Resilience Amid the Rubble

By Brennen Jensen

Gail McGovern '74, president and CEO of the American Red Cross

Gail McGovern '74, president and CEO of the American Red CrossEvery new leader faces a baptism-of-fire moment, but few have it as rough as Gail McGovern ’74 did when she became president and CEO of the American Red Cross in 2008.

She’d barely been at the charity a week before she found herself in a virtual hell-scape: China’s Sichuan province, epicenter of an earthquake that had killed nearly 70,000 people.

“We were driving through this pristine part of the world—a valley where panda bears live—and we came around a corner where half a mountain was chopped off,” McGovern says. “There was a 7-year-old girl standing before a pile of rubble, which was her school. There were 200 kids buried alive in that school.”

Welcome to the top job at the nation’s foremost disaster relief organization. Next up for McGovern came the one-two punch of hurricanes Gustav and Ike, whose multistate devastation led the Red Cross to provide temporary shelter for tens of thousands. Indeed, in the past five years McGovern has been up close and personal with a host of storms, fires, floods, temblors, and tsunamis.

“I remember every single one of them, graphically and vividly,” she says. “Once you’ve looked into the eyes of someone who has lost a loved one, it just changes you in a profound way.”

And yet, in the same breath she can say this: “It is by far the best job I’ve ever had.

“We see awful things,” she says. “But you also get to see the resilience and generosity of the American public and that is so heartwarming, it’s hard to describe.”

Gail McGovern

Gail McGovern ’74, president and CEO of the American Red Cross, talks with volunteer Kevin Glover in the aftermath of devastating tornadoes that hit Oklahoma last May.

Photo by Talia Frenkel/American Red Cross

When McGovern first took its helm, the Red Cross itself was a disaster: a $200 million operating deficit, rife with sweeping layoffs, and marred by allegations of mismanagement, particularly in regard to its response to 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina. The president’s office, meanwhile, had a revolving door through which five leaders had come and gone in less than a decade.

It was a hot seat, but one McGovern jumped to fill. “I knew of the turmoil and challenges but felt if I could be a part of helping this national treasure, I had to try,” she says.

The career path that brought her to the Red Cross began after graduation from Johns Hopkins (where she was a member of the first coed undergraduate class and majored in quantitative sciences), when she landed a computer-programming job at Bell Telephone, which later morphed into AT&T. She spent 24 years with the telecommunications giant, rising to executive vice president of its $26 billion consumer markets division. She followed this with four years at Fidelity Investments, overseeing some $500 billion in assets. Then came a stint teaching at the Harvard Business School.

Such a resume served her well at the Red Cross, where she was able to eliminate its deficit in two years. “We were able to do that by consolidating a lot of back-office stuff that was duplicated through the chapter network,” she says. “The Red Cross is actually 10 percent smaller now than when I started this journey.”

The charity is leaner but also stronger, with a bolstered brand and improved fundraising, thanks in part to stability at the top spot. “There were definitely some feathers ruffled along the way, but we had the chapters help us design the changes,” she says. “Our mantra was, ‘We have to save the Red Cross,’ and every person stepped up and played a part. When you are really inclusive, you get better results and less pushback.”

While she may never get used to the wrenching emotions that come from visiting disaster areas, she also has no plans to stop leading from the trenches. “I want to be visible to our volunteers,” she says, “and I want the constant reminder of why our mission is so important.”

“You go into a kind of state of shock,” she adds. “And then, right afterwards, you have to roll up your sleeves and do something.”