Lessons from a nonprofit mission

Cynthia Gibson’s work in the public sector has made her a better leader—and a better business partner

A little girl walked beside her mother up one side of the road, then down the other. The main street of her hometown sported several businesses, and the pair stopped in to ask the owners for their support. The girl’s mother, a volunteer for United Way, persuaded businesses to help her implement the nonprofit’s mission: to mobilize the caring power of communities to work toward the common good.

That little girl was Cynthia Gibson, now the executive vice president and chief legal officer for Scripps Networks Interactive, which owns HGTV, Food Network, Travel Channel, and several other lifestyle media brands. Though it would be easy for Gibson’s life to revolve around her C-suite position at one of America’s leading media companies, Gibson won’t let it. “To stay charged in your professional life, you need to have interests that go beyond it and allow you to use different parts of your brain,” she says. “We are much more than what we do.”

Gibson is on the board of trustees for United Way of America and is the former chair of the United Way National Women’s Leadership Council. She helped found United Way women’s leadership councils in two communities and currently serves on the board of directors in Knoxville, Tennessee. “United Way brings together public, private, and government constituencies to find lasting solutions to high-priority issues,” she says. “We coordinate our efforts and look at the outcomes of the programs we fund, rather than just funding a certain number of programs and services.”

“To stay charged in your professional life, you need to have interests that […] allow you to use different parts of your brain.”

Her experience of more than twenty years with United Way and other nonprofits has given Gibson an edge both professionally and personally. She says her work with the nonprofit provided opportunities to practice management skills before she could do so in her full-time job. “I acquired leadership skills that later translated into the business world,” Gibson explains. “I learned how to lead people when making difficult decisions.”

Early in her career, she served on the board of a nonprofit agency funded by United Way. The agency funded a major expansion in a complicated transaction involving tax credits and debt financing. When the vote for funding was taken, approval was unanimous. When Gibson remarked how easily it had passed, the chair explained that she had talked to everyone in advance. “It was a great lesson to me about inclusive leadership,” Gibson says. “People appreciate being individually heard and having their concerns addressed.”

In her personal life, Gibson instills in her children the same passion for community work she learned as she pounded the pavement alongside her mother. “I want them to learn how to help others just as I learned from my folks, including in ways that are not always publicly recognized,” Gibson says. “After my parents passed away, I found out that they helped many people in ways that no one ever knew.”

Volunteering without recognition exemplifies a trait Gibson knows is at the heart of all she does: integrity. “If you act with integrity and always do what is best for the business, this will amplify your voice in the company.”