Growing up in the small farming town of Eloy, Arizona, in the 1950s and 1960s, Anna Maria Chávez didn’t have the opportunity to witness many strong, female leaders in action. But like many young girls in America, she became a Girl Scout.
During her first camp experience at 12 years old, Chávez decided she wanted to become an attorney. “It was because of what I learned as a Girl Scout [that I decided I wanted] to become an advocate to protect the environment, to advocate on behalf of people who didn’t have a voice,” she says. Chávez became the first person in her family to attend college at Yale University, earned a law degree from the University of Arizona, and went on to work in both the federal and state government on community development and housing issues.
Although she never imagined decades later she would become the CEO of Girl Scouts, she credits the organization with paving the way for her entire career. In her speeches to young girls, Chávez often shares these four pillars she believes have been responsible for her success as a leader:
Chávez’s vision for her career was ultimately to make a difference in the lives of others. “So many times, I’ve seen individuals who stop short [of achieving] their dreams,” says Chávez.
In 2011, Chávez led the Girl Scouts’ “To Get Her There” campaign to encourage girls to follow their leadership aspirations, and not let dissenting voices get them down. Ads featured young girls talking about their dreams to become award-winning authors, biomedical engineers, and bosses downplay their ambitions when laughed at by others their age and later state their dreams with authority when their families stood behind them as support.
Chávez credits her mother and grandmother with providing her with the support she needed to stay on track. “I’ve seen that when people don’t dream big, they ultimately start listening to people who want them to think small [but] if you have a big vision and you set steps in place to reach that vision, it’s much harder to be pushed off that track,” she says.
Chávez credits her career success and that of the organizations she’s led with surrounding herself with individuals who share the same vision. “I always walk into a situation, an organization, and I show them what the big vision is and then I allow people to raise their hand and say I believe in that vision,” says Chávez.
In building her team, Chávez looks to individuals’ strengths and helps them find their “sweet spot” within the organization. “I ask people: ‘When you’re working on a project, when do you just feel like everything is clicking?’” she says. When people believe in a common vision, and they’re doing the role they’re best suited for, that’s when magic happens.
Coming from a humble family in a small farm town in Arizona, Chávez had big dreams, but she says was also afraid of failure. To compensate for her insecurities, she says she simply “faked it.”
“Nobody in my family had ever gone to an Ivy League school,” Chávez says. “Nobody in my high school had ever gotten into Yale. People looked at me when I applied and said ‘boy, don’t you have the audacity to think you could possibly get into that school?’”
Despite vocal opposition, Chávez was accepted to Yale. “It was the first time when I went against the odds,” she says. “A young woman like me shouldn’t have gotten into a school like that and much less have graduated.” Although Chávez was nervous she wouldn’t succeed even if she did get into Yale, she never let her lack of confidence show and made it through the admission process and ultimately, to graduation day, by “faking” her confidence until it finally appeared for real.
As CEO, Chávez says it would be easy for her to become isolated, as there are often less opportunities to engage with the wider audience the organization serves. To ensure she’s constantly on the receiving end of feedback, Chávez makes a concerted effort to put herself in situations that encourage people to provide feedback. The Girl Scouts conducts regular 360 evaluations, collecting feedback from the internal team, customers, and partners. Then, Chávez conducts town hall meetings across the country, speaking directly to young girls and volunteers.
“Before I made any changes at the national organization, I went out and got feedback from 12,000 of our customers,” Chávez says. That feedback allowed us to create a strategic plan that has put us in a really strong position to galvanize our movement, to build a strong team, and resonate with people who want to invest in our organization.”
By opening herself up to receiving feedback, Chávez hopes others in the organization will do the same. “I hope that all our employees and even girls that we serve develop the mantra that as a leader you can’t get isolated,” she says. “You have to surround yourself with people who have opposing viewpoints on issues so at the end of the day you take all those data points and ultimately [can make] the best decisions for the organization.”