Visionary Leadership Keeps a 100-Year-Old Mission Relevant

Visionary Leadership Keeps a 100-Year-Old Mission Relevant

Visionary Leadership Keeps a 100-Year-Old Mission Relevant


Jennifer Bartkowski, CEO of Girl Scouts Northeast TX

Innovation, strategic thinking, and execution are marks of Jennifer Bartkowski’s  leadership. She invests these talents as CEO of Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas (GSNETX), and in collaboration with strategic partners, is transforming the Girl Scout experience. Jennifer is committed to making Girl Scouting a path to success for all girls. Her passion and visionary leadership are changing the game for GSNETX.

Staying relevant in a constantly changing world is daunting. As organizations age, their appeal often grows stale and without significant revitalization, they risk demise. Jennifer is accomplishing what has eluded countless leaders: she is bringing new life to a century-old organization to meet the demands of contemporary challenges. And she’s doing it while staying true to the Girl Scout mission: To build girls of courage, confidence, and character, who make the world a better place.

Building on the Mission

“We asked ourselves, What else can we do with this strong foundation?  Our answer: we can get girls excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math). We can get them excited about financial literacy and how it makes more things possible as they grow up. We can teach them about healthy living and healthy relationships and other skills required to be healthy adults. We can teach them about the outdoors. It’s fresh and exciting!

“One of the challenges of Girl Scouting is that we’re 105 years old.  It’s a blessing and a curse.  People know us for cookies, camps and crafts.  We are all of these things and we’re proud of them.  And we’re so much more today – the organization has been going through a real transformation.

“For six weeks of the year, Girl Scouts is cookies.  Every single girl owns their own business where they develop important skills like decision-making, goal-setting, financial management, and business ethics.  This experience creates a powerful foundation to build on.

“We are also camp, which is so critically important today.  This generation of kids is the first to grow up almost entirely indoors.  We have a proven history of teaching leadership at camp better than anywhere else.  (Note:  Girl Scouts founder Juliet Gordon Low purchased land for camping before investing in a physical building.)

“And yes, we are crafts.  Girl Scouts has always been about fun and creativity and we intend to keep offering what the girls enjoy.

We are taking all that is foundational and setting it on its edge.”

Women, Technology and Girl Scouts

In 2010, Texas Instruments (TI), a Dallas-based global technology company, approached GSNETX, asking them to be a partner in solving a business challenge: A significant talent shortage in the fields of technology and engineering is predicted by the year 2020. Girls are less likely to go into technical fields and TI would like to change that. TI has long been committed to diversifying the workforce and has been a champion of developing and promoting women. TI imagined that Girl Scouts could offer years of positive STEM experience all the way through high school, shaping their desire to pursue STEM degrees in college. A K-12 STEM Engineering badge was the first accomplishment of the partnership.

Texas Instrument’s offer also fits with Girl Scouts’ commitment to the development of leadership skills in girls and young women. Their curriculum, driven by the earning of badges, provides experiences that develop confidence, critical-thinking, and problem-solving skills and encourages the pursuit of challenging goals.

The STEM Center of Excellence at Camp Whispering Cedars

The timing was auspicious. Alongside the initiative with TI, GSNETX was taking a strategic look at their physical properties. A decision was made to unite the new STEM initiative with an investment in Camp Whispering Cedars, a gorgeous property in southern Dallas. That is how the STEM Center of Excellence at Camp Whispering Cedars was conceived.

Jennifer’s visionary leadership and passion for girls energized a campaign that cast a wide net across the business, academic, cultural and philanthropic communities. She invited them all to take part in giving local girls from all walks of life fun, hands-on experiences with STEM. The community responded with a resounding YES!  A sample of collaborators joining TI in this innovate effort (so far): the University of Texas at Dallas, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, the Dallas Arboretum, and many very generous donors. Other business partnerships are emerging and they’re eager to make this vision a reality. (Read about Capital One’s boost!)

STEM Highlights at Camp Whispering Cedars:

  • The telescope-equipped Moody Observation Tower is a place for girls to get high above the trees to study astronomy and sleep under the stars. They will also experience themselves as part of something much bigger.
  • Girls will learn underwater robotics when they’re not swimming in the on-site swimming pool.
  • Rockets will be launched, archery skills honed, walls will be climbed and girls will zip-line above the largely un-groomed, wide-open spaces so many kids no longer have access to.
  • A GeoScouting app already guides girls on their hikes through the beautiful escarpment, learning about rocks, plants and the geologic formation of Camp Whispering Cedars.

A Virtuous Cycle

Jennifer, the GSNETX team and their award-winning Board of Directors have created a cycle of contribution and benefit that is acting as a flywheel, reinvigorating itself with each accomplishment.The obvious benefactors are the young women who will experience STEM in an environment that only Girl Scouts can provide: an outdoor, all-girl setting, infused with leadership and life skills. These young women will be primed to follow degree programs leading to a job market hungry for their capabilities.

Local tech businesses will enjoy an enlarged and diversified pool of female talent ready for work for the foreseeable future.

Enrollment in engineering and other STEM-related university programs will increase. The more girls who enter programs with a flourishing peer group, the more will persist and complete their STEM degrees.

The City of Dallas is also a significant benefactor, and Jennifer is “proud to be a part of Mayor Mike Rawling’s Grow South initiative. Girl Scouts is investing $13M in 92 acres of the most beautiful land in Dallas, and we’re happy to be a part of the city’s priorities.”

Also promising is the role Girl Scouts can play in positively impacting race relations. At camp and in many troops, girls are playing, sleeping and learning next to girls of racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds different from their own. Their parents are also interacting with each other for a common goal: to prepare their girls for a bright future.

Innovation in Girl Scouts Delivery: Making the Experience More Accessible

A limiting factor for the number of girls able to participate in Girl Scouting is the number of troop leader volunteers. GSNETX is experimenting with new ways of delivering Girl Scouting: “We’re piloting a partnership with a few DISD elementary schools and exploring possibilities with KIPP schools as well. We’re actually going in and helping the teachers understand the Girl Scouts leadership experience, and enabling them to deliver Girl Scouting to girls at their schools. Those girls are using our STEM Center as a field trip space and becoming Girl Scouts in the process”. Solar Prep, an all girl’s STEAM (A is for Arts!) school in southern Dallas is calling itself a Girl Scouts school. 100% of the students there are Girl Scouts. It’s a new model.

“Finally, we’re piloting a way to make the space available to girls and boys in schools in the southern sector of Dallas for field trips. These schools don’t typically have the revenue to send their students to expensive camps in East Texas. Camp Whispering Cedars is a short bus ride away which gives them access to a 21st century STEM Center and an incredible outdoor space.”

A CEO Exemplar

Jennifer speaks from experience about the impact of Girl Scouting:

“I was a Girl Scout myself through ninth grade and earned the Silver award. Girl Scouting is a long tradition in my family:  my three sisters and I were led by my mother and she was led by her mother.  My daughter is a Girl Scout and I volunteer with her troop. Through Girl Scouts, I got to try new things and have experiences that I wouldn’t have had otherwise. I was the oldest of five kids and we didn’t have a lot of money, so every winter I worked hard and sold cookies so I could go to camp for two weeks on my own. I got to be my own person and meet new friends. As I got older I went on destination trips and got to do really cool stuff.

“Between Girl Scouts and competitive swimming, I learned leadership, teamwork, time management and how to work hard and be competitive. Girl Scouts opened doors for me and I’m passionate about making sure that girls from all walks of life have access to the Girl Scout leadership experience and programming. It can be transformative.

“We’re all on a leadership journey: me, all of our staff, and of course the girls. My entire life and career have led me here, building the skills the organization needs now.  And I’m being challenged to develop new ones all the time!  I believe we are doing this work on purpose. We’re leaving a legacy for the future by building on an amazing foundation for Girl Scouts of the 21st Century and beyond.”

For Reflection:

  1. Is your mission clear enough to guide strategic decisions?
  2. How can your legacy products and services be delivered in new ways that fit the current environment?  Explore out-of-the-ordinary ways that your mission can be accomplished.  (GSNETX paired camping with STEM)
  3. Who are your stakeholders?  How can you partner with them for win-win outcomes? (Consider the innovative partnership between TI and GSNETX)
  4. Do you feel on purpose with your vocation? Are you passionate, engaged and creative in your thinking?


Leader or Follower? A Bogus Choice

Leader or Follower? A Bogus Choice

Leader or Follower? A Bogus Choice

team paceline_cascade cyclist_cc


The weekend following my solo outing, my husband and I went out again. He’s a more experienced cyclist than I am and is also much better at navigating our route, so pretty quickly I fall back and he rides out front. Considering our goal is fitness-focused and having an activity we do together, this arrangement works. That said, we do pay attention to our times and feel good when we see improvement. We also push ourselves to ride further as the riding season progresses. Speed is less important than distance. This day we planned to ride 25 miles.

About five miles out I realized I had zoned out – that my level and type of engagement on this trip was very different from the previous weekend. Not only was last weekend’s ride the first on my own,  I had also been caught in a storm which added an element of adventure. While I was enjoying this ride, it lacked the almost hyper-awareness of the previous one.

In Gallup terms I was somewhere between Engaged and Disengaged. Was being a ‘follower’ the cause for this? In a way, yes. Today I had the energy and outlook of ‘being along for the ride’.  I was not connected to any outcome or my role in achieving it. I had been much more invested when I was solely responsible for reaching my destination the prior weekend.  Interesting.

My mind jumped to considering the roles and mindsets of leaders, teams and team members who are focused on achieving organizational goals (or not). Experts tell us that in the near future, organizational success will rely more on the collaborative efforts seen in self-managing teams. As the shape of how work gets done changes, leaders and followers will become less distinct. Leaders will need to fall back and team members will need to step up.  A more intentional level of engagement will be required by both.

The Onus is On Us

Frederic Laloux, author of Reinventing Organizations, writes about a new type of management that is emerging in a few forward thinking companies.   These organizations are finding better ways of working together that produce sustainable results for all stakeholders:  employees, communities, vendors , shareholders, and the environment.  They are defined as Teal organizations (seeThe Future of Management is Teal). Self-managed teams are a key characteristic of Teal organizations and will require more trust, humility, integrity, passion and connection with purpose.

“Teal Organizations operate effectively, even at a large scale, with a system based on peer relationships. They set up structures and practices in which people have high autonomy in their domain, and are accountable for coordinating with others. Power and control are deeply embedded throughout the organizations, no longer tied to the specific positions of a few top leaders.” – Frederic Laloux

The transition to Teal will be easier for some than others. Team members who prefer to work for an authoritative leader, with clear hierarchies and prescribed roles may find this arrangement challenging. The processes and rules will be different; work will be more organic and solutions emergent.

Nick Petrie from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) also writes about “the rise of collective leadership” in his white paper, Future Trends in Leadership Development.

“…a future made up of complex, chaotic environments is less suited to the problem solving of lone, decisive authority figures than it is to the distributed efforts of smart, flexible leadership networks” – Nick Petrie

Falling Back as a Key Leadership Capability

In group- and team-cycling, the paceline is central. Cyclists ride in a line, taking turns at the front ‘pulling’, which allows others to ‘draft’, or take advantage of the wind being blocked by the leader. Each person leads for a short time and then falls back so that another can step up. The group is able to maintain a faster pace and higher collective energy.   This is a beautiful example of distributed leadership.

As an executive coach I have given clients the assignment to ‘fall back’ – to trust others’ ability to lead. Some people find it difficult, even uncomfortable to not be in charge. They’re concerned things won’t be done ‘right’, or that no one else is prepared to take on the challenge. As in the cycling analogy, not only would this be exhausting but it also impedes the building of trust, the development of others and ultimately the success of the team.

I also appreciate the paceline metaphor because each person has to train,  to prepare themselves to take the lead in order to be a part of the team. In the world of cycling, as I believe it will be in organizational life, individuals choose if they want to train or not, and that will determine the contribution they are able to make to the larger team and how they will be invited to participate.

The roles of ‘leaders’ and ‘followers’ have changed over the thousands of years that we humans have been organizing ourselves for reasons from survival to commerce to connection.  We are on the cusp of a new rendering of these definitions which many of us will welcome.  Every transition brings expected and unexpected consequences; self-awareness and conscious choosing will support our collective efforts during this transformation. Being ‘along for the ride’ won’t be an effective long term strategy for success in the future.

Note:  Thanks to my good friend and serious cyclist, Bob for the lessons on pacelines and team cycling!