5 key lessons on becoming a CEO

Peter Vanham
Previously, Deputy Head of Media at World Economic Forum. Executive Editor, Fortune
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40 years ago, she was a struggling computer programmer for AT&T in Philadelphia.

Today, she is the only woman on the President’s Management Advisory Board. How did Gail McGovern, CEO of American Red Cross, manage to get there? And what can we learn from her?

Here are five of the watershed moments that helped her reach the top, edited from “Before I Was CEO,” my upcoming book on lessons from leaders.

1. The moment she got rid of her fear of public speaking 

McGovern’s first job was as a computer programmer with AT&T (then Bell) in Philadelphia. As she was rising through the ranks, one of her bosses told her she’d be in charge of a training program, her first public role.

But McGovern pushed back, as she was “terrified” of public speaking. She said no.

The next day, her boss asked her if she had reconsidered. McGovern was clear. “No,” she said.

“Well then, your paycheck is sitting in the training center,” her boss replied. Now she had no choice: If she and her husband were going to pay the bills, she’d have to teach.

“My first trainings were a disaster, and I was a wreck,” she said. But pretty soon she was into it, and she made the next step in her professional career. The experience taught her that you have to face your fears to advance.

2. The moment she learned the art of delegation 

As a next step, McGovern got promoted to supervisor — the first time she would actually manage a team. People who used to be her coworkers now had to follow her orders.

“I would say things like, ‘Are you busy?’ and they would say yes, and I would not be able to hand any work off,” she said. “So I started taking on the extra work myself. It was like taking a group of passengers on a leaky boat. I stayed until late at night, my team would be long gone home, and I thought I was going to fail.”

Then, one night, she saw her own boss was still at work, and entered his office. “It’s not fair,” she said. “What’s not fair?” he asked. “Well it feels like you’re giving me all the work,” McGovern complained. But her boss didn’t budge.

“You must feel like you have the work of 10 people,” he said, and McGovern nodded. “Well guess what, you have 10 people working for you.”

It was a watershed moment for McGovern. “I just stood there, like a tumbler was working inside my head,” she told me. “I went home and made a list of what they had to do by when, and I gathered them over in a huddle. And I said, ‘These are the new working assignments.’ Soon enough, I became a master at moving the needle. I would ask people ‘Why isn’t this done?’ or ‘Why did you go over budget?'”

If that boss hadn’t told her, McGovern said, “I would have still be doing programing in Philadelphia. It’s the art of delegation. It was kind of one of these things where he threw me a lifesaver, and I had to swim to it and put it on.”

3. The moment she realized there are only two things you can’t learn: to be smart and to be nice

McGovern’s next task was to make teams out of the growing number of individuals she oversaw. Working with different types of personalities, she came to realize there are only two things you can’t influence or teach someone: to be smart and to be nice.

“First, you have to staff the very best people,” she said. “You’re much better off staffing with a vacancy then filling it because of need. I learned that with time and experience, particularly when I picked up a person. I thought I could teach her how to do certain things, but she simply couldn’t. It was painful, because I had to fire her. And it taught me that if someone isn’t bright, it’s going to be a disaster.” 

The same is true for being nice, she said. “I thought I could be a missionary and teach my colleagues how to be good people,” she told me. “But it doesn’t work that way. I once had a dream team, but they just didn’t get along and would eye each other. I tried to meet people one on one, and it drove me crazy. If I hire someone, I now let everyone talk to them. And everyone can get a veto. That one experience taught me for the rest of my life. I can’t stress enough how important this is. You want the best people and you want them to get along.”

4. The moment she got rid of her inner insecure 17-year old

“On a personal note, I learned that the best leaders have a lot of confidence, and a small ego,” McGovern said. “I get such a kick if the great ideas come from somebody other than me. Or I get a kick when people attack my ideas, telling me it’s a half-baked idea.”

McGovern said she is able to let others attack her ideas because she shed her insecurity a long time ago. When she did, her colleagues took notice: “I once had a boss who told me, ‘You know why you’re so successful? Because deep down inside you don’t care about how people think of you. We all have an insecure 17-year-old girl inside of us, afraid she might come out. Well you don’t have that. You just don’t care.'”

“I shed that insecure girl when I was that insecure girl,” she said. “In sixth grade, I was an alpha girl. And the other co-alpha girl decided she didn’t like me anymore and threw me under the bus. It was devastating. And I told my mom, and she said: ‘Suck it up girl. Go back to study. Sure, you can study less, you can do that, but your dad will ground you for life.'”

“So when she gave me those two options, I first slacked,” she said. “But then I didn’t have any friends anymore. So I studied harder. I decided two things: One, I will try to be kinder to everyone. And the second thing is, it makes me tougher. So being kind and not caring made me honors class. That’s how I shed my insecurity.” 

5. The moment she told her CEO he was less important than her daughter’s kindergarten teacher

When push comes to shove, you need to decide what takes precedence in your life: your work, or your family life. For McGovern, that balance changed over time. In her twenties and early thirties, McGovern shared with her husband a burning ambition to do well at work, she would often come home late, and got her executive MBA while continuing to work.

But once McGovern and her husband adopted a daughter, they decided to put their family life on equal footing, if not first. They meant it. One day, McGovern still at AT&T, had a morning meeting with the then CEO, Bob Allen. “I said I have a hard stop at 11,” she told him. “Who is this 11 meeting with?” Allen asked, and McGovern was left speechless for a few seconds. “Should I make up some crazy doctor appointment, or should I tell the truth?” McGovern wondered, before going for the latter option: “I have a meeting to talk to our kindergarten teacher,” she said, her heart pounding.

“As I drove up the parking lot of the school, I said to my husband: ‘I think I got myself fired.’ But the next morning I sat at meeting, and the Bob Allen walks in, and he asked: ‘well, how did it go?’ After I explained, he got out his wallet and showed me the pictures of all his grandchildren. I ended up having a special relation with the CEO.”

It’s something she wouldn’t necessarily advise others to do, she says now, as she could as well have gotten fired. But one lesson is important for her: if you wouldn’t miss a meeting with a CEO, then make sure you treat your family like it was a CEO, too.

After 24 years at AT&T, McGovern went to work for Fidelity, overseeing hundreds of billions of dollars in investments, and was voted twice as Fortune’s “50 most powerful women in corporate America“. Then, after a career of almost 35 years in the private sector, she became CEO of the American Red Cross, a position she holds until today.  McGovern had gone from programming computers in Philadelphia, to overseeing a humanitarian organization with a budget of $3 billion. 

This article is published in collaboration with Business Insider. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Peter Vanham is a media strategist at the World Economic Forum and a freelance business writer.

Image: A Businesswoman is silhouetted as she makes her way under the Arche de la Defense. REUTERS/Christian Hartmann.

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