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Marty Evans brought her diverse leadership insights to Kellogg School students during an April 25 visit. She participated in the Kellogg Board Fellows Program, which provides a forum for experiential learning.

‘Visible woman’ shares leadership lessons with Kellogg Board Fellows

Marty Evans, retired U.S. Navy rear admiral and former head of the American Red Cross and Girl Scouts, shows students how to rise to real-world challenges

By Aubrey Henretty

4/29/2008 - “You, as a decision maker, do not have perfect information,” said retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Marty Evans. “You don’t have that case study that’s written retrospectively.”

Evans, who was the president and chief executive officer of the American Red Cross during the devastating 2004 Atlantic hurricane season and during the following year’s Hurricane Katrina, knows a thing or two about strong leadership on imperfect information. She and her Red Cross colleagues were conducting ground-level reconnaissance in New Orleans well before Bush administration officials showed up, but still faced many unprecedented challenges.

“It wasn’t a matter of scaling up what you did before,” said Evans. “It was a whole new ball game.”

Evans spoke April 25 to a group of students in the Kellogg School’s Board Fellows Program — a Kellogg initiative that places outstanding students on local nonprofit boards of directors. Students in the program bring their professional acumen and Kellogg-caliber insights to the nonprofits in exchange for the rich experiential learning that board service offers. “The Board Fellows Programs is unique,” says Senior Lecturer Anne Cohn Donnelly, because it provides space for students to share what they’ve learned with their Board Fellows cohort. Their combined experience, she adds, is something “most people hardly get in a lifetime of serving on boards.”

Donnelly, who teaches in the Social Enterprise at Kellogg (SEEK) curriculum, says insights from Evans’ “extraordinary career” — which has included transforming the Girl Scouts of the USA as that organization’s CEO — brought valuable lessons to the Fellows.

When Evans took the helm at the Girl Scouts 1998, one in nine American girls was a girl scout. One in four was a brownie. The national average, Evans said, was misleading: “What do you think the map looked like in the inner city?” she asked. Under her leadership, however, the organization developed many programs to meet the needs of the underserved.

Whenever she met with staunchly traditional critics, Evans said she would defer to the mission of Girl Scouts founder Juliette Gordon Low: “Juliette Gordon Low said, ‘I have something for all the girls in America.’” She did not, Evans would note, say she had something only for all the rich girls or those living in the suburbs. “We are the custodians of her dream,” Evans would add. Even the most change-resistant leaders in the organization could not argue with that, Evans told Kellogg students.

“It was not easy in any way, shape or form,” she noted. “It was a huge cultural change for the organization. But it can be done.”

In high-ranking professional positions as in the U.S. Navy, Evans said, women leaders are rare. “I got a lot of opportunities because people were curious what a girl admiral is like,” she said, adding that people are often surprised to find she isn’t a “command-and-control” type.

Once, she recalled, when she was interviewing for a position on a board of directors, she asked the interviewer what he thought she could bring to the board.

“We need a visible woman,” he replied. Without missing a beat, she asked, “Well, what do you need that visible woman to do?”