Few people are “born leaders.” In fact, within the business world, the ability to oversee plans, processes and personnel requires skills that are honed over time and with great patience. Sometimes there is an “aha moment,” an epiphany of sorts at which point a person realizes ‘I can lead.’ In other cases, a series of general events or a string of specific incidences yields a confidence and focus within a person, allowing leadership qualities to come forth.
In Nashville, the majority of leaders remain men. But woman are closing that gap, making significant impact on the area’s business community. It is a trend that is encouraging and surely will benefit the city and the region. The Nashville Post editorial team selected the 2012 Most Powerful Women — check out our 2011 choices here — based on their leadership skills, broad influence and ability to facilitate positive change. The group represents a cross-section of area industries: health care, government, nonprofits and public relations/marketing.
We interviewed the four to learn about their leadership styles, philosophies and challenges. They came across as humble, intelligent and seasoned. We liked what we heard. Nashville, indeed, should take note of these leaders.
The Girl Scouts transformed Agenia Clark’s life at an early age.
Clark is now returning the favor by leading the Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee, the iconic local non-profit that serves 14,000 girls and 7,000 adult volunteers in 39 counties in Middle Tennessee.
Clark, who was named president and CEO of the Girls Scouts of Middle Tennessee in 2004, gives the Girl Scouts much of the credit for providing her the confidence to grow into — and succeed at — many roles in life.
Her accomplishments began early. Clark excelled in elementary school in Mobile, Ala., and won a scholarship to a college preparatory academy for high school for her academic efforts. She also soared as an undergraduate and MBA student at the University of Tennessee.
After graduation, she landed leadership positions quickly. Clark held executive positions at Northern Telecom, Vanderbilt University and the Tennessee Lottery before landing the Girls Scouts of Middle Tennessee job.
“Agenia has every trait necessary to lead a multi-million dollar corporation — intelligence, passion, vision, patience, communications, integrity, dedication, assertiveness, sincerity and humor,” said Deborah Varallo, president of Varallo Public Relations and a Girls Scouts of Middle Tennessee board member. “She is capable of leading a Fortune 100 company; she just happens to be leading the Girl Scouts of Middle Tennessee.”
Clark first sensed that she had the potential to be a good leader when she was a young Girl Scout. She remembers a pivotal moment when she was asked to be the “flag caller” at a Girl Scout flag ceremony.
“It was the first time I recall hearing my voice announced, and it was for the honorable cause of the flag ceremony,” Clark said. “I remember being nervous, but I also remember the preparation I had for taking that leadership role. I remember the numerous times I had to listen and follow the instructions of the caller myself.”
Varallo first met Clark before she was CEO when they were both volunteers at Girls Scouts of Middle Tennessee. She was impressed by Clark’s roll-up-your sleeves attitude — not just as a corporate leader, but as a no-nonsense wife, mother and concerned community member.
“Agenia can lead the Girl Scouts because she’s done it all. She’s planned troop meetings, been camping, organized cookie booths and sewed on the badges her daughter earned,” Varallo said.
Clark currently serves on the advisory council to the College of Business at the University of Tennessee and on the steering committee for Nashville’s Agenda. She is a member of several boards: the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, the Women’s Fund Board for the Community Foundation and Avenue Bank. She is a committed volunteer for Leadership Nashville, the region’s premiere executive leadership organization.
Clark has also has been honored by the Tennessee Economic Council on Women for her leadership and inducted into the YWCA’s Academy for Women of Achievement.
Although her influence as a leader in Middle Tennessee is undeniable, she is modest about it and gives much of the credit for her success to others.
“I stand on some very broad shoulders of a great staff, an amazing board, dedicated volunteers and wonderful, wonderful mentors,” Clark said. “Being influential simply means that you take the time to share your knowledge, experiences and desire to effect change. Sharing is what makes an individual influential.”
Clark also has high praise for Nashville’s community of women business and community leaders.
“We have an amazing community of women in Middle Tennessee,” she said. “Given a cause, they are there. Given a mission, they show up. When you just have a question, you will get an answer.”
She also has a strong belief that the region’s Girl Scout leaders are among the most effective women leaders in the area.
“Recently, Vanderbilt University’s Peabody School conducted research that confirmed that Girl Scouting makes a big difference in a girl’s life,” Clark said. “I’m reassured that Nashville’s future female leaders are coming from the thousands of girls we serve every day.”
Clark believes that good leaders possess a combination of traits, all of which are emphasized, taught, practiced and validated in the Girl Scouting experience.
“A leader needs to be visionary,” she said. “A leader also has to have entrepreneurial qualities in order to generate new energy and enthusiasm from a team. One doesn’t exist without the other because at different times during the lifespan of a business or project, the impact of one or the other fluctuates.”