Lessons In Leadership: One On One With John Hewko, CEO of Rotary International

I spoke to John Hewko, CEO of Rotary International, about his journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

John: I’m an avid cyclist and recently participated in my eighth 100-mile-long El Tour de Tucson on November 23. It’s one of the top cycling events in the U.S., and Rotary participates to raise awareness and funds to support ending polio, which is our number one goal.

Through El Tour, Rotary has raised more than $53 million for eradication efforts, including matching funds from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (a core partner in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative).

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

John: Currently, I lead a global staff of 800 from Rotary’s world headquarters in Evanston, Illinois, as general secretary and CEO, an opportunity I learned about from my father, a longstanding Rotarian, who saw an ad in The Rotarian magazine and suggested I apply.

You know, it was a real turning point for me. I was at a crossroads in my life. Prior to joining Rotary in 2011, I was vice president for operations and compact development for the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a U.S. government agency that was established by Congress in 2004 to deliver foreign assistance to developing countries with an eye toward promoting economic growth and stability to reduce global poverty.

The work was intensely rewarding – here was a government agency ahead of its time in demanding higher standards of accountability, transparency and results for foreign assistance. It’s a model which is still so relevant today, and which many other enterprises have emulated. But, as typically happens, with a change in administration, I was looking for a new challenge, and unsure what to do next.

I was reflecting on my MCC experience at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and then out of the blue came my dad’s letter urging me to apply for the job. I still keep that letter, which is written in half-Ukrainian, half-English, framed in my office in Evanston.

Adam: What are the biggest leadership challenges and opportunities that come with leading Rotary International? What are your main goals in leading the organization?

John: Understanding – and coalescing – the collective leadership of 1.2 million members is both a challenge and opportunity in leading Rotary International. Leadership today is about joining together to make choices that have the greatest possible positive impact in the future, and our members’ approach to polio is a prime example.

More than 30 years ago, Rotary members took the audacious initiative to advocate for polio eradication, believing Rotary could take on one of the most ambitious global health initiatives in history. Polio will be only the second human disease in history to be eradicated (the first was smallpox). 

Rotary has been the driving force in the worldwide polio eradication efforts, and alongside our partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), we’ve achieved a 99.9 percent reduction in polio cases, and Rotarians around the world have collectively contributed more than $2 billion to protect more than 2.5 billion children from this paralyzing disease.

We still have work to do, but the dedication of Rotary members lies at the heart of our success, and I am inspired by their efforts. From joining health workers to vaccinate children in polio-affected countries to spearheading fundraising initiatives and more, Rotary members take action to end polio, and one of my main goals is to unleash their talents on other pressing humanitarian challenges in the future.

Adam: What are the best lessons you have learned in trying to market to and resonate with Millennials and Generation Z?

John: As an organization that’s nearly 115 years old, Rotary recognizes that younger generations are more interested in causes and social impact than in hierarchically organized institutions. So in order to remain relevant in a rapidly changing world, Rotary is embarking on a new strategic plan that broadly focuses on: increasing our impact, expanding our reach, enhancing participant engagement, and increasing our ability to adapt.

Within the framework of this strategic plan, one of the ways in which we’re engaging young adults is by ensuring that our youngest leaders (age 18+) have the autonomy and support necessary to develop innovative solutions to the issues their communities face.

Adam: What are the best lessons you have learned specific to leading to a non-profit organization?

John: I’ve learned about the unique space non-profits occupy in the public domain. As Rotary’s general secretary, I’ve seen firsthand how a philanthropic organization can fill the gaps that governments and marketplaces can’t or won’t.

Again, using polio as an example, Rotary has established partnerships with other organizations/governments to secure and implement the resources, strategies and tactics (material, medical, technical, etc.) needed to combat a serious global health threat.

What’s more, Rotary, and other similar global organizations, have the ability to move quickly to mitigate crises, as is the case with Rotary’s International PolioPlus Committee (the body meets throughout the year with GPEI partners to review and distribute polio grants to countries in need). For example, the Committee is able to award rapid response grants to respond to polio emergencies such as the funding provided to Nigeria following a polio outbreak in 2016.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

John: In my experience, leaders at all levels serve and grow best by reflecting on the core values of their organizations, as a pathway to effective stewardship. Put into practice at Rotary, this means that everyone from Rotary club members to leaders at world headquarters asks ourselves the following questions to ground our actions in common purpose and direction:

·       Is it the truth?

·       Is it fair to all concerned?

·       Will it build goodwill and better friendships?

·       Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Beyond our values, leadership at Rotary is not about titles. It’s certainly not about status. It’s about joining together to take action and acting with integrity.

Because leadership without integrity is nothing more than self-interest. So our distinctive blend of leadership and integrity defines us as people of action, mobilizing in response to challenges. And our leadership has been and continues to be manifested on many different levels – from the role of Rotarians in drafting the UN Charter in 1945, to polio eradication, to our Youth Exchange programs, to our peace programs, to our local club projects, and to the work we do in our six areas of focus (such as literacy, disease prevention and treatment, water and sanitation, community development, etc.).

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and business leaders?

John: In addition to stressing that all leaders reflect on their personal and organizational core values (see above), I would simply suggest that those in the for-profit sector take a critical look at how social value is part of their firm’s mission.

Broadly, if the 19th century for-profit sector valued “reward,” and the 20th century benchmark was risk and reward, then the 21st century will be defined by risk, reward and impact. For many years, it was difficult to answer the inevitable question: How do you blend and measure social and financial returns? This is no longer the case, but it requires some bold collaboration between the private sector and non-profits to act on this insight.

Finally, I firmly believe that trailblazing leaders are made, not born. Rotary’s founder Paul Harris wasn’t blessed with once-in-a-lifetime talents, but he was able to articulate a vision that inspired others. He was able to act on his vision to form a new social network well before anyone ever heard of Facebook or LinkedIn.

Adam: What are your three best tips for civic leaders and for those interested in becoming more civically engaged?

John: Whether individuals are looking to become more engaged in civil society or non-profit organizations are looking to expand their efforts, there are a few core guidelines to consider:

·       Stay true to your DNA, but take the steps necessary to remain relevant.

·       Identify a big goal that motivates and mobilizes your supporters and teams.

·       Partner with credible, appropriate partners to maximize your work and impact.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

John: The most important lesson I’ve learned is to not be afraid of challenges – if there’s no risk, there’s no reward.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

John: Rotary is an organization based on people, relationships and action, and I encourage your readers to come learn more about us at There are so many ways in which people of diverse interests and backgrounds can get involved to effect positive change in their communities and around the world.

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