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View from the Top: Our conversation with Cyndi Zagieboylo, President and CEO of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society

To celebrate our firm’s 35-year history, The Alexander Group is featuring outstanding executives we have recruited to discuss their leadership style and the legacy they hope to leave.

This month, we feature Cyndi Zagieboylo, President and CEO of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Cyndi began her career with the Society in 1985 and was frequently promoted to positions of greater responsibility as her leadership abilities were recognized. She was promoted to President and CEO in 2011 after a national search and has since united the Society’s federated chapters into one, national organization. We spoke to Cyndi about her commitment to not-for-profit work and about the challenges and advantages of being an internal candidate.

Cyndi Zagieboylo

How did you get involved in not-for-profit work?

My interest in nonprofit work boiled down to one thing: an interest in human beings’ resilience. That was the focus of my studies in college and graduate school. I wanted to understand why some people—when faced with a stressful or negative situation—thrive, while others self-destruct. What makes people happy versus unhappy? This led me to an interest in organizational development and social psychology, which is essentially the study of how you can influence large groups of people. How do you organize a group of people to make things happen and change lives?

The National MS Society was a perfect fit. When I began my career, my job was to connect people to information, resources, and each other so that they could overcome the challenges of multiple sclerosis. In 1985, there was no internet and no treatments. It was an isolating disease. Connecting people with each other systematically and routinely was a critical function of my work—and is even more so today.

The National MS Society connects someone diagnosed with a potentially devastating disease with resources they need, whether that’s a landing place when they're scared and uninformed, access to research, or an opportunity to discuss their concerns with a supportive, problem-solving partner. That's what the MS Society does. All the components I needed to fuel my interests and passions were there. As a result, I've spent my whole career with the National MS Society.

You were promoted every two to three years. When did you realize you had a gift for leading and inspiring people?

Well, two things: One, there is not a job that I've had in the Society that I ever wanted to leave. I would probably still be in that first job right now if my husband didn’t move us so he could earn his PhD. We moved from Boston to Pittsburgh and while I did not have a job with the Society during that time, I was probably the most annoying volunteer in the Pittsburgh office. I had a 9-to-5 job at the University of Pittsburgh, and I had time on my hands. I knew how to organize people, had a great deal of energy, and I was excited to continue the work I’d started in Boston. After 14 months, I was recruited to a position to manage program development in the Southeast. Essentially, I was teaching people what I knew about program development: how to design a replicable and expandable program, write a budget, evaluate effectiveness, etc. It was in that role that I realized that we need to systematically grow all of our programs. We need to reach everybody affected by MS across the country; that’s our job. We're the National MS Society.

There were different roles along the way, but it was during my time as an area director in the Northeast, early 1990s, that I knew I wanted a seat at the table. I wanted to leverage my influence and experience to reach more people, no matter where they lived. I enjoyed working with and learning from people affected by MS—I get a lot from that—I also wanted to be part of orchestrating national solutions. My inclination has always been to bring together groups of people to solve bigger problems.

Did you always aspire to be CEO?

I had the chance to know every CEO of the Society. I knew Sylvia Lawry, our founder (she never had the title of CEO; women were not given that title back then.) I learned a lot from those different leadership styles because I was observant, but not necessarily because I wanted to be a CEO. That wasn’t a specific aspiration. It was only when my predecessor Joyce Nelson decided to retire – I knew that I was the best person for the job. I think you have to have that sense, that you are the best equipped for the role, to successfully get through a search.

You were an internal candidate in a national search. What are the advantages and disadvantages?

Knowing everyone on the board and Search Committee was helpful and was unhelpful. You know, there's no blank slate. They're not meeting me for the first time. Part of what I had to do was tell a story of who I am today. Some people on the Committee had known me for 20 years. They had witnessed some of my mistakes as well as my accomplishments. They had seen me in lower-level positions. I had to communicate who I am today.

When I was promoted to Area Director, I asked for feedback and said that I wanted to be the best Area Director possible. I have done that with each successive position, and I believe the Search Committee recognized I would want to be the best President and CEO I could be. I knew there would be other candidates interviewing with no history—a clean sheet of paper—they could represent the best parts of themselves. I had a past that people knew about. I needed to focus on communicating who I would be as a CEO. It was to my advantage to have been a part of creating the strategic plan. I could talk about executing a plan that I had played a significant part in developing. It was also important that I distinguish myself from past CEOs. My plan was to take what I had learned from each of them and translate it into my leadership style.

For the CEO search, at least two other internal candidates were vying for the position. What advice would you have for an incoming CEO where you have beat other people for the position?

There were three internal candidates. We knew each other well and knew we were each candidates in the search process. We agreed that the best approach was to be open and acknowledge how difficult and awkward it could be. We prepared ourselves and decided how to move forward. We recognized we had work to do, and the process was going to take time, given there were 18 people on the Search Committee. We knew the selection was out of our hands. We all committed to focusing on the work we had been entrusted to do as leaders of the Society. It was awkward for the sitting President & CEO as well. Acknowledging that we needed to put egos aside, be open and forgiving, know that the Search Committee needed to choose the best President & CEO for this time, and respect each other while we provided leadership in our current roles—we talked about the importance of managing ourselves for the good of the MS movement.

When you were named CEO, what took place with your colleagues who were internal candidates?

The other internal candidates called with congratulations—this meant the world to me. I asked for their advice. Then, I started organizing leadership teams and communications, making sure that I had access to trusted advisors and that we had a transparent and predictable decision-making process throughout the organization. My internal candidate colleagues were included as trusted advisors and leadership team members.

Did you overlap with the outgoing CEO?

I was named as incoming CEO in August, and I officially started October 1st. That was an awkward time. “How do I introduce myself? How do we make joint calls to donors? How do I create my senior leadership team moving from the structure and people from her senior leadership team?” After October 1st, I had access—which I used for a while, and then we agreed to cut it short. We were friends, so I knew I always had access, we didn’t need a formal agreement to be able to connect. I think search committees overestimate the length of time for a productive handoff. It should be tailored for each CEO. My prior CEO and I managed the handoff well. We had worked together for a long time, and we had an open and honest relationship. We knew how important it was for us to keep in mind what was best for the Society.

What did you do first?

I identified an executive leadership team and focused on the need for them to be completely honest with me—trusted advisors. All parts of the organization report up to a member of the executive leadership team. Together, we set up a cadence and process for communication—for staff and volunteers. We identified and wrote down our Operating Principles. Our strategic plan describes what we are going to do, and Operating Principles describe how we are going to behave. We wrote down our decision-making process and referred to it regularly. I'm a convener. I get opinions. I assess where we are, I get input, I declare where we are going, and we move forward together. Setting these expectations and clarifying our leadership processes were key in building the trust and confidence we would need to successfully move from a federated structure to one, unified National MS Society.

Did you make changes with your Board after you assumed the role?

I wanted to resolve any ambiguities around governance. I knew the bylaws and governance policies and wanted to be clear about my role, in management, and the role of the Board. I worked with the Board to determine “Where is my line of authority? What are the expectations?” We re-worked the charters for the board committees so that they were current and relevant. I'm not interested in an adversarial relationship with anybody, certainly not my Board, so we changed the board governance documents to reflect that—shifting language to be more collegial than adversarial. We defined an Advisory Committee (to the CEO) responsibility. We determine annual objectives for each committee—whether it’s a board committee or an advisory committee—so that accountability is clear, and progress is expected. The board has always been and is incredibly supportive.

Our relationship is collegial, respectful. We work on relationships to ensure we can have healthy conflict and reach consensus in moving forward—not necessarily unanimity, but a consensus that we will move forward together.

What does the leadership team look like now?

The Executive Leadership Team are my closest advisors—four executives lead all parts of the organization and are responsible to anticipate long-term impact of decisions, act upon external factors (national and international), and ensure leadership succession. The Senior Leadership Team has 16 members responsible for developing the Operational and 3-year Implementation plans, ensuring effective decision making and communication throughout the organization. And the Society Leadership and Management Team includes 75 professionals accountable to plan implementation nationwide, ensuring cultural values are upheld and effective communication among 800+ staff and 750+ leadership volunteers. We work hard to ensure great teamwork, mutual accountability, and exceptional communication.

Talk about the culture changes that have occurred during your tenure.

We intentionally created a desired culture. In 2008, when I led the Field Operations, we began moving from a federated organization to one, unified organization. There were many discussions with local boards—about their board role and responsibilities. The message was “We are the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, and we can have the most impact when we are focused on achieving the same outcomes.” One of our mantras is that “we can do ANYTHING we want to do; we just can’t do EVERYTHING we want to do.” Separate financials, budgeting, and staff oversight were removed as Board of Trustee responsibilities, and focus on community engagement, bringing people into the movement, was emphasized. It was a process and some volunteers decided to leave the organization. Mostly, they were amicable changes.

People moved from board roles to support our work in other ways. In 2013, when the National Board of Directors voted on one budget, it was a “point of no return” moment. When you change the finances of the organization, you change the organization. I’m proud of what our leadership team has accomplished in this transition.

As we are living through a pandemic and recession, long-time National Board of Directors members harken back to the federated days, when chapters’ Boards of Trustees had their own budgets and determined what services they could afford and are grateful and proud that we went through that hard work to become a unified organization. These are difficult times, but we are financially sound, we make and implement decisions quickly and, together, we build the MS movement and engage anyone who wants to do something about MS.

What is your leadership style?

I am passionate about solving multiple sclerosis. I believe that consensus building is critical. Gaining input throughout a decision-making process makes each decision better, and engaged people can more easily support implementation. I want to be seen as someone who is able to see a better world and can lead on a path to get there. When we envision a future together, everyone can contribute to getting there.

When you look back on your nine-year tenure as President and CEO at the National MS Society, what was your biggest learning curve?

My greatest learning opportunity was the international work. I knew the national organization, having started in 1985, but the international work presented different opportunities and challenges that became clear when I joined the board of the MS International Federation. National MS Society founder, Sylvia Lawry, founded the International MS Federation as well. I share her sentiment that “it doesn’t matter where in the world an MS cure is found, just so it is a cure for everyone in the world with MS.” The international work is inspiring and challenging. There are language and cultural barriers, but we share a common purpose. I’m most proud of our formation of the International Progressive MS Alliance—a collaborative effort among MS organizations from 17 countries, academic and industry researchers, and people affected by MS. We are fueling research to speed up discoveries of treatments for progressive forms of MS.

How do you manage a multi-generational workforce?

There is more variability in work styles within a generation than between generations. The focus should be on each individual and how they best contribute. Broad generalizations can get in the way.

People need to have balance in their lives, of course, and that’s personal for each of us. You can’t define what is “balance” to me, and I can’t for you. I believe people want to be contributing. They want to feel competent and comfortable with the people they work with. They want to have impact, be respected, and have fun. So, it’s important to have the discussions and not make assumptions about the specifics of what each person wants or needs. Ensuring people know what is expected and have what they need to do the work, are accountable, always working on getting better, and comfortable contributing their whole selves—that’s what we strive for.

What is your advice for first time CEOs?

Identify and gather trusted advisors; build a team. Ask them for complete honesty, and give each other real feedback with the goal of getting better (not being perfect). Regularly practice humility. Recognize that your title is a tool to an end, to addressing a very important need, to changing the world for the people you represent. Do not get caught up in the trappings of power and a salary. Get to know about the lives and hopes of the people in your movement. Work hard on describing a vision so others can see their contributions and place in making that vision a reality. Think hard about the kind of leader you want to be, describe that leadership, and let others know that that’s what you are going for. Ask for help.

In talking to your peers, two of the many positive adjectives used to describe you are resilient and impactful. Can you talk about these traits?

I noticed as a teenager that many people overcome very challenging circumstances while others seem to self-destruct. That got me curious about the differences between people. What makes people happy? How can I help others find a path to happiness? By observing how people cope with big problems and daily hassles, I started learning about the formula of resilience. And it’s an ongoing study for me.

I grew up on a small farm with three brothers and parents who were not farmers. We had to figure out a lot on our own: how to collaborate and negotiate, organize, delegate, and prioritize. There were a lot of chores, every day. When you have cows, chickens, and pigs to feed; a goat to milk; and fences to fix, you learn a lot at a young age. We learned to solve problems, to ask for help, to figure out what needed to happen, and to get it done. These are building blocks of resiliency.

As a very young child, I noticed the impact I could have on others. I could change the mood in a room. My father was a hardworking, gruff sort of man. He expressed anger readily and often came across as grumpy. I could make him smile and laugh, and that felt powerful to me. I realized I could have impact in lots of rooms—bring people together, make things happen. That's part of what led to my interest in people's outlooks and what I could do to support people in finding happiness and fulfillment. I was lucky to find the National MS Society so early in my career. I have had many opportunities to bring people together, make things happen, and have an impact on people’s lives.

What do you want your legacy will be?

I want to be remembered as contributing to ending MS forever. It would be amazing to be part of closing the National MS Society because everyone with MS is cured. And while we are moving toward a world free of MS, I want to be known as compassionate, realistic—looking straight at the brutal realities of the effects of this unrelenting disease and systematically addressing those challenges. I also want to be known as someone who has carried the legacy of Sylvia Lawry and built onto a powerful organization, an MS Movement, where everybody can connect and contribute. We can accomplish more together, and together we will end MS.

Cyndi Zagieboylo and Jane S. Howze
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Jane Howze

Jane S. Howze, J.D.

Managing Director