British A. Robinson of Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy: “Leadership is as much about inspiration as it is about management”

This is something you’ll hear in any “Management 101” class, but the more time I spend in leadership, the more I see how true it is. People want to be inspired — to feel like they’re part of something with impact and importance — and they will always work harder and more creatively when they’re inspired rather than simply […]

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This is something you’ll hear in any “Management 101” class, but the more time I spend in leadership, the more I see how true it is. People want to be inspired — to feel like they’re part of something with impact and importance — and they will always work harder and more creatively when they’re inspired rather than simply told what to do.

As part of my interview series on the five things you need to know to become a great author, I had the pleasure of interviewing British A. Robinson, President and CEO of Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy.

British A. Robinson has dedicated her life and career to advocating on behalf of underserved communities around the world. British has spent decades working with some of the country’s most prominent organizations to tackle today’s most pressing concerns — including cancer, women’s heart disease, and refugee issues — and is now applying her vision and expertise to the field of family literacy.

British’s story is unique. At age 23, she left a prestigious corporate banking position and joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, where she volunteered as a social worker in Mobile, Alabama. This experience marked a pivotal point for British, crystallizing her desire to dedicate her life to the service of others.

Today as CEO of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy, British understands that literacy is absolutely critical to the success of our nation. British is spearheading the Foundation’s efforts using technology and innovative programming to create an America in which all adults have the opportunity to read, write, comprehend in order to navigate the world with dignity.

Before joining the Foundation, British was the founding CEO of the Women’s Heart Alliance, and served in executive leadership roles for Susan G. Komen and the U.S. Department of State.

Thank you for joining us British! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I have been blessed with an unconventional career path. At 20, I went into retail banking at Citibank for a couple of years. I’d go to work at 6 in the morning, leave at 11 in the evening, go to bed, take a shower, and go back to work. I had no social life, no love life, nada. Something was wrong.

I took a sabbatical and decided to reconfigure my life. In 1992, I joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, which is like the Peace Corps, but faith-based. I was assigned to be a social worker in Mobile, Alabama. I had never done social work, but we didn’t need a license at the time. I spent six weeks training with nuns, and then I was thrown into the work.

Most of these people lived in abject poverty and I quickly realized I could do more by actually affecting policy in Washington. I spent 10 years traveling around the world for the Jesuits. But fate would intervene. I was at a big meeting at the White House seeking asylum for a handful of refugees. In the middle of the meeting, the faith-based director for President Bush and President Clinton said to me, “Do you have any interest in changing your career path?” I said, “I really love my job.” Before he walked out the door, he said to me, “Tell me one thing you’d want to do.” I said, “Well, I hear President Bush is working on some big program to help the AIDS crisis in Africa. I’d love to be a part of that.”

Three weeks later, I got a call to interview with the ambassador who was heading up the new President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which created global partnerships to invest in improving the health of people affected with AIDS, with a special focus on women and children. That experience made me even more committed to the health and well-being of people on the planet.

In 2010, I was asked to move over to the Office of Global Women’s Issues working for Secretary Clinton. I leveraged the platform PEPFAR had created and applied it too broad women’s health issues globally, such as providing services for cervical cancer patients in sub-Saharan Africa and reducing maternal mortality rates around the world. Secretary Clinton created a very encouraging and empowering environment. In 2012, I was offered a job to start up and lead the international division of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure Foundation. I was watching Komen being firebombed every day in the national media, but I was laser-focused on the job at hand, which was to build out its international program. I was responsible for building out and supporting programs, activities, and races in 30 countries around the world. Seeing 90,000 people race for cancer makes the hair stand up on your arms.

In 2014, I was hired as the founding CEO of the Women’s Heart Alliance, a new health organization started by Barbra Streisand and Ronald Perelman. We built the organization from the ground up and launched a national awareness campaign focused on saving lives by educating women about the devastating impacts of heart disease.

I have always believed that there are no coincidences in life, and that belief was reinforced in 2018 when I was offered the opportunity to serve as the new President and CEO of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy — the first person to lead the Foundation after Mrs. Bush’s passing. Like many Americans, I wasn’t fully aware of this silent crisis before the job opportunity came to my attention. I was stunned and, frankly, angry when I learned that 36 million adults in our country lack the basic literacy skills needed to do simple things that most of us take for granted — like fill out a job application, help a child with their homework, or read a medicine bottle — essentially, to navigate the world with equity and dignity.

The more I learned about the issue, the more clearly I saw that literacy truly is the key to so many of the problems that our society faces, and the more strongly I believed that it should be on the hearts and minds of every American. I also realized that it’s inextricably linked to the health and poverty-related issues that I’ve tackled throughout my career. So, this feels very much like a full-circle moment that’s allowing me to channel my vocation and experience into saving lives in a new way.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

I view disruption as an essential role that the Barbara Bush Foundation plays in the broader literacy field. After working in the literacy space for more than 30 years, we are constantly asking ourselves what more we can do to move the needle on the issue — to serve more learners more quickly.

Simply put, we can’t afford to keep doing the same things in the same ways and expect to effect change on the scale that we need. Toward that end, we are focused on disrupting just about every aspect of the issue, from the resources and programs we invest in to the way we frame conversations about it.

For example, in 2015, we partnered with the Dollar General Literacy Foundation to make an unprecedented, $17 million investment in technology. There are incredible literacy programs throughout the nation, but not nearly enough to serve the millions of families in need. Compounding the problem is the fact that adult learners face unique barriers to accessing available resources, as many of them are juggling multiple jobs, childcare needs, and transportation issues. We launched a competition to incentivize the development of mobile apps to help adult learners overcome those barriers and improve their literacy skills anytime, anywhere. It was truly our moonshot moment for adult literacy: a grand challenge to engage some of the world’s brightest minds in our cause. We’re still leveraging and learning from that experience as we dive deeper with some of the top performing apps and find innovative ways to get them into the hands of adult learners.

We’re also committed to amplifying and reframing the conversation around literacy. We’re working to raise public awareness about the scope and impact of this crisis so that we can really create a national movement toward a solution. Because a big part of that process is “putting a face” on the problem, we created an Adult Literacy Gap Map that shows the direct impact of adult literacy on health, income, and education in communities across the country. We also commissioned a first-of-its-kind economic study that analyzed the map data, and found that the U.S. could be losing up to $1.4 trillion in GDP due to low adult literacy rates. We will continue to update and build on those resources to bring more awareness to the cause.

We all need a little help along the journey — who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

There are so many to choose from. I’ve been so fortunate to have several wonderful mentors over the years. I’ve also learned that, sometimes, people can serve as “quiet” mentors — mentoring by osmosis — just by living out their values in your presence. She would never know it, but I think of Barbra Streisand as an unofficial mentor because, during the four years that I worked with her as founding CEO of the Women’s Heart Alliance, she had an enormous impact on me.

As the world knows, Barbra is brilliant — smart, kind, generous, and unbelievably talented. Having had the privilege of working with her, I now know that at her core, she is also truly salt of the earth. Underneath all of her success, she’s just a girl from New York who cares about people and the planet. Just by being herself, she helps those around her be better versions of themselves. She is so gracious and treats everyone the same, no matter what walk of life they come from. She also challenges herself and everyone around her to dig deep and choose the right path rather than the easiest route. I will always be grateful for the time I spent learning from her.

I’ve found that it’s important to keep your heart and your eyes open for the quiet mentors who are all around you. We can learn so much from others if we simply pay attention.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

  • “You can choose to like your life and be happy, or not like your life and be grumpy. Choose happy.” — Barbara Bush

One big regret for me is that I never had the chance to meet Barbara Bush. But — as everyone knows — she wasn’t shy about making her opinions known. So I’m very fortunate that she shared her beliefs so openly during her life. She left behind a treasure trove of anecdotes, speeches, letters, and memoirs that are still so relevant today. And even though we never met, I find that we share a lot of similar beliefs, like this one. I, too, try to focus on finding joy and gratitude in life. Negativity is a waste of time and energy. Words like these help me keep her voice in my head and my heart as I lead the Foundation forward, and I feel very grounded in her vision.

  • “Ruined for life.”

This sounds like a funny piece of advice — it’s really more of a warning that alumni of the Jesuit Volunteer Corps use to describe their experience. But it’s an accurate description of how lives can be completely transformed through mission work. My time with the JVC did indeed ruin me for life. The opportunity to serve some of our most marginalized and impoverished communities — to witness their experiences firsthand and to offer them hope and help — changed the trajectory of my life forever.

  • “Leadership is as much about inspiration as it is about management.”

This is something you’ll hear in any “Management 101” class, but the more time I spend in leadership, the more I see how true it is. People want to be inspired — to feel like they’re part of something with impact and importance — and they will always work harder and more creatively when they’re inspired rather than simply told what to do.

How are you going to shake things up next?

I think I differ from many CEOs because I shake things up by letting things unfold. In fact, my whole career path is the result of being called from one thing to another rather than careful planning on my part. I don’t feel the need to make my own plan because I know with certainty that my life — personal, professional, and everything in between — has already been planned, and that frees me to be laser-focused on the work I’m called to do at any given time.

Do you have a book/podcast/talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us?

There are way too many incredible books to choose from! But I’ll share two TED talks that have really helped shape and crystallize my thinking in recent years:

  • “The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong” by Dan Pallotta — This talk sums up so much of what I’ve seen play out in nonprofits throughout my career. The stark reality is that nonprofits are tiny organizations compared to the massive social problems that they address, and they stay small because we expect them to play by different rules than for-profit organizations. If we can change our collective expectations and reach what Pallotta calls a “generosity of thought,” nonprofits can channel that generosity into truly changing the world.
  • “How to Start a Movement” by Derek Sivers — In under three (very funny) minutes, this talk unpacks so much about the psychology of leadership and motivation. I think back to it often these days as the Barbara Bush Foundation works to start a movement to tackle our country’s literacy crisis.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. ☺

That’s exactly what the Barbara Bush Foundation is working toward every single day: inspiring and leading a movement to improve millions of lives by giving every American the opportunity to read, write, and comprehend.

More than three decades ago, Barbara Bush chose literacy as her cause because she realized that it is absolutely essential to a life of equal opportunity, prosperity, and dignity for all Americans. Research has proven her right over the years. We know that improving literacy rates can boost our economy, cut healthcare costs, and help lift families out of poverty. It’s truly the key to solving some of our country’s most pressing issues.

But, today, 36 million adults in the U.S. — or 1 in 5 — lack basic literacy skills. It’s nearly impossible for most of us to imagine being unable to fill out a job application, understand a medication label, or help our children with homework, but that is the daily reality for millions of our fellow Americans.

I often refer to the issue as a “silent crisis” because, despite the staggering statistics, low literacy simply isn’t on the radar for many Americans. That’s why education is a key pillar of the Barbara Bush Foundation’s work. We believe that giving a voice to this silent crisis is a critical step in addressing one of the great solvable problems of our time.

As she so often did, Barbara Bush summed it up best: “Literacy is everyone’s business. Period.” By spreading that message far and wide, we’re building a movement to empower every American to fully engage in our society as parents, workers, and citizens — improving life for all of us today and for generations to come.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.” — John Wesley

I think it’s pretty self-explanatory, and it sums up my approach to life — both personally and professionally. No matter our station in life, we all have the power to make the world a better place.

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