UNICEF CEO on Saving Children's Lives and Helping her Own NY Kids Do Homework from Darfur

Caryl Stern tells working moms to accept that screw ups will happen

by Lesley Kennedy • MORE.com Reporter
Caryl Stern image
Caryl Stern says she's proud to work for UNICEF.
Photograph: Photo courtesy UNICEF

MORE: How does being a mom affect your work at UNICEF?
CS: I think if you are a mom or the caretaker of a child . . . that you cannot see any child and not, in some way, see the face of your own child on that child. When I go to Africa or Asia or Latin America, into a developing nation, when I see a child in need, you can’t help but think . . . there but for the grace of God. And as hard as it is as a mom to see a child in need, it’s heart-wrenching to see a mom who can’t give that child in need what they need. I ask myself a million times a day, “My God, what would I do?” So, the way I think being a mom has impacted me is the sheer urgency of having to find solutions. It’s just unconscionable to me that 21,000 children die every day of causes we know how to prevent.

I  have sat with a mom who had the misfortune of being in a developing nation and having her child contract tetanus because when the baby was born— she gave birth at home, as most women in developing nations do—she used a piece of metal to cut the umbilical cord and unknowingly infected her child with tetanus. I sat and held her hand as her baby died for want of a 70-cent vaccine. I can tell you, I see that woman’s face every day. It was not the president of UNICEF and an unknown woman. We were two moms sitting together, and I just couldn’t wait to get home and hug my children that night. To know that I would board a plane and go home—my kids get these great seats at the table, her kid didn’t even get a chance. I don’t think it’s possible to be a mom and not feel that way. 

MORE: How do you describe your leadership style?
CS: When I took over the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, it was a hierarchical pyramid. My predecessor, who was a brilliant, amazing guy . . . set up the top with two men reporting to him, and everyone else reporting up through one of the two. The organization at that time had kind of developed a tradition of two silos. When I campaigned to be the president and CEO, I made it clear that if I was given the opportunity to take on the job, I would be revising the management structure. I created six divisions, each of which has a senior vice president. They lead together, creating a senior management team, and all decisions are made by the team, whether I’m present or not. And we didn’t just declare ourselves a team, we actually hired a coach who taught us how to be a team. [He] coached us individually; he also sat in meeting and coached us collectively so that we would learn the difference between being a representative of a silo in amongst other representatives of silos, and being a true team. So, my management style is definitely that of being a team leader.

MORE: And were the changes successful?
CS: Well, the upside was . . . I created new roles, and many of [the people] came from the outside, so, selfishly, I got to hand-pick that team. That makes a huge difference, when you get the opportunity to think in terms of the collective. In a traditional mechanism, maybe I would think, I need a senior VP for marketing and communications and they must have the following skills, and I need a senior VP for development and they must have the following skills. And then you interview 100 candidates and none of them has everything you want, so you settle on some level. But when you’re creating a team, you make a list of all of the skills that you want at your table and you fill in the six people to get all those skills. It‘s really an interesting and different approach to work. And we have been phenomenally successful. We are one of the few nonprofits that have made our numbers every single year, even though the economy tanked. We continue to grow every year. We have been able to trim expenses at the same time, without laying off a single person—very few nonprofits can make that claim. And we continue to receive the highest ratings from all the outside charitable navigators.

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