of Forbes.com interviews Carolyn Woo
on her recent transition as the former dean of the business school at the University of Notre Dame, management lessons and insights, her top priorities in moving CRS forward, and the intersection of faith and leadership.
Rahim Kanani: Since 1997, you served as dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, an institution that was ranked #1 in Business Week/Bloomberg in 2010 and 2011. How did you decide to make the transition from UND to Catholic Relief Services?
Carolyn Woo: I was very happy at Notre Dame and surprised when I was asked to apply for this position. When the offer came, it was a time of deep prayerful reflection for me. My years on the board of CRS had made me aware of the excellent work that it does to serve over 100 million people who are poor, hungry and displaced, work that aims to make hope real again in their lives. CRS works on behalf of Catholics in the United States to put action behind the Gospel command to love our neighbors. I really think it is the jewel in the crown of our Church – as well as for so many in almost 100 countries around the world. It has a really big footprint. How can you not respond when asked to lead an agency like that? It seemed to be in God’s call to me.
Rahim Kanani: Reflecting on your time as dean, what are some of the leadership insights or lessons learned that you bring to your new position as President and CEO?
Carolyn Woo: The main thing is something that any leader knows – you are part of a team. You have to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of everyone on that team, including your own, and make sure they are being used appropriately. Both organizations have deep similarities – they are full of very smart people, some of the best thinkers in their fields, but they are not engaged in an Ivory Tower enterprise. Both business and relief and development are ultimately very hands-on activities. You need to keep a balance between the intellectual and the practical.
Ultimately, good management practices transfer: How do you create an environment where people enjoy their work, where people are effective, where the work results in the successful performance of organizations?
Rahim Kanani: Having assumed this role in January 2012, what are your top priorities moving forward?
Carolyn Woo: I like to say that people here are working hard — they know what they are doing and have their heads down focused on that work. So I need to keep my head up, to focus on what is coming down the road, on environmental dislocations and the necessary strategic re-alignments. Obviously this is going to be a challenging time for our funding. Two-thirds of it comes from public sources, mainly through grants that we win from the US government, and we all know about the budgetary pressures there. So we need to diversify our funding as much as possible. And one way to do that is to get the word out about CRS. Many have said we are “the best kept secret” of the Catholic Church. They mean that as a compliment but it’s something we’d like to correct. The environment we operate in is complex and dynamic with many diverse stakeholders and very high expectations from our benefactors and partners. These shifts call for changes in our portfolio, innovations in types of and approaches to our service, new competences for our people, and a different level of organizational integration.
Rahim Kanani: How would you describe the intersection of faith and leadership?
Carolyn Woo: Probably with the word humility. Certainly you need confidence to be a good leader, but you also need humility. You need to know that you are far from infallible, that others around you might have better ideas, that there is always more to learn, to understand. If you do not understand the need to be humble, God will make sure that you learn that lesson.
Rahim Kanani: Since becoming President and CEO, what’s been the hardest cultural adaption you’ve had to make since coming to CRS from UND?
Carolyn Woo: Everyone is so old! Not really, there are plenty of people of all ages at CRS, but it is so energizing to spend time with students, with 18, 19, 20-year-olds. It is exciting to be part of their journey, to teach them and to learn from them. They push you to learn, to be open to new ideas, to get used to the explosion of energy and desire to experiment. I miss those students.