Of Haiti and Lessons in Leadership

Gail McGovern IMG_5862By all accounts American Red Cross president and CEO Gail McGovern (pictured) has done a stellar job buffing the group’s image and whittling its deficit from $209 million to $35 million. But the former Harvard Business School marketing prof, in town this week to hobnob with a former president and some of the area’s biggest corporate chieftans, seemed to miss some opportunities for leadership as the Haiti crisis broke late Tuesday afternoon.

More than two hours after news broke about the devastating Haiti earthquake, McGovern was addressing a roomful of moneyed types in the high-ceilinged living room of an upscale Dallas residence. Curiously, though, she delivered a boilerplate talk–all about the importance of giving blood, and the nonprofit’s good record–without once mentioning the unfolding disaster.

Doing so would have been natural and sincere–and bolstered her pitch; after all, the Red Cross had people on the ground in Haiti to help, and we soon learned from CNN that it had committed an initial $200,000 for the relief effort. (Later that was upped to $1 million.)

Chatting after her talk with the folks in the good-sized crowd, McGovern disclosed that she’d met that afternoon with top people at AT&T–she used to work there–and would have separate meetings the following morning with Rex Tillerson of ExxonMobil, former president George W. Bush, T. Boone Pickens, and execs at Kimberley-Clark. (Interestingly, Tillerson’s people had already visited the Red Cross offices here in anticipation of his visit, sweeping the space for security purposes.)

McGovern said she’d worked with Bush in the past, even flying with him on Air Force One. And she recalled their first meeting–just a month after she took the Red Cross reins–when W grilled her about the group’s financials. She didn’t know all the numbers yet, she admitted, and Bush teased her about that. Then he asked about her children–she’d just dropped her only child off at college for the first time–and, when he did, she burst into tears, McGovern recalled. But Bush was sympathetic, telling her gently, “You’ve got to get a grip, girl!”

Later that night, I tried to reach McGovern by phone to ask how the Red Cross was responding to the Haiti crisis. Her minions said she was at yet another private gathering, but they would try to get a message to her. Around 6 the next morning one of her people called back and said that, if McGovern could call, she would do so in the next 15 or 20 minutes. No call ever came, and no one from the group phoned back to give an update on the Haiti efforts. OK, guess I didn’t make that big an impression!

But I still couldn’t help thinking: As a CEO whose stock in trade is handling crises–and communicating about crises to your many constituencies–you’ve got to get a better grip, Gail.

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