What comes to mind when you hear "Girl Scouts?" Most people think of a driven group of young girls making crafts, doing community service and, of course, selling boxes of delicious cookies. The Girl Scout Cookie Program may be one of this international organization's claims to fame, but the program does a lot more than provide family, friends and neighbors with an excuse to snack. It even goes beyond the Girl Scouts' mission of building "courage, confidence and character" in the girls who participate. At its core, this program is all about creating entrepreneurs and leaders.
"The Cookie Program is the largest program for girl entrepreneurship in the world," said Anna Maria Chávez, CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA). "When a Girl Scout sells cookies ... she learns the five skills of goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills and business ethics, [which are] essential to leadership, success and life."
"Being an entrepreneur is the definition of Girl Scouts," added Mary Catherine Morgan, a high school sophomore and senior Girl Scout at Girl Scouts of Oregon and Southwest Washington. "We have our own little business, and we must sell our product."
Whether you're looking to start your own business or just get promoted to a leadership position, there's a lot you can learn from the entrepreneurial girls in GSUSA, who sell nearly $800 million worth of cookies each year. Here are a few key lessons any leader can take away from the Girl Scout Cookie Program. [30 Ways to Define Leadership]
Keep up with technology. In the past, the only way for Girl Scouts to sell their cookies was to go door to door, set up a booth at local events or have their parents send around the order forms at their offices. While the girls can still use these tactics, GSUSA has modernized its approach with Digital Cookie, the new e-commerce tool that helps girls sell more cookies in more places. By using the latest technology in your sales strategy, as GSUSA has done, you ensure that your business can quickly deliver what modern customers expect.
"We have always empowered girls to be the managers of their own small businesses, but now we are giving girls their own e-commerce platforms and providing the tools to run them," Chávez told Business News Daily. "With Digital Cookie, girls learn lessons in e-marketing, e-commerce, digital money management, online customer relations, as well as managing sales by tracking their sales and inventory, and setting goals through a digital dashboard."
Be open to change. GSUSA, which celebrated its 103rd anniversary on March 12, has thrived for more than a century, but it hasn't done so by running its operations the same way it did decades ago. Every leader must be willing to adapt and change with the times if a better way to do things arises. Getting stuck in your ways is a recipe for failure.
"Any business, especially ones like the Girl Scouts that have been around for a long time, cannot wait for trouble [before] reinventing and turning yourself inside out," said Kathy Cloninger, GSUSA CEO emeritus and author of "Tough Cookies: Leadership Lessons from 100 Years of the Girl Scouts" (Wiley, 2011). "Be open to change and understand that change is a constant now in the way businesses are run."
Use data to inform your strategy. For veteran Girl Scouts, cookie sale time is a chance to take what they learned the year before and use that information to achieve their sales goals. For example, Morgan noted that, through experience, girls learn the best locations and times of day to sell, which can help maximize efficiency and sales. Similarly, entrepreneurs can use past sales data and customer histories to determine future marketing strategies.
Listen to your stakeholders. True leadership doesn't happen in a vacuum. In order to succeed, you need to ask the people involved in your business for their input and truly listen to what they have to say. When Cloninger served as CEO, GSUSA underwent a business overhaul and took a collaborative, bottom-up approach.
"We brought in girls, customers, volunteers and people who run Girl Scouts across the country and talked to them a lot, got opinions from them, and stayed very true to what we were hearing from our customers when we rolled [our new strategy] out," Cloninger said.
Be a leader in and out of the workplace. Chávez said that GSUSA teaches girls how to be leaders in their own lives. The confidence that comes from taking control of your own future is the starting point of leadership, and the "five skills" (goal setting, decision making, money management, people skills and business ethics) provide a valuable structure for both Girl Scouts and adult business leaders to begin building their leadership abilities, she said.
"The idea that you are the leader of your own life helps to build confidence in your ability to create your vision and implement your goals," Chávez said. "Once you embody this, it will naturally carry over to how you lead others."
Additional reporting by Dave Mielach, Business News Daily social media specialist.
Originally published Oct. 18, 2011. Updated March 16, 2015.