Listen. Help people solve their problems before solving them for them. Treat people fairly and consistently — and know this doesn’t mean identical. Encourage people to stretch.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Angela Geiger, President and CEO of Autism Speaks.
Angela Geiger joined Autism Speaks as president and CEO in February 2016. In her first year, she revised and relaunched the organization’s mission to explicitly include people with autism both across the spectrum and throughout the life span.
While huge progress has been made in increasing awareness of autism, the new mission goes a step farther and strives to increase understanding and acceptance of people with autism. To support this inclusive and aspirational mission, Ms. Geiger launched a long-term strategic plan, which was well-received by donors, stakeholders and the autism community.
Beyond creating a strategic vision for the future, Ms. Geiger also led efforts to improve the financial position of Autism Speaks, producing positive net assets for two consecutive years. This was achieved while the number of individuals and families served by the organization grew significantly: 58 percent in 2017 alone.
Thank you for joining us Angela! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Pure chance! I always thought I was going to have a corporate career but at several crucial junctures, the opportunity in the non-profit space offered more impact and personal growth.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of the most interesting things I’ve learned is more of a theme than one specific story. When I tell someone that I work at Autism Speaks, more often than not, they will tell me that they have a connection to autism or know someone with autism. It’s one thing to look at the prevalence numbers from the CDC (at least 1 in 59 children have been diagnosed with autism) and know, intellectually, how many people are impacted by autism; but hearing stories from so many real people about how autism touches their lives is what makes this work especially meaningful to me.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
A mistake that taught me that humor in an organization really matters happened when I first joined the American Cancer Society. I didn’t have any vacation time but wanted to leave early on Memorial Day Friday for an out-of-town trip. I emailed my boss and asked if I could come in early to make it up that day. She replied, “sure!”. A few weeks later we received an email from the CEO saying that the whole organization had early dismissal that Friday. My boss replied to the CEO and hit reply all to the entire company (instead of forwarding to me) writing “Hey, great news, now you don’t need to worry about knocking off early!” The responses were hilarious.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Besides the Autism Speaks blue puzzle piece pin, I think what makes us stand out is that for so many families, we are the very first place they turn, wherever they are in their personal autism experiences. For those who think their child or someone they love may be showing signs of autism, millions of people have turned to the M-CHAT, an online screening questionnaire on our site. Once a child receives that diagnosis, more than one million people have downloaded or received the Autism Speaks 100-Day Kit to help guide them through those first few months. But our support doesn’t end there; with our tool kits and Autism Response Team and our website, we continue to offer support and guidance for people throughout the life span and across the spectrum.
We’re also the only nationwide autism organization that not only provides support for people and families, but we also fuel research to better understand the biology of autism which will lead to more personalized treatments and supports, and we advocate for the needs of people with autism at the federal, state and local levels.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, we’re working on quite a few exciting projects at Autism Speaks! One that I’m particularly proud of and excited by is our latest public awareness campaign, in partnership with the Ad Council, aimed at lowering the age of diagnosis of autism.
We know that autism can be reliably diagnosed by age 2, but the average age of diagnosis remains between 4 and 5 in the United States, and even later in some lower socioeconomic minority groups. This new campaign is designed to help parents feel empowered to understand the signs and seek screening and diagnosis for their kids if needed. Interestingly, a lot of our market research showed that parents see an autism diagnosis as the “end” for their children, when really, it’s just the beginning of helping them live their best lives.
The campaign kicked off in April in both English and Spanish, with digital, print and out-of-home ads — some of which feature Sesame Street’s Julia, a four-year-old Muppet with autism. We’ll continue to add new elements to the campaign throughout the year, and my hope is that soon we’ll see that average age of diagnosis get lower and lower — meaning more children are getting the early intervention that can help them thrive.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
Listen. Help people solve problems before solving them for them. Treat people fairly and consistently — and know this doesn’t mean identical. Encourage people to stretch.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Do what is efficient in groups and tailor the individual attention people need to their individual needs. Managing a large team of people doing the same thing (call center team leads, project managers) is different than managing a team of people heading up different departments. Do what you can to encourage people to work through problems and opportunities with each other before coming to you.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I’ve had so many people help and encourage (and challenge) me along the way. I was privileged to be at the American Cancer Society during their go-go years. The opportunities I had to stretch and grow there were extraordinary. That required a lot of people trusting me and my abilities, but two women stick out.
First, the woman who hired me there, Chris Tyre. Not only did she support me to take stretch roles at every turn, but she was responsible for making sure I didn’t leave when I had (what I thought at the time was) a better opportunity by marching me up the ladder to that next special person, Terry Music. Terry is now a life-long mentor. Both as a direct supervisor and a friend along the way, Terry has had been my biggest challenger, cheerleader and role model. I’m sure along the way there were times she doubted my ability to do something, but she never let me know it and she never didn’t let me try something.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
The easy way out of this is to say I’ve moved mission impact forward in the organizations I worked for, helping lots of people along the way. But a lot of people can say that. It’s hard to truly put yourself in someone else’s shoes, but that skill has helped me hopefully to bring goodness to the world on a personal level.
Whether that’s getting down on the ground at Camp Breathe E-Z teaching a child with asthma how to better belly breathe, creating experiences at the National Cancer Information Center where every employee felt comfortable if their own mother called about her breast cancer diagnosis, to changing public opinion about Alzheimer’s disease creating a national urgency around better support and research, to creating an environment where people with autism and those who love them can tell their story so that people can better understand that autism is a lifelong condition and people experience the disorder in many different ways.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned from My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Lead from where you are.
- Listen more than you talk.
- Volunteer to solve problems.
- (Almost never) say no.
- The more senior you are, the more important your first question is: “What do YOU think?”
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.
The first — be kind. If everyone were kind I think most non-medical problems in this world would go away. Perhaps the best measure of “be kind” is quite simply the golden rule — in personal relationships, in government programs, in workforce development, in medicine and the list goes on.
The second — let’s stop recreating the wheel. I believe so much better could be done in the world if the nonprofit sector worked together on issues and causes as opposed to recreating the wheel every darn time. Not only would there be hundreds of millions of dollars saved in pure resources, but the entire system would be more efficient. I’ve often said that if I win the lottery, this is where I will invest.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
The older I get the more I know my grandmother is right. She said, “No matter where you go, there you are.”
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
I want to meet the person who is willing to partner with us to fund transformational change in the autism space for people with autism and those who love them. For an issue of this size, it is quite simply under-resourced. People with autism aren’t getting the support they need today or the path to better treatments tomorrow. I want to meet with someone who wants help change their worlds. We can do it.