Pop quiz: What business program in America produces more female business owners than any university? (Hint: it’s not on Wall Street; in fact, it’s probably on your street.) In the first two minutes of our conversation with Kathy Cloninger, CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA, she mentioned a set of statistics that blew our minds: at any given point in US history over the past half-century, about 10 percent of girls in the population are in the Girl Scouts; yet among the population of women business owners, some 70 percent have been Girl Scouts. Which means this organization is having a huge impact on the nation’s business leadership pipeline—and more so today than ever, if Kathy Cloninger has anything to say about it.

When she started at her current post in 2003, Kathy launched a sweeping transformation of the Girl Scout movement, intent on reshaping the venerable institution into a powerful leadership force for the twenty-first century. It was an ambitious aspiration. In two years, after all, the Girl Scouts of the USA will be 100 years old. The nation’s largest single program for girls nearly since its inception in 1912, GSUSA now serves some 2.4 million girls and nearly a million adult volunteers. Gigantic, century-old organizations are not typically the most nimble when it comes to sweeping change. Still, the Girl Scout community rose to the challenge, and in the past seven years GSUSA has dramatically streamlined its structure and updated its relevance, reinventing itself as the premier leadership development experience for girls. — J.D.M

When I talk with people in the business of network marketing or direct sales, it’s amazing to note how many women got their start selling those cookies door to door.

I think we have influenced more businesswomen, and especially female entrepreneurs, than any other single source, in terms of their developing business and leadership skills.

Why do you think that is? What is the connection between the Girl Scout experience and business leadership?

I’m not sure there’s a simple answer. Part of it, I think, is that the Girl Scouts provides an all-girl setting, and there’s a power in our own potential that we are more connected to when we are gathered in an all-female organization.

Private schools are expensive, so the majority of girls in America don’t get to go to a private girls’ school. For most girls across the country, Girl Scouting is the only way they have to be part of an all-girl environment.

Another part of it is the nature of the Girl Scout program itself, which is all about learning how to operate well in teams, about setting goals and cultivating one’s ambition and aspiration, about skill and accomplishment through the progression of badges and all the activities that girls explore.

And then there are those cookies…

Our cookie sale program is the signature business training program for girls in America.

The public has the fun of buying cookies and they see the Girl Scouts at their door, but most people don’t see all that goes on within the cookie sale program itself. All across America, over a roughly two-month period, there are three million girls at a time running their own business.

And it’s a fairly sophisticated business program. They learn a product, they set a sales plan, they set goals, they go through sales training, they look at mapping the market, they mentor with other businesswomen as coaches. And of course, they go out and sell their cookies, so they take their business plan all the way through the stages of collecting money, investing money, and setting and following long-term goals for how they’re going to spend that money.

It’s a complete business training experience. And that has had a profound influence on girls as they move into their own careers.

As you describe it, I’m thinking, where else would somebody under the age of business school ever get any kind of training even remotely like that? We don’t teach it in schools, and not typically in our homes, either.

There’s nothing like it. Before I became the national CEO, I’d spent years running Girl Scout Councils across the country, so I’ve been very close to the cookie sales for a long time.

Not long ago, when I was the Girl Scout CEO in Nashville, Tennessee, we did a partnership with the downtown Rotary Club, which is mostly men. We asked them to step up and be business coaches for Girl Scouts in the inner city, most of them living in public housing communities, who were about to sell their cookies.

We took these Rotarian men through a whole program where they mentored these young women, meeting with them after school, and in the process they went through our Girl Scout training materials. They were astounded at the quality of the program materials.

And at the end of it, one of the Rotarians said to me, “Wow, I had no idea how sophisticated these training materials were! If my own sales staff went through this program, we’d be better salespeople.”

So, did you say, “Dude, be my guest—take your people through our program!”

Exactly! There was a young woman, Markita Andrews, who was a top cookie sales woman in the eighties. IBM hired her to write a book on how she succeeded in her Girl Scout cookie sale program (the book was called How to Sell More Cookies, Condos, Cadillacs, Computers … and Everything Else)—and then they hired her to go on the road as an IBM sales trainer.

There are so many great stories about the profound impact the cookie sales program has on women getting their start in business and then rising to all kinds of business success.

Your work there as CEO has focused especially on leadership development. Does that have a very different meaning today than it would have had, say, fifty years ago, or even a few decades ago?

It does. Let me back up a little bit before answering that question directly, because I think the history is relevant.

We were founded by a revolutionary woman, Juliette Gordon Low, in 1912. Imagine the social context in 1912—Juliette started this organization before women even had the right to vote!

Her vision was that Girl Scouting would be the significant leadership program for girls. She saw that girls had a big role to play in supporting the wartime efforts that were a major part of the landscape during the early decades of the 1900s. She saw girls doing critical things like lifesaving and volunteering to help their country.

Her entire program was non-traditional. She had girls doing all kinds of sports and athletic activities that were very much not the norm at that time.

Today, as we approach turning 100, it seemed to me that a bit of mission drift had happened to Girl Scouts in recent decades. We were still strong, still providing a good program—but we were not able to answer clearly what it was we were doing that clearly differentiated us from all the other youth programs.

Our answer to that is that we are the nation’s premier leadership experience for girls.

The first thing we did was to retool our mission statement, which hadn’t been changed since the 1950’s. Our mission became our leadership platform.

How did that new mission read?

Girl Scouting builds girls of courage, confidence and character, who make the world a better place.

It’s essence is our leadership platform. We do think that leadership is about girls having the kind of courage to stand up for their belief system, and the confidence, through skills and achievement, to truly believe in themselves. We also think the internal values system, integrity and character, is a huge component of leadership.

We also believe that leaders ultimately want to give back to the world, that they are leading for a higher purpose—that in addition to their own individual cause or even their own organizational cause, leadership also has a higher calling.

What has it been like for you to come into this venerable institution and want to change things on such a basic level?

(Laughs) It has been a journey. Inside the organization, we refer to it as the journey to transformation. It has been the most exciting, inspiring work I’ve ever done—and I’ve been a professional Girl Scout for twenty-seven years.

Some people say, “Oh my gosh, a big old institution like Girl Scouts? How do you implement change in an organization that has seemed pretty traditional over the decades?” I’ll tell you why I think it was energizing for me, and not draining.

We started by having conversations all across Girl Scouting—with local executives, with local volunteers, and with the girls themselves. We began asking, “What is it that Girl Scouting is the most passionate about? What are we best in the world at?”

We took a page from Jim Collins [author of Good to Great], setting up discussion groups and getting the dialogue going among thousands and thousands of people.

I think that is what made the difference.

Where did it go from there?

We put together a strategy team of twenty-six people who represented a microcosm of Girl Scouting: volunteers, local council executives, some of our staff here at headquarters, a few of our national board members. As we began steering the strategy work, we also kept going back out to the field, testing every element of what we were thinking about with our larger membership.

I think it was that engagement factor that made it stimulating—and that helped us make the right decisions. Instead of it being a small group of people bringing change top-down, we approached it in the way I think women lead best: it was collaborative. It brought diversity to the table.

Together, we sought out the essence of the Girl Scout experience, made sure we were preserving the core, and then had the courage to let go of a lot of other stuff that was no longer working for us. The idea was to get rid of what was outdated, and keep what was important.

It strikes me as a very courageous thing to do—to go to an organization of several million people and say, “So, what do you think?” Because they’ll tell you—and then you have do something with their answers!

Exactly. Early in the process, we went to a national meeting, and everyone stood up in their chairs going, “The status quo’s got to go!” About 15,000 volunteers went out of there with buttons saying, “The status quo has got to go!”

At the time, nobody knew exactly what we meant by that, because we had not yet figured out what kind of change we were going to implement.

It sounds in a way like you’ve been rebranding the Girl Scout experience.

Exactly, and we really did.

We developed a new model of leadership for girls, differentiated for each of the age levels. We’ve done our own research, over the last several years, on what girls in America say about leadership. We interviewed girls who were not in Girl Scouting, as well as those who were, and great ideas came back, which we wrote up in a study called “Change It Up: What Girls Say About Leadership.”

Girls are saying that leadership in America needs to be redefined. They are saying the way we’ve been approaching leadership in this culture has been primarily top-down, and having a lot to do with power, money and authority. What they really want is leadership that is much more collaborative, that is driven by being able to connect with others, being able to accomplish not only your business objectives but also objectives for your community, the nation and the world.

On this journey, we’ve been finding out a lot about what girls think about leadership, and it’s been wonderful to work around all of this.

You speak about leadership for girls, yet it strikes me that there’s also a strong desire right now in general for a new kind of leadership, not just among women but among everybody.

Part of our agenda is that we believe a gender-balanced leadership is good for America. We’re not necessarily saying that women by themselves can lead better than men. We’re saying that America needs leadership that brings together equally both the feminine and the masculine way of leading. That’s where we’re going to get the best answers to the problems we have in this world.

Right now, if you look at the top leadership in the US, in almost every industry—in Congress, in corporate America, in the film industry, in top university positions—wherever you look, you find that only about 15 percent of the top jobs are held by women.

We’re saying that girls and women bring a different lens to the table, a more collaborative approach and deeper level of compassion, a greater likelihood to bring in a diversity of viewpoints. And because of that, in order for America to remain strong, we need both men and women to be leading together.

This is a big part of our message. And we’re the leadership pipeline for girls and women. So the more we can continue to get girls into the pipeline and aspiring to leadership roles, growing up with a focus on high integrity and solid values, the more we are helping to promote our future leaders.

There’s another element that intrigues me about your work, which is that the entire structure is a volunteer organization.

Exactly. We look at our workforce as being a million volunteers. If we had to pay all our volunteers to spend hours and hours every year working with our girls, we simply would not be able to offer Girl Scouts. We don’t have the paycheck to keep people motivated.

Yet at the same time, these are not volunteers who just show up, do a shift of work, then sign off and they’re gone. These are volunteers who are just like staff: they are engaged in the organization, they care about its future direction, they want to have an impact.

I think there are lessons corporate America could learn from the way we recruit and retain our volunteers, and how you involve people in setting their own course for the organization. Part of that is knowing how to listen well and give people good feedback.

It also strikes me that as the actual nature of work shifts, with so many more home-based businesses and people spinning off company functions as solopreneurs, there’s a lot more of that kind of volunteerism dynamic in the business world these days.

Definitely. Volunteerism is also a key prong of the business strategy we’re working on. How do we become even more flexible and innovative with volunteerism?

The way the old troop model worked was this: we would get one mom to step up and be the troop leader. Now we have more leadership networks, where we recruit a group of moms who work together in a collaborative way and share the leadership of a troop, so that no one has to feel they’ve got the sole responsibility for making it work.

Shared leadership—that sounds like team-building.

Exactly, and team-building is a core competency within Girl Scouts.

It sounds like your organization may actually represent the vanguard of the twenty-first century here!

We think so. It’s not well understood in America, just how much important work we’re doing in Girl Scouts, but what we’re doing has a lot of power.

I’m curious about the demographics of it. How have the numbers varied over the years; have you gone through a time of thinning of the ranks?

Roughly since the 1950s, we’ve always had about 10 percent of the population. As the girl population rises and falls, so our membership will go up and down with the population.

We are right now just turning the corner on a few years of membership decline, driven by some dramatic changes in US demographics in the past ten to fifteen years.

The population of white girls in America is declining; the African-American population is holding more or less steady. The population that is increasing are Hispanic girls, Asian girls, and girls from new immigrant families. So we’ve been working very hard, the last few years, to support a greater emphasis on diversity.

Last year we had an increase of about 6 percent in our Hispanic girls, and we’re well over 300,000 Hispanic girls now. In fact, in the last five years our Hispanic population in the Girl Scouts has increased 44 percent.

We’re anticipating that our membership is going to start growing, because we have been so focused on reaching out to new Muslim communities, Hispanic communities, Asian communities, and Native American communities. We serve as many as 50 percent of Native American girls, especially if they live on Native American reservations.

We are a microcosm of the US. We’re in every zip code, and serve girls from every race, ethnicity and income. I think you’ll see our membership growing significantly in the next decade.

How are you all going to celebrate your 100th birthday?

Oh, we are looking for lots of ways to celebrate that across the nation. There are not very many organizations run by women that have lasted as successfully as we have for a century! It’s going to be quite a party.