Growing Women Leaders

Girl Scouts CEO Leads with Humility

By Darci Slaten

The ancient Roman philosopher Cicero once said, “The higher we are placed, the more humbly we should walk.”

Debbie Rich, CEO of Girl Scouts of Southern Arizona embodies this with a leadership style that empowers others to take the lead. 

Since 2009, Rich has led the regional Girl Scouts group with humility, a clear vision and a commitment to empower girls to grow into women of courage, confidence and character. This is done through “servant leadership,” which puts the needs of others first and helps individuals develop their highest potential, she said.

Rich – herself a Girl Scout for five years – learned the lessons of servant leadership early in her career through the difficult experience of being fired from an assistant director position at a local nonprofit. Although painful, the experience humbled her and shaped Rich’s leadership style, propelling her to be the successful leader she is today.

Rich calls this “failing forward.”

“Being fired taught me so much about myself, the way I lead and how I work with people,” Rich recalled. “My leadership style has evolved dramatically over the years. It grew out of ‘failing forward.’ And we talk about this in Girl Scouts – the importance of failure. We learn from failure and move forward – which leads to success.”

The Girl Scouts serves more than 6,000 girls with 2,500 volunteers in Pima, Cochise, Greenlee, Yuma and Santa Cruz counties, as well as adjacent areas of Graham, Maricopa and Pinal counties. Rich leads 45 permanent staff and an additional 20 temporary staff.

Of course, the Girl Scouts are renowned for their annual cookie sales across the United States, yet Rich insists that people know they are so much more.

“The Girl Scout Cookie Program propels our movement forward,” Rich said. “The strength of the cookie program is the valuable skills girls learn – decision-making, money management, business ethics, goal-setting and people skills. After participating in the program for several years, they truly have the skills to run a business. More than 3,000 girls invest more than $700,000 into our community through the program – more than other major investors.”

That cookie program is what the organization calls the Entrepreneurship pillar that is the foundation of Girl Scouts. The other three pillars are STEM, the Outdoors and Life Skills. Each pillar provides girls with a leadership development experience.

As part of the STEM pillar, for example, Girl Scouts recently participated in the nation’s first Raytheon Cyber Challenge in October. Southern Arizona was one of 10 sites in the nation hosting this inaugural event. Girls participated in hands-on activities to learn about critical cybersecurity topics such as cryptography, forensic analysis, encryption, decryption and tracking hackers. 

“The Raytheon Cyber Challenge was an incredible learning experience for our girls,” said Rich. “It enabled them to gain confidence through computer science, cultivate critical thinking skills, participate in challenging competitions and consider a career in STEM.”

The Outdoors pillar focuses on adventures such as hiking and camping. Girls learn about conservation and stewardship. 

The Life Skills pillar builds girls’ leadership through service. They are rewarded by Girl Scouts’ highest awards. Bronze and Silver are awarded to girls for their service projects. The Gold Award, the highest attainable, requires them to facilitate a project that creates sustainable community change.  

“We are here to feed and fuel their dreams,” Rich said. “We want our girls to know they can do anything – they’re innovators, risk-takers and leaders. They already have that muscle inside them, and our programs train and strengthen that muscle, so our Girl Scouts fuel the leadership pipeline of the future.”

Rich reflected on her career path with humility. 

“Over the years I’ve tried many things in leadership – some have worked well, and some have failed horribly. I have learned from my teams, our girls and volunteers that leadership is a team effort. A strong leader listens and then takes the lead. The most important thing a leader can do is to encourage others to lead.” 

Currently, Rich sees the bigger picture in her leadership journey. “How do you lead a multi-generational organization that serves girls from ages 5-17, volunteers from 18-85 and staff members who are from Millennials to Gen-Xers to Boomers, and bring that together to focus on helping girls thrive?

“That’s what makes leading fresh, exciting and innovative,” Rich said. “We don’t always know the answers, so we need to be lifelong learners, seek out positive role models and mentors.”

Rich can see the impact of leadership and mentoring in her own daughters. 

Rich and her husband, radio broadcaster Bobby Rich, have ensured their two children were raised knowing they could be leaders. Their older daughter, Laine (Sklar) MacDonald, is the municipal judge in Marana.  

Their younger daughter, Lesley Rich, is the executive director of Therapeutic Riding of Tucson. Neither were Girl Scouts, but Lesley has worked with the organization.

“And this is what I want my legacy to be at the Girl Scouts – to raise young women to be servant leaders,” said Rich. “Together, we propel forward.”

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