Facing Disaster After Disaster, the American Red Cross C.E.O. Stays Optimistic


It helped me in my career. There were 50 women and 1,900 men. I had a great education there, but what it really also taught me was what it felt like to be the only woman in the room. I don’t remember taking any classes where there were other women. So you learn how to hold your own, because you have no choice.

What did you learn from the corporate world that you’ve been able to apply to your work at the Red Cross?

What is really profoundly different at a nonprofit is that you really have to not only lead with your head, you have to lead with your heart. If you explain the changes you are making through the lens of the mission, people will do anything for you. But they need to know, and understand, how their actions are going to impact the mission.

At AT&T I’d tell people to calm down. “It’s only telecommunications,” I’d say. “We’re not saving lives here. Let’s not panic.” I always was unflappable at Fidelity. “We’re just managing money here,” I’d say. “We’re not saving lives here.” That schtick does not work at the American Red Cross.

But you had to make some painful cuts when you took over.

Part of the reason we had a deficit is there was a lot of duplication. When I walked in the door, there were 720 different chapters, and each chapter had a C.E.O., a local board, their own marketing, their own email platform, their own finances, their own bank accounts, their own treasury, their own purchasing. I had 69 different contracts for T-shirts. So a lot of it was just consolidation and turning to a classic headquarters model. The first year we were able to save $15 million just by managing our purchasing function.

I didn’t hear a lot of complaints about taking all that back-office stuff and centralizing it. We withheld merit increases for a year, and I didn’t hear a peep. We had to do layoffs and I didn’t even hear much squawking about that.

How has the pandemic impacted your ability to operate?

We’re delivering our mission exactly as we should, but the way we’re doing service delivery is different. The first place where we saw the impact of this was in our biomedical organization, which provides 40 percent of the nation’s blood supply. It was kind of stunning how fast that occurred. We watched blood drives start to get canceled rapidly. Schools were closed, businesses were closed. But the team stood up new blood drives in sports arenas and parking lots.



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