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Girl Scouts’ board president: ‘We are on the precipice of major change’

November 7, 2014, 12:30 PM UTC

For Kathy Hopinkah Hannan, the newly appointed board president of Girl Scouts of the USA, positivity comes naturally. Hannan, who is the national managing partner of diversity and corporate social responsibility at KPMG, is not only optimistic about the future of the Girl Scouts, but also the future of corporate America for women. In an interview with Fortune, she explained how her “capacity building” nature got her to where she is today.

Edited excerpts:

What was your connection to the Girl Scouts before joining the board of directors?

I was a Girl Scout, my two daughters were Girl Scouts and I am fortunate to be married to a man who is man enough to be a Girl Scout. (Laughs) He did a lot of work helping with cookie drives when our kids were younger.

Why do you think the 102-year-old organization is still important?

Everything for me is about how can we make the future better by investing in diverse talent. Today, more than ever, it is important to be investing in our girls. We underwrite our girls and the future of society and the Girl Scouts has always had, historically, very strong principles of girls and servant leadership. Our organization is the largest volunteer organization, so we are empowering girls from many different perspectives. There is a beautiful synergy there.

What were you like during your Girl Scout years?

When I was a young girl, I wanted to be an offensive lineman. I just loved football. I had an uncle who would invest time with me and teach me how to play poker. Maybe that was the beginnings of that orientation of you can do things regardless of your gender. I won my first Varsity letter swimming on the boy’s swim team because we didn’t have a girl’s one. I like the challenges.

What was it like starting your career in the once mostly male field of accounting?

I have been at KPMG for almost 30 years and I’ve always felt like I was treated like my voice mattered. I never felt that I was different. It wasn’t until I went to my first partners meeting (in the early 1990s) that I realized that there were barely any women. That was an “aha moment.” We have a beautiful tradition at KPMG with a formal black tie event and I remember coming out of the elevator in my ball gown and seeing this sea of penguins with only a splash of color here and there. I realized that maybe not every woman had the same opportunity that I did. I wanted to do more within the firm to help my fellow women. I learned that women were leaving because they didn’t see the possibilities and they were not asking the right questions.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I am very focused on capacity building. I like asking what is possible and I am very engaging with my team. I am humbled to say that I don’t have all the answers. I tell people that if you are working for someone who has all the answers, run away, as fast as you can. That doesn’t build potential or capacity. I like to engage people in opportunities where they get to experience joy. We are human beings. We need to work with people who are honest. I don’t like to work with people who tell me what I think I want to hear. I love people who challenge me.

What are your thoughts on the shortage of women in leadership positions in corporate America?

We are on the precipice of major change. I don’t have rose-tinted glasses, but this is our defining moment. The men I speak with today truly get it and they are investing an incredible amount of time in trying to understand the issue and many of them are getting far more engaged in the dialogue. I think in the past it may have been about the issue, but not engaging the men that we need to engage men. Today, there is a better understanding of the changing demographics of the workforce. No one can run away from research, and there is a lot out there. It is a different work environment where men have daughters with big jobs.

What are some ways we can better develop the talent pipeline for women?

In order to advance and develop talent, you need a sponsor. Mentors are very different than sponsors. When people are making the investment to get interested in talent and they are putting their own political capital at stake to advocate for someone, change really happens. You have to lay the foundation and the framework to build the house.

How are you thinking about the future of the Girl Scouts?

We are very focused on preserving our rich past. It is what works. At the same time, we need to put our 21st century shine on it and think about what the opportunity is to engage girls.

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