If you want to find the largest group of Girl Scouts in the world, go to the Windy City, the headquarters for the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana. The organization serves 84,000 scouts and 24,000 adult volunteers in 245 counties. It is part of the larger Girl Scouts of the USA, which in recent years has become more centralized and brand-focused. The century-old national organization now bills itself as "the premiere leadership development organization for girls." It has realigned 309 regional councils across the nation — including the 2008 merger of seven area Girl Scout councils in the greater Chicago area. With roughly 150 staff members, the Girl Scouts of Greater Chicago and Northwest Indiana earns more than $30 million in annual gross revenue.
Kathryn Kimura Mlsna, a 30-year veteran of McDonald’s Corp.’s legal department, became the Chicago-area chapter’s first chief strategy, legal and governance officer in 2010, and brought the legal and risk-management operations in-house for the first time. She’s one of two attorneys in the department.
Functionally, Dana Wilson, the department’s other lawyer, is point person for risk management and contracts, while Mlsna focuses on governance, intellectual property, litigation management, employee benefit and real estate. She backs up Wilson on risk-management problems. The work of the department is shared and supported by one assistant.
Since the merger, Mlsna’s department has focused more attention on risk management and has launched a contracts-management system. The department holds regular workshops to educate staff on a variety of business and organizational issues.
Mlsna also has focused on more efficient board and management communications. She launched a SharePoint site to give board members immediate password-protected access to documents plus archival material including agendas and meeting minutes. Mlsna created a tool kit that now allows board members to organize committee projects, deadlines and reports.
Mlsna farms out work to established Chicago-area firms that donate pro bono hours. She makes ample use of two resources at her alma mater, Northwestern University: she’s invited the university’s Kellogg School of Management program to bring in top Master of Business Administration candidates to help out on governance projects, and includes Northwestern University School of Law students on her team. "We provide real-life experiences, and the university offers course credit," Mlsna said. She is an active Northwestern alumna who sits on the university’s board of trustees and is president-elect of its alumni association.
Sidley Austin, led by partner Patrick Casey, has been the longest serving outside pro bono counsel to the organization, working on employment, intellectual property, real estate and litigation matters. Mlsna also works with Winston & Strawn partner Brian Heidelberger and Lea + O’Reilly partner Peter O’Reilly on marketing and technology.
Mlsna spends a lot of time in meetings these days, as the legal department is at the center of new business and organizational discussions. She and Wilson amount to a walking library on such matters — "uniquely positioned to identify business goals and to discuss the ways to achieve them," Mlsna said.
Legal and business talent is getting much more attention within the national Girl Scout ranks as well. Mlsna noted that, within the past two years, New York-based Girl Scout headquarters named a new chief executive officer and chief of staff with legal, government and business backgrounds.
While there are differences between legal issues in the profit and nonprofit worlds, Mlsna said she found the Girl Scouts is familiar territory in many ways. "McDonald’s and the Girl Scouts are structurally very similar. Both franchise or charter a method of operation with a portfolio of trade and service marks," she said. Their success, she added, "is based on the development of best practices implemented across the enterprise."
ROUTE TO THE TOP
Mlsna summed up her career path: "Hamburgers to cookies."
The Yonkers, N.Y., native was raised in the Chicago area and graduated from Northwestern in 1974 with a sociology degree. Her initial plan was to become a high school teacher. Hailing from an extended family of scientists and doctors, she hadn’t considered a career in the law until a college roommate registered for the law school entrance exam. Mlsna decided to take the test, too. "Lawyers teach," she said, and like teachers "conduct research and then develop and communicate a point of view that is designed to influence a thought process and course of action."
She earned her J.D. from North­western in 1977 having gone to work for McDonald’s while still in law school. Before leaving the company in 2007, she had advanced to senior director and managing counsel of the global legal department. While there, she participated in the development of the first voluntary industry guidelines in the United States governing food marketing to children. After leaving McDonald’s, Mlsna created the first in-house department at the diversity consulting firm Global Novations LLC and started her own legal and business consulting firm in 2009, which worked intensively with the Girl Scouts.
And, yes, she became a Brownie at age six and continued in scouting through age 11. Mlsna maintained her involvement with the Girl Scouts throughout her adult life, raising her daughter in scouting and eventually becoming a board member in the organization while working as a corporate lawyer. She was recruited by chief executive Maria Wynne, a former Microsoft Corp. and Xerox Corp. executive who joined the Chicago-area council in 2008 to lead its merger and reorganization. Mlsna said she was "so impressed" with Wynne’s leadership that she resigned from the board assignment to join Wynne’s executive team.
In addition to serving at Northwestern, Mlsna sits on a number of nonprofit boards, including the People’s Resource Center. She and her husband, Timothy Mlsna, also an attorney, have three grown children — a neurobiologist, an attorney and a computer science engineer. Her hobbies include international travel, discovering new restaurants and collecting antique Japanese wedding kimonos.
Mlsna likes nonfiction. She recently finished Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success, by Matthew Syed. It provoked "ideas about the roles that competitive nature, talent and training play in determining who wins and loses, and why," she said.