CEO of Save the Children Discusses Leadership Lessons From the Syrian Conflict at UVA Darden School

13 September 2013

Carolyn Miles (MBA ’88), president and CEO of Save the Children, addressed students, faculty, staff and visitors at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business as part of the Leadership Speaker Series. She spoke about her career path and her organization’s role in helping children in a nation in crisis — Syria.

“In addition to the support we provide every single day, we are documenting what is happening to kids,” said Miles. “Part of our work is to make sure that people know what the facts are.”

According to Miles, 10,000 children have died during the past two years in the Syrian conflict. Save the Children is tackling the needs of the one million refugee children who were taken to nearby countries as well as children still in Syria. The extremely difficult circumstances would test the mettle of any leader. Miles shared the lessons she has learned while leading her teams through this conflict.

Lesson one: Leaders need to understand the challenges faced by their teams on the front lines.

“What are people going through, what are the challenges that they are going through, and how can you help them?” said Miles. “As the leader of an organization, the expectation is that you know what’s going on, you know what the challenges are, and that you are working at the highest levels to help make those challenges easier.”

Lesson two: Leaders need a flexible strategy.

Miles discussed the use of chemical weapons in Syria and its impact on Save the Children’s approach to care. “Our strategy stays the same, but our tactics might be different,” she said. “You need a strategy, you need to keep that strategy and the base of that strategy strong, but you need to be flexible. You need to look at what’s happening in the external world that can help me move that strategy ahead.”

Lesson three: Leaders need to forge partnerships.

“You’ve got to bring in other people, and you’ve got to get on the phone and call those people, and go visit them and enlist their help,” she said. “Because that idea of partnerships is the only way you can move your strategy ahead.”

Miles went on to explain that when nonprofits partner with each other and with corporations, great things can happen, and donors are increasingly encouraging them to join forces.

“That’s a trend that actually is happening more and more, and I think one that is extremely healthy. Too often things are in these stovepipes and off by themselves,” she added.

Miles also pointed out that Save the Children’s corporate partners have been valuable in helping to improve children’s lives by inventing new products and building advocacy for children.


On her life and career paths, Miles described how Darden connections helped her every step of the way. In fact, she met her husband on the first day of class at Darden. After working at American Express, she took the opportunity to move to the company’s Hong Kong office. After several years, she became an entrepreneur at the behest of fellow Darden classmate Tom Neir (MBA ’88). Together, they opened 20 coffee stores across Asia in two and a half years. Ultimately, she joined Save the Children at the recommendation of another Darden alumnus.

Miles began with Save the Children in 1998. In 2004, she became COO for the organization and helped expand its reach and budget. In 2011, Miles became the first woman to serve Save the Children as President and CEO. Since then, the organization’s resources have grown to more than $620 million annually.


While living in Asia, Miles witnessed the impact of poverty on the region’s children. The most poignant moment for her came when she was vacationing in the Philippines with her family. She locked eyes with a poor woman holding a child while panhandling. Miles noticed the woman’s child was about the same age as one of her own. She was struck by the contrast of her child’s good fortune and the state of poverty in which the woman’s child was living. That transformational moment led her to commit to work on behalf of disadvantaged children.

“At that moment for me, that realization that there are millions of children growing up in the world with absolutely no opportunities for a better life, that’s when it really struck me,” she said.

Miles also described Save the Children’s mission to change the way the world views children’s rights.

“Kids actually have rights. They have the right to actually survive, they have the right to get out of childhood and be an adult, they have a right to an education, they have the right to be protected and be safe,” she said.

Miles has served on numerous boards for non-government organizations and entities that support nonprofits. An active and devoted alumni volunteer, she currently serves on the Darden School Foundation Board of Trustees.

Her visit was co-sponsored by the Net Impact student club. The theme for this year’s speaker series is Leaders that inspire innovation, collaboration and growth.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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