Anna Maria Chávez was 10 years old when she first signed up for Girls Scouts. After a career in the Clinton administration and working for Arizona's first female governor, Chávez reenlisted—this time as CEO. She took some time to speak with Real Simple about mentors, bringing joy to the workplace, and managing a packed day-to-day.

By Jane Porter
Updated January 28, 2015
© Girl Scouts of the USA. All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

How did being a Girl Scout influence your own childhood?
I grew up in a farm town in Arizona, and some of my best friends were in my troop. It really pivoted my thinking around what a leader was and the power of your voice, even at the age of 12.

You've said Girl Scouts changed your relationship to the land.
It allowed me to go camping for the first time. I started understanding that land was more than just a place to live on and to grow food on—that it's something you need to preserve and protect.

Was there an aha! moment?
One day I stumbled upon a cave that had Native American hieroglyphics on it. Some kids had graffitied all over it. I remember thinking, How could anybody do this? I said to my mother, "We've got to pass some law to protect this type of sacred ground." My mother said, "What are you going to do about that?" And I realized, I guess I've got to go to law school.

How did you jump from a career in law to your current position?
I worked in government for many years and headed up a division in one of the largest state agencies in Arizona that I called the "division with the heart." It supported all the congregate meal sites, funded domestic-violence shelters, homeless shelters, and refugee services. Across the country, once a year [the government] does a homeless census count, to get an understanding of how many people are living without a roof over their heads every night. I volunteered to help do the survey. Our job was to count the homeless within a particular section of south Phoenix.

How did you go about that?
We spent about five hours looking in empty fields, in empty cars, under bridges, going into homeless shelters. That night I met a girl named Andrea, who was about 12 years old. I started talking to her and found out she and her five-year-old brother and mother had basically been living in their car for about six weeks. She was scared she wouldn't be able to get to school in the morning. That got me thinking. How are we going to ensure that girls have opportunities regardless of their economic situation? I realized that we had to do something.

What impact can you have on girls?
The Girl Scouts is nearly 103 years old. We have literally built the leadership pipeline of women in this country. If you look at the current women serving on Capitol Hill, 70 percent of the women in the United States Senate were Girl Scouts and more than 50 percent of women in the U.S. House were Girl Scouts. All the former female secretaries of state—Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice, Hillary Clinton—were Girl Scouts.

You've crossed paths with some of the most influential women leaders out there. What have you learned?
I've learned that women don't always have to be in front of a room to lead. We can work together as a diverse team to solve issues and create solutions. That's what we teach girls. Their natural tendency is to bring people around the table. Girls opt out of leadership as early as fourth grade, when they have trouble raising their hands in class. What they are looking for is a leadership style that resonates with them, and that's collaborative leadership.

What kind of leader are you?
You can hear me from far away because I have a very loud laugh. I really believe we have to come to work with joy. If a troop comes to tour the office while I'm meeting with a donor or the board of directors, I stop that meeting to meet with the girls. At the end of the day, that's whom we work for. I've probably hosted 2,000 girls in my office in the past few years. They give me great ideas, and they keep me grounded in our mission.

What's a great idea you got from girls?
A group of girls told me they wanted more opportunities to build their cookie business online. For the first time in our cookie program history, we are introducing a digital experience so girls can build their business online.

Do you have a favorite Girl Scout cookie?
Yes. Depending where you live, they're called either Samoas or Caramel deLites.

What are meetings like at Girl Scouts?
You never know what's going to happen. We might have a formal meeting with an agenda. We also have something called Team Time, which is spontaneous. I call the whole headquarters team together to focus on a specific issue or announcement. They're standing, there are microphones, and I've got people on the phone from the field. Once in a while, we'll be sitting in a meeting and I can see the energy is a little low and I say, "OK, time to go get ice cream." I will send a message out to the entire building to say, "Whoever shows up in the next eight minutes, I'm going to buy you ice cream." It's all about building teams. My motto is "You get your team, you get your dream."

You're also a mom. How do you manage your day-to-day?
I like to say, "I'm raising a 12-year-old boy and about 2 million girls." That takes a lot of planning and effort. I start my day early, between 5 and 6 A.M. I'm very technologically engaged. I spend more than 60 percent of my time on the road. I Skype with my son to make sure he's finished his homework. I have a great support system from my husband and extended family.

Tell us what you do to unplug.
I create specific private time for my family. I'm a woman of deep faith, so Sundays are sacred. I teach Sunday school. That is time I spend filling my well. I've learned from many mentors and leaders that we need to show we're human beings and we have personal lives.

What's your advice to girls and women who want to be leaders?
You don't have to wait 20 years to be a leader. You can be a leader now. If you're passionate about what you're working on, people will follow.