Some people spend their days thinking about how to get ahead in life. Then there are those, like Anna Maria Chávez, who focus on helping others move forward.
The CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA recalls as a little girl being awakened late at night by conversations her parents would have at the kitchen table with neighbors. “When people received a letter from the federal government or other agency, my parents would explain to them what it meant,” Chávez says. “Growing up, there was an emphasis on working toward solutions that could benefit as many people as possible.”
It’s no surprise, then, that public service has been a cornerstone of Chávez’s life. After earning an undergraduate degree from Yale and a law degree from the University of Arizona, she spent nearly a decade in federal government, including positions at the Small Business Administration and the Federal Highway Administration. Chávez’s time in government, coupled with her training as a lawyer, instilled the importance of deliberate and long-term decision-making. “I’m very passionate about the work I do, but I’m also a data-driven attorney and that’s what I use to make decisions,” she says. “I want to know what’s happening today and the long-term implications for anything I undertake.”
She has put that approach to good use since taking over the top spot at the Girl Scouts in 2011. The 101-year-old organization, with 2.3 million scouts and 890,000 adult volunteers, was facing challenges. Among the most urgent were declining enrollment and the need to stay relevant to a generation of young women with so many more options than ever before.
Trusting her belief in her deliberate, data-driven decision-making, Chávez turned to an organizational design firm. They got input from more than 12,000 people, inside and outside the Girl Scouts. “If we were going to position ourselves as the premier leadership organization for girls for the next 100 years, we needed to know what to focus on,” she says.
What emerged was the decision to build a technology platform within the Girl Scouts to better reach out to current members and alumnae. Chávez says the feedback also revealed how important it was to train and reward volunteers in order to minimize turnover. “Both of these issues have been the major focus of our organization since I started,” she says.
Chávez is also convinced the organization can play a vital role in leadership development for girls. “When someone thinks about the Girl Scouts, I want them to see it as an investment in their daughter or granddaughter,” she says. Chávez points to recent studies done by the Girl Scouts showing that women who participated in the organization as young girls grow up to have higher levels of education, make, on average, $12,000 more a year in salary, and vote more often than non-alumnae. “I want people to see the return on investment for their involvement and how they’re helping to shape future leaders,” she says.
Although she heads an organization that has been part of the lives of 59 million American women, Chávez still relies on the values instilled in her many years ago. “Whenever I’ve had the opportunity to do something significant, I’m always reminded of the quote ‘To whom much is given, much is expected,’” she says. “That’s how I try to live my life.”