“The Importance of Being Open”

Geri Mannion and the Carnegie Corporation

Like many women in her generation, Geri was expected to become a secretary. That she did, and much more. Throughout her three-decade career at such prolific institutions as the Carnegie Corporation, the Ford Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation, Geri has shaped and guided major international relations initiatives and civic leadership and engagement programs.

For young people aspiring to change the world, Geri stresses the importance of communication and writing skills, respect, and teamwork. Geri leads by example and emphasizes that the organization’s mission should always come first.

What contributed the most to your success?

I am where I am today because of connections. The networking and the ability to hold relationships over the years have been important. Too many people think in silos about issues, and you lose a lot if you can’t interconnect.

How do you maintain those relationships?

I am a big tent person. If I have colleagues in related fields and I have a meeting, I invite them. People always know I am open to seeing them. If I can’t do an in-person meeting, then I do it on the phone. I love the connections. Too often, people operate in silos. You need to be open to new voices because we tend to want to go to those with whom we are most comfortable.

Were there any people that helped you when you faced obstacles or needed new ideas?

At the time, society expected women to start as secretaries, and there was very little opportunity for women. I worked for amazing people that helped me along.

What do you think about working on these complex problems that are difficult to solve?

Civic and voter engagement has always been a passion of mine. There was an upswing in voter engagement and interest in 2008. A lot of young people voted for the first time and got excited about the race on both sides, but now so many people have been turned off on both sides in the last two years. It’s hard sometimes, but then you look at the ‘08 election and you just have to figure out how to keep it going.

I also work toward a change in federal immigration policy, which is a more personal issue. I was born in London, and both of my parents naturalized from Ireland. It was very scary for them, and their experience comes back to me in my current work. I came to Carnegie when they were trying to naturalize people the first time. During a site visit, it was amazing to me because people were waiting around the block to naturalize. It was a very poignant and a very American thing to see how many people wanted to be a part of it.

What is your advice for young people interested in social entrepreneurship who want to contribute to the world?

I advise them to go out and work in the sector and see if they can handle gritty situations. You need to see what it’s like to balance a budget and raise money not knowing if you will raise enough.

Name one essential quality you look for when you hire someone.

I look for good writing skills in anyone I hire. Being able to sift through information and put it together in a succinct way is hugely valuable.

What qualities make a good team player?

A sense of humor is a huge requirement. Some people take themselves too seriously, but you have to be able to have a good time. And you have to be respectful. I have been around “screamers,” and they don’t realize how their reign of terror brings down other people.

You have to realize that not everyone has the same ability to accept criticism. I am a direct person, but some people need soft-pedaling. You must learn to be cognizant that everyone is very different.

I have this thing about being on time. My first boss said to me: “You have to get here by nine,” and she told me that people watch and people see it as a sign of respect. I always remembered this. Being on time is one of my cardinal rules. Another rule of mine is that I like people to be up front and direct. If you want my attention you have to come in and say, “You have to do this.” Also, people shouldn’t whine. People need to reflect on their expectations for a job. You can’t be an overnight success. It does take time.

What is your philosophy toward team leading?

I never expect my staff to do something that I won’t do. I will Xerox or put stuff together. If a phone is ringing, you answer it. The whole idea is that it is all about the end game.

Is there anything you intentionally do to bring creativity to your fields?

The thing I would say to people coming up is to be open. Don’t be so in to yourself that you’re not willing to talk to people that might seem removed. I talk to academics, policymakers, and elected officials. They make me a better person because I learn from them.