they are.”

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business delivers the world’s best business education experience to prepare entrepreneurial, global and responsible leaders through its MBA, Ph.D. and Executive Education programs. Darden’s top-ranked faculty is renowned for teaching excellence and advances practical business knowledge through research. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.