Megan Ferland has a long history of working to advance the hopes and dreams of children, particularly girls, through her leadership. She has served as the chief executive officer of the Girl Scouts of Western Washington since 2012.
Prior to her move to Washington, Ferland served as CEO of the Girl Scouts of Colorado. She also served previously as the CEO of the Colorado Children’s Campaign, a nonprofit children’s advocacy group; and before that as CEO of Texas CASA Inc., which is an advocate for abused and neglected children in the court system. Ferland even served for a time in state government, as chief of the Texas attorney general’s juvenile crime intervention section. Ferland, who now lives in Bellevue with her husband and two children, earned her undergraduate degree from Texas A&M University, with a double major in economics and communication. She later earned a master’s degree in mass communications and media studies from The University of Texas at Austin. As part of the latest Daring Woman interview, Ferland shares some insights about her career successes and challenges, her mentors and views on leadership, and she also shares some advice for women starting out in their careers.
What are the most important characteristics of a good leader and what leadership traits are overrated?
Honesty, integrity and humility are inherently important. It’s easy for leaders to forget the humility part and imperative that we don’t. So is understanding that risk and innovation are linked. You can’t have one without the other, and both are necessary to growth.
What’s overrated? Thinking that you have to be the smartest person in the room.
As a woman, what is the most significant barrier to becoming a leader?
There are two challenges that come to mind.
One is child care. I face the same challenges other women do, which is how can I be a working parent? When I had my son, I was at the attorney general’s office in Texas, and there were three of us who were nursing moms. We were in a male-dominant environment. The guys were incredibly uncomfortable when they’d walk in on us pumping, so I went to bat to try to get a lock on the break-room door (which was the only place for us to pump). I was told that it would be discriminatory against the men.
When I moved over to Texas CASA as CEO, I had a staff person who was pregnant, didn’t make much money and was really worried about child care costs. I decided we were going to have her bring her baby with her when she came back to work. I made sure she had a place to pump that was private and set up guidelines for her and the rest of staff to mitigate issues. It wound up being a huge success, so much so that it became a morale booster.
Over the years, I had staff tell me that it was an incentive for people to stay because they knew we were a family friendly work environment. I continued this practice at the Children’s Campaign and Girl Scouts of Colorado. As business leaders ― not only but especially as women business leaders — it’s a constant responsibility of ours to be mindful of making it possible for staff to support their families.
A second barrier is power dynamics. Earlier in my career, the office I worked for administered a scholarship for students of color. A handful of female students came to me because office leaders were promising them scholarships in exchange for sex. I first went to my boss’s boss, and he didn’t do anything to fix it. Then a female co-worker helped me get to one of the regents who ran the university.
When the regent asked me why I didn’t come to her directly, I said, “How would I know how to get to you? I’m 22 years old.” She had tears running down her face. That was the first time I became aware of power dynamics. There were other times I couldn’t really speak out or take action for fear of my job. All of that helped me know that if I became a person in power, I would make sure I supported my staff in a way that let them know they had a voice and could come to me.
How can women achieve more prominent roles in their organizations?
Think about how to use your voice. If you’re early in your career, advocate for yourself and your peers. Have you let your leaders know that you’re interested in taking on a more prominent role? If not, are there avenues for you to do that? If those avenues don’t exist, how can you speak up to create them?
Are there already women in positions of power you can turn to as a mentor? If not, is there a man in leadership who would be an ally? Understand your organization’s culture around power dynamics and women in leadership. If you are a woman in a position of power and your organization’s power dynamic is not at parity with respect to gender, speak up. Use your position to champion the importance of women achieving more prominent roles in the organization.
What key lessons did you learn from a woman who has inspired, mentored or sponsored you?
One of my early career inspirations was a brilliant attorney I worked with as a legislative director. Our bosses were on different sides of a sharply cut political aisle. We were in the midst of trying to pass a raft of bills addressing sex offenders. This was in the wake of a horrific child murder. While we were both policy wonks, she was a powerhouse and I was a newbie, awed to be in her orbit.
We both just wanted the most effective laws in place and neither cared about red vs. blue. But those corridors were full of people whose primary focus was those partisan lines, who would’ve torpedoed our efforts, and our careers, if they saw us working together. Keeping in mind that this was a few decades ago, before cell phones and Skype, we planned pre-meeting strategy sessions at 5:00 a.m. in the farthest corner bathroom in the basement of the Capitol. As crazy a time as that was, what she taught me was to look around, over, under and through barriers. A lot of times, they’ll only stop you if you let them.
What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders?
Understand that everybody makes mistakes. As women, we internalize messages that we have to be perfect all the time, and we don’t. I make mistakes all the time (just ask my kids)! The secret is to learn from them so that you don’t make that same mistake again. Failing isn’t a bad thing. That’s where growth comes from.
I would also tell them it’s really important to find their people. The magic of Girl Scouts is that it helps girls find their people. And, frequently, the girls they connect with are their people through all the decades of their lives. Your people will support you through every turn in your journey.
How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts?
I have a phenomenally talented staff and board, and I love being around them, but nothing tops being with our girls and volunteers. We recently had an event with 300 girls. Listening to the questions they were asking — they are so smart, insightful and brave. They want to be helpful. And they want to be supportive as well as supported.
I’m equally inspired by what I hear and see other women doing in the community. I learn so much from talking with other women who are doing amazing things with their careers and lives and how they’re giving back to the community. All of this is true networking to me.
What would you do differently in your career?
Anything I would’ve done differently means I wouldn’t have wound up where I am, and I love where I am. Naming one thing? Not being afraid to step out sooner, when I got frustrated in the position that I was in. When I knew I was ready to make a change, to be brave enough to go ahead and make it sooner. There’s no point wasting time!
Where will we find you on a Saturday afternoon?
Spending time with my family. I'd also probably be watching “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” [an Amazon Prime Video TV series]. She’s a trailblazer. She faces challenges in her personal life and steps into a male-dominated world with courage, confidence and character. In the Girl Scout world, we call that being a Go-getter, Innovator, Risk-taker and Leader (G.I.R.L.). In short, I bet she was a Girl Scout.
What would be the title of your autobiography?
Either “She Tried Harder” or “For EVERY Child.”
We’d love to hear from more women across all industries who are challenging the status quo. Does it sound like you? If it does, click here and fill out our questionnaire. Feel inspired? Join us for our second Daring Women event on May 21, 2019.
Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.