- Caryl M. Stern is the President and CEO of UNICEF USA.
- She took the position 11 years ago, after serving as the COO of UNICEF USA.
- She’d never planned to be a CEO – out of college, she wanted to be a painter.
- Stern was acting CEO for about a year, but the day it was made official her first action was to bundle up thank-you chocolates and notes to her staff, who had supported her through the transition.
My first day as CEO was memorable, but the journey to get there was essential preparation for that first day, and all the days after that. I got my bachelor’s degree in studio art. My plan was to become a painter – not a CEO. At the time, I did not realize that my efforts as an activist and organizer during those years would prove to be the perfect CEO training, though those that knew me in college will tell me that they’re not surprised.
I got my master’s degree in college student personnel administration, followed by doctoral studies in the same field. This led to my first higher ed job at Northwestern University, running a program where I had the autonomy to make budget decisions, hiring decisions and marketing decisions. I likened the experience to being the CEO of a little something, as a part of a much larger something. The experience sparked something in me and made me crave more leadership roles. I attribute my future success and desire to be a CEO to that position.
I then took on other jobs with more progressive responsibility in the academic and nonprofit fields, from a college dean to one of the second in command positions at the Anti-Defamation League. I was there for almost 18 years, rising up the ladder. For the first time, I began to see myself as a possible CEO. It felt close, and I was just about ready.
I made a pivotal lateral move to UNICEF USA, as Chief Operating Officer – an exciting new opportunity. Three weeks in, the then-CEO resigned. I had a few choices in front of me – I could stay in my current role, I could leave, or I could fight for the CEO job. Fighting meant strategically proving that I knew both the substance of UNICEF and proving that I was ready to be a CEO. While the organization undertook a global search for its new leader, I was named Acting President, giving me the platform and time to gear up for my fight. And, gear up I did. I traveled extensively to see UNICEF’s lifesaving mission in action; I learned and read everything I could. I talked to as many staff members as I could – soaking up everything I could get my hands on, to ensure I was ready for a new role. And, I outlined a management plan for what I would do if I got the position.
The final hurdle was a presentation to the National Board. My plan outlined not only what I’d do in the role, but why I wanted to be CEO, and most importantly – why I wanted to be CEO at UNICEF USA. Thanks to my passion and deep desire to lead this great organization – I got the job.
Then, on day one as CEO, reality set in. Even though I had been in an acting capacity for the past year, I was now really in charge. Knowing how much the staff supported me through the year-long search and transition period, thanking them was my first priority. So, on the morning of my first day as CEO, I bundled up Hershey’s hugs and kisses, and put them on the desk of every staff member with a thank you note. I also felt the love that day, as my husband sent me beautiful flowers.
And, during my first week or so, Desiree Gruber – CEO of Full Picture and a longtime UNICEF donor – called. She told me she had organized a dinner with eight other women leaders, and they wanted me to come prepared to share my biggest challenge or roadblock, and they would help me solve it. And they did. They were so supportive throughout that first year, and it showed me the importance of having a strong support group. I’ve stayed close to so many of those women and am forever thankful for that network. Since then, I’ve aimed to pay it forward with similar conversations with other women.
That first day as CEO was more than 11 years ago. While it seems like yesterday, I also recognize how far both I, and the organization have come. During my tenure, we have doubled our revenue to help save and protect children around the globe. We’ve restructured the organization to work more efficiently and effectively. We have innovated by creating a digital division to drive strategy. And, above all, we’ve aimed to put children first.
Caryl M. Stern is the President and CEO of UNICEF USA. Stern is an activist, author, executive, public speaker, mother of three and grandmother of two. A dynamic change-maker, Stern has dedicated her career to helping others through education, compassion, advocacy and rolling up her sleeves. Since 2007, she has served as President and CEO of UNICEF USA, an organization that supports UNICEF’s lifesaving work to put children first.