Women in Business Q&A: Caryl M. Stern, President and CEO, US Fund for UNICEF

Caryl M. Stern is the President & CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. Last year, the U.S. Fund raised nearly $514 million to support UNICEF's life-saving work for children worldwide.
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Caryl M. Stern is the President & CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. Last year, the U.S. Fund raised nearly $514 million to support UNICEF's life-saving work for children worldwide. The U.S. Fund also advocates for the global needs of children and helps educate the American public on these issues. Stern previously served as the Chief Operating Officer and Senior Associate National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, the founding Director of the Anti-Defamation League's A WORLD OF DIFFERENCE® Institute and the Dean of Students at Polytechnic University.

Stern currently serves on the boards of The Container Store, the WE ARE FAMILY Foundation, the Center for Disaster Philanthropy, the SEEDS Academy and the Advisory Board to the WNBA. She has also been named a "Role MOMel " by the New York Daily News, and one of Jewish Women International's 10 " Women to Watch," Working Mother Magazine's "25 Moms We Love," and the FORWARD 50, a list of the 50 most influential Jews in America.

Stern's latest book, I Believe in ZERO: Learning from the World's Children (St. Martin's Press, 2013), offers memorable stories from her travels around the world and describes her inspiration for supporting the world's children.

Stern is married and has three sons and two grandchildren.

How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
First of all, I'm the daughter of a woman who fled the Holocaust as a child and who came to the United States without her mother or father. That family history has had a critical impact on my career and my leadership at the U.S. Fund. Because someone escorted my mother and her brother on the ship that brought them to this country, my mother really believes one person can make a difference. I grew up in a home where that was a huge part of what we were taught as kids. So, I don't think it's at all surprising that making a difference is at the center of what I do today.
I also had the privilege of growing up in a home where we were allowed to explore our own opinions and study what we chose. My parents exposed us to ideas and new experiences, and we traveled a lot. So, being part of a global organization is natural extension of my family's core beliefs.

How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF?
I started out in higher education where I worked in student affairs, student activities, and residence life. I learned a tremendous amount about event production, promotion, and marketing--all skills I use daily in my current job at the U.S Fund. I always joke that, when you're running a dorm full of college students, you either make them cry or you make them laugh. If you make them laugh, you get to return to work the next day. So my sense of humor, a key asset for the leader of any organization, definitely comes from that.

After academia, I went to work for the Anti-Defamation League and helped roll out an international project that dealt with inclusion and exclusion, anti-bias and bigotry. That initiative allowed me to travel quite a bit. It allowed me to begin to understand the significance of culture and forced me to take a really close look at issues of equity as well as advocacy and activism. At the Anti-Defamation League, I also had the privilege of working with people from highly diverse backgrounds all over the world. That experience has given me the ability to be comfortable in many different settings and with many different perspectives. It also means I learned to look forward to the journey as much as the destination. Additionally, my previous jobs provided me ample opportunities to do a lot of public speaking and a lot of writing. I use all of these experiences and skills in my current job at every moment, every day.

What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at the U.S. Fund for UNICEF?
I had the privilege to start at the U.S. Fund at a time when the organization was already successful. So I didn't have to do any "clean up." I was brought in to take a great organization and make it greater. That's an amazing privilege to be given as a CEO, and I had a Board of Directors that really backed me, which makes a tremendous difference, too. When I arrived at the U.S. Fund, I was teaching a course called "Leadership and Teams" in a master's program. I said to the Board, "If you make me the CEO, I really want to apply the theories of team leadership to the organization. That's going to mean some structural changes. Some may feel I've got some pretty audacious goals, and I'm going to need your support." So, the first highlight of my time at the U.S. Fund has been the Board's faith in me. Their support--their really big leap of faith to let me restructure the organization in my first year on the job--was crucial.

After I started as CEO, we brought in McKinsey to help do a feasibility study. We brought in a marketing company that did a segmentation study on who our donors were, why they gave to us, who didn't give to us and why they didn't. And we also did an internal employee satisfaction survey, so we could get a sense of what the people I was going to lead would think. And we put all this information together, dismantled the management "pyramid" and created a circle--a leadership team--instead. Together, we set a goal to double the U.S. Fund's income during what proved to be the worst economy in my lifetime. And we met that goal.

The second highlight has been a very successful team, the development of that team, and a really amazing sense of camaraderie at work. When you work in teams, you get to know each other differently. You share your successes. You share your failures.

This job has also offered me a really phenomenal personal journey, and that's been another tremendous highlight. I've met so many children all over the world who have touched my life. I've had countless opportunities to sit with moms who tell me how UNICEF has made a difference in their lives. I've also learned that children are children everywhere, and so are their moms. We all want the same things for our kids. It doesn't matter what language you speak, or if you wear the same colors, or practice the same faith or eat the same foods. When you sit down with a group of moms, you realize you share certain fundamental life experiences and can understand each other.

What advice can you offer to women who want a career in your field?
Don't come in thinking you know it all. I think the biggest lesson for me--my biggest advantage when I came into this field--was that I knew I would have the privilege of learning from an incredibly diverse array of people. If you're going to work in a global environment--especially if you're going to work with kids, and even when you may have great ideas and potential solutions to problems--you're not going to be able to do anything truly useful if you don't listen carefully to those you're trying to help.

What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
After 35 years of experience, I now know I need to surround myself with people I want to work with, not just really skilled people. There was a point in my career where I'd always pick a job candidate who had better skills, even if she didn't seem as easy to work with as another candidate. Today, I'd hire the candidate who has the interpersonal abilities I need as long as I think she could still ultimately meet the job's requirements. You can learn job-specific skills much more easily than you can learn to play well in the sand box. We all spend a lot of time at work, especially in a mission-driven organization where everyone is incredibly dedicated to meeting our goals. When you're in the trenches together, the ability to trust the people you work with is invaluable.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?
Some days I'm able to maintain a better work/life balance than others. When you're leading a big organization, it can be tough. But my colleagues know that if my phone rings, and it's one of my children, I will take that call, no matter what. I can be at a senior management meeting or even at the podium, but my staff understands that family is my top priority. That's not just a rule for the CEO, by the way. The same holds true for everyone at the U.S. Fund. Anyone who works for me enjoys the same privilege.

Another rule of thumb is that, while I'll schedule breakfast meetings before work and workday lunch meetings, I rarely schedule dinner ones. I want to be home for dinner with my family. Of course, my job involves a lot of travel and frequent evening and weekend events, so the family dinner rule can be a challenge, but I do my best.

My most important work/life balance secret is my amazing husband. He truly believes that if one member of the family does well or wins at something, the whole family benefits. Having a partner who supports you is absolutely key. His sense of camaraderie and his excitement at our shared successes make a huge difference.

What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Well, my husband never gets asked the "work/life balance" question, for example. That's pretty telling, isn't it? Also, as women, we still have to wear our resumes on our sleeves when we're in the workplace. That's what women in all ranks of professional life tell me.

Sometimes, when I'm meeting people for the first time and they don't know who I am--particularly because my first name is spelled "Caryl" and people aren't always sure if that's a man's or a women's name--they'll assume the guy next to me must be the CEO of the U.S. Fund. It's such a big organization, after all. That happens more frequently than you'd think. Women CEO's are still few and far between.

How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
Mentorship has made a huge difference in my life. I've always tried to identify other people in the workplace I want to learn from, and I work best when I surround myself with really smart, motivated, skilled colleagues. Listening to others is key. I've always tried to emulate the positive role models around me and, sometimes, I've identified negative role models, too--people whose workplace or leadership styles aren't ones I want to follow.

Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Mindy Grossman, the Home Shopping Network's CEO, is someone I admire tremendously. She's very much her own person, dressed to the nines, but she's also a great and true friend. If I call her about something, she'll respond honestly. She's someone who cares about her team at HSN and will do anything for them. Still, they always know who's in charge.

Mary Erdoes, the CEO of J.P. Morgan Asset Management and the highest-ranking women at that bank, is also someone I respect enormously. She's an inspiring leader who's very much her own person. Kathy Kennedy, one of Hollywood's top-grossing producers and now the President of Lucasfilm, is amazing. She's helped ensure the revival of Star Wars, the most successful movie franchise in history. Like Mindy and Mary, however, she's a real person who cares deeply about the world beyond her own industry, and she's very accessible.

In politics, I'm a great fan of U.S. Congresswoman Nita Lowey, who has represented the northern New York City suburbs since 1989. Even when they may not be popular, Nita isn't shy about articulating substantive policy positions and making strong arguments to support them.

What do you want The U.S. Fund for UNICEF to accomplish in the next year?
First, I want a million American children to participate in our Kid Power campaign, our exciting new partnership with Star Wars: Force for Change and Target. By getting active with the UNICEF Kid Power Band, kids can go on missions to learn about new cultures and new places, earn points and unlock therapeutic food packets for severely malnourished children around the world.
This campaign is a centerpiece of our strategy to do an even better job of helping American kids understand what's at stake for their peers globally, especially for children elsewhere who face daunting obstacles our kids may not experience in their own lives. It's also a great way for our children to enhance their own health and learn how to advocate on behalf of others.

What I've learned leading the U.S. Fund since 2007 is that everyone has something to give, even if they can't contribute money. Awareness--and taking action--are crucial, too. Most of all, I want the U.S. Fund to inspire everyone in this country to put children first--especially the tens of millions of children worldwide who confront poverty, disease, conflict, and natural disasters without the help and infrastructure most of us take for granted in this country. Our mission is that simple and that important.

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