May 19, 2024

Corner Office: Caryl M. Stern: It’s Showtime, So Take That Deep Breath

Q. Do you remember the first time you were somebody’s boss?

A. My first real job where I supervised people was right after graduate school. I worked for Northwestern University and helped run its noncredit continuing education program. I was the director of it, and it was a really fun job — a little bit like herding cats because I had to hire all of these people to teach who didn’t normally teach.

I hired the best artists in town to teach painting classes, and all the best musicians to teach music classes. I hired a bunch of chefs to teach cooking classes. When I took over the program, it was about 50 or 60 courses. By the time I left about two and a half years later, it was closer to 400 courses.

Q. Was that an easy transition for you into that kind of role?

A. At that point in my life, it never dawned on me I couldn’t do something. I was 22. It was fun. I would go to bars and listen to bands and figure out which would be the best one to teach a course on how you get your band into a bar. So by the time Saturday night rolled around and I’d walk into any club, I knew every musician. I knew artists and I knew athletes. It never dawned on me that I couldn’t get access to somebody.

Q. What about in college?

A. I went to Westchester Community College, where I ended up in a theater group. That experience exposed me to a whole new world.

Q. Were you on stage or behind the stage?

A. I was the costume designer on a couple of shows, and then I had the lead in a couple of shows, too. But then I went more into the costume design side and ultimately decided I really liked the artwork and became an art major.

Q. You’re one of several C.E.O.’s I’ve interviewed with a background in theater.

A. I’m not surprised. You need to be able to get up and deliver the good news and the bad news. It’s just that same feeling before you go on stage, and you take that deep breath. In my organization now, with several hundred people working for me, I have to be that policeman and that show leader at the same time. So what better training is there?

Q. What were some early leadership lessons for you?

A. I was hired as a dean at Polytechnic University in New Yorkwhen I was 28 years old, and I didn’t know when I was hired that I was the first woman dean they’d ever had. I went into that job thinking I had to be one of the boys and act like the boys. Somewhere in there I learned that if I just stopped trying to be something I wasn’t, they were either going to like me or not and that would be O.K. But the “like me or not” part of it was a big thing for me to learn.

I think I’m a good leader now and I do a decent job of running my organization, and a big part of that is because I’ve gotten past that lesson. I am who I am, and what you see is what you get. I speak up. I say what I think. I tell the people who work for me when I hire them: “If you work for me, you’re going to hear what I’m thinking. You can push back, and I’m going to listen when you push back.” My staff doesn’t have to worry, “Is she angry? Is she happy? Is she contemplating?” They know where they stand. They know what I want. They know what makes me happy. I know what they want. You don’t have to like me. It’s O.K.

Q. When you came to the U.S. Fund for Unicef four years ago, what were your goals in terms of building the culture?

A. It was a very interesting time in my life. I’ve taught leadership development at Manhattanville College. So it was a chance to take all of this textbook learning and actually apply it. Can you do it? Can you really have a work team? And I’ve never worked with a better team than I’m working with right now, and I’ve never worked in an environment as energized as the one I’m working in right now.

And that didn’t happen by chance. We hired coaches to help make that happen. We wrote values to help make that happen. We decided we wanted to be the nonprofit you’d want to work for. We had a staff retreat and we did a blowup of a magazine cover with the senior management team on it that said, “U.S. Fund for Unicef Named Charity of the Year Five Years Out.” And we spent a weekend holed up in a hotel, and we wrote the article. If we were going to be named five years from now the charity of the year, why? What would we have done? What would we have accomplished? And we spent a lot of time on that, but also, what would we be internally? What would it feel like? What would you as an employee expect? What would I, as a boss, want from you? What’s the environment? So it wasn’t only about what will we achieve, but how are we going to get there.

Q. What other steps did you take?

A. We hired a coach who worked with us collectively but also coached us individually about process — not skills, process. He actually took us through the process of learning how to work together, and it was the most phenomenal thing I’ve ever been a part of.

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