Leader Board

The CEO of One of the Largest Nonprofits Has Leadership in His DNA. After All, His Uncle Was JFK.

Anthony Shriver, the CEO and founder of Best Buddies, shares his leadership secrets.
The CEO of One of the Largest Nonprofits Has Leadership in His DNA. After All, His Uncle Was JFK.
Image credit: Best Buddies
Anthony Shriver
13 min read

In this series, Leader Board, we speak with CEOs, managers, founders and others who lead organizations to learn what makes them tick, what they look for in new hires and even where they eat lunch.

Anthony Shriver, the CEO and founder of Best Buddies International, doesn't have to look far for role models -- his mother is the brains behind the Special Olympics and his father is a founding director of the Peace Corps. Oh, and there's also his uncle, John F. Kennedy.

Anytime he makes a decision, he follows the example of his mother, who always made sure that her decisions supported the mission of the organization. So Shriver asks himself questions such as: How is this decision going to benefit our program? How is this going to help us reach more people with intellectual disabilities? How is this going to create more opportunities and jobs?

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“I remember as a child -- whether we were doing an event at the White House with Clinton or Reagan or Bush, or she was doing the opening ceremonies and it was being broadcast on national TV -- to her, it always came back to the mission,” Shriver shares with Entrepreneur. “I never make a decision not thinking about that, even if it's indirectly supporting our mission.”

Using his mother’s approach has helped him to create one of the largest nonprofits in the U.S. Best Buddies focuses on creating opportunities for people with special disabilities and connecting them to students and adults in communities. Founded in 1989 and headquartered in Miami, the organization has more than 400 employees in the U.S. today, with offices across the country, along with hundreds of others working for the company’s country programs in various cities throughout the world.

Shriver’s 28 years leading Best Buddies has been a roller coaster of introspection, action and as he calls it, “emotional intelligence.” We caught up with Shriver to learn how he’s successfully created and led one of the most influential nonprofits to date.

On the most important leadership trait:

“For me, it's what I call emotional intelligence. I think having a sense of the emotional state of your employees, the emotional culture of your company and being sensitive, patient and aware as you try to drive the business forward. Leaders that have a sense of the emotional state of their employees and their company make effective leaders.”

On leadership style:

“When I first started the organization I was very much 'my way or the highway’ -- driving it, pushing it, working all the time every single day and having very little patience. I ran it in a way where I felt an enormous amount of fire in my belly and a lot of pressure and responsibility.

“My style evolved into a calmer, emotional leader -- engaging in the lives [of] the people that work with me. I [take] more of an interest in their personal and professional lives, try to enhance their ability to contribute and feel important. The business is very much reliant on them as an individual and the role that they play, so moving the attention and responsibility away from myself and trying to make the team feel vitally important to our success as an organization [has] been my style over the past six to 10 years.

“I look for opportunities to demonstrate that. For example, with Hurricane Irma, I sent out an email to every [employee] in the state of Florida telling them I'm there for them, the company is there for them -- that they can count on us to support them financially, help them relocate, help them cover hotel bills or support their family in other ways; and if they could send me an email and explain to me what's happened, they can count on me to support them in that capacity. We're one family and we're going to make it through. So I find that those types of things are opportunities to show them that we care.”

On habits that help him lead:

“Consistency, [and] for employees to see me consistently doing the things that I say I'll do and that I actually do them is important. Whether it's returning emails within 24 hours [or] showing up to meetings on time, it's doing the things I ask them to do myself. So, if I ask them to travel, they see me traveling; if I ask them to work on weekends, they see me working on the weekends. I try to be consistent with my message out to them and then be consistent with myself and how I behave and operate.”

On challenges:

“Keeping the organization fresh and young and alive and innovative and creative and new and exciting and dynamic so that it doesn't get stale and dull and boring and slow. Constantly thinking how we can do something new and different, how we can come out with a new initiative, how we can make the organization fresh.

“Last year, we did a redo of our office. So, creat[ing] a different culture within the office just in the way the office is setup to bringing new events to the table to continually trying to reinvent the way we manage our donors.”

On the toughest business decision:

“2007, when we had to lay off a lot of people nationwide because of the financial crisis, was the first year we’ve ever ended up in the red, and had to dip into our reserve to cover our payroll and expenses. [During] that time, we laid off a lot of staff because of the budget constrictions all over the country. That was the most challenging for the company and for me as a human being, because I'm big on paying attention to employees, taking an interest in [them] and making them feel like they're indispensable. We've got no business without our team.”

On the most important traits in a new hire:

“Passion for our mission. If you've got passion for the mission and you really care about a person with intellectual disability [or] have a family or personal connection to our mission, you're going to crush it. If your heart and soul is connected to what we're doing, you're indispensable to us.”

On recognizing employees:

“We have an award dinner every year where we give out awards -- from rookie of the year to program manager of the year to international director of the year. We do a lot of things where we recognize [employees] with awards and plaques, [and] give out cash bonuses based on the awards they win.

“We do things on an annual basis to recognize employees [and] a monthly basis. We recognize employees through a wellness program [like] who lost the most amount of weight on a monthly basis, who lost the most weight on an annual basis. We give them cash awards for that as well. We have a number of programs like that where we try to highlight the achievements of our staff whether it's personal or through their work.”

On team-building:

“We do a big annual retreat, [and] we do getaways quarterly with senior VPs. A lot of times we're in the office but we break away. We bring in guest speakers to inspire and educate [employees] -- whether it's about finance or your personal development.

“We do ‘End of the Year’ celebrations where we go out and [play] games together, [like] capture the flag or waterpolo. We do lunches here [at the headquarters] on a monthly basis after we do a fitness activity every month [that’s] led by different teams in the organization.”

On managing meetings:

“I try to keep [them] as short as possible and on time. The older I'm getting and the longer I've been here, I keep shortening meetings because I find that the long ones are less effective and people talk in circles. I will never ever any longer have a meeting over an hour, and I generally try to keep them within 30 minutes.

“I [also] try to make sure everybody gets a word in -- I go around and make sure someone doesn't [just] sit through a meeting and never speak. And at the end, everyone knows exactly what the takeaway is, who is going to be responsible for each thing and how they are going to report back.”

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On scheduling:

“I do it with my assistant. VPs [and] senior VPs can have meetings with me without asking, [which] they do through my assistant.

“I block out weeks where I travel to different parts of the United States. I have a system where staff from all over the world can put in when they want me to go to their city, state or country, what's going to happen [and] why I should go to that particular location. I review those things and work with my assistant in blocking out times.

“Every day I go through a call list [and] a birthday list, and block out time [that] day to call people who have been supportive of us, whether it's donors, parents or students.”

On office setup:

“We just changed the office about six months ago [to] an open office plan. We're trying to create a more open, inclusive space where there's glass everywhere, fun colors, blue carpeting, blue doors. Just trying to make it alive and energetic and inclusive and not stodgy and dark.

“Departments are assigned offices but no individuals are assigned specific offices. Special events will have an office and then workstations that are outside that office, and every department rolls that way.

“We have spaces where there are doors and glass so people can have meetings, and we have a lot of conference rooms [employees] can book. We have a lot of open space and lounge areas [with] couches and chairs where people can collaborate and hang out. We have a fuel stop where there’s food all day [and] people [can] get snacks and coffee for free.”

On a strong company culture:

“Again, consistency. Having the people at the top be consistent in the way they behave and the way they operate. If I'm talking about the importance of family, I'm actually showing how important my family is to me.

“So me leading with that message and showing what I believe to be the values of this organization and culture consistently year to year. It's not some sort of new thing that I try to pull off this year [or] the next year, [it’s] that I'm consistent throughout the course of my career. And I am very consistent. I've been in the same job for 27 years, I've had the same wife for 26 years, I've lived in the same house for 23 years, I've gone to the same place in the summer for 50 years.

“Consistency and steadiness creates calm and a sense of safety, ease and security in employees. When employees feel secure, safe and calm they do really well, they want to stay around and they want to work harder.”

On cultural mistakes:

“In the beginning, not showing enough recognition, not giving people the opportunity to give input [and] not making people feel like what they said and their position in the organization was super valuable and important. My mistake was not recognizing people with awards and thinking that was stupid or a waste of time. Not giving people time off. Not having a great healthcare plan. Not having a 401(k) plan at all, thinking people should figure out their finances and save on their own. Being driven by a sense of self-importance [and] selfishness and that being part of [our] culture.

“It was a lot about me driving the needle and the business, I think partially because I was more immature and much more driven by ego, work and just pure grit and grind. I never took the time to think [about] the way we were really going to be successful long term.

“What I really believe in at home is everybody counts -- I feel that way about my wife, I feel that way about my children and that [has] to carry over into my professional life so that they see that's the kind of human being I am. So I began to do that.”

On his biggest cultural win:

“Time off, video messages, communication from me to [employees] goes a really long way. I get a giant amount of feedback and input from staff when I give them a [surprise] day off, or days off around some holiday, or a week off around Christmas. To me, that's a big win -- it's not a huge expense on the organization and it goes a long way for making people feel like you really care about them and their personal lives. It's not about working like dogs and then sending [employees] a paycheck and expecting them to wake up Monday morning and do the same thing all over again. I care about them as human beings -- it's not just a person I'm paying.”

On his role models:

“My mother. The thing that I admired the most about her, which I take to my business every day and focus on in every decision I make, was her relentless focus on the mission that she was working on. She was literally in her 80s and could barely walk, [and] was always focused most on the actual program of Special Olympics -- that the athletes were learning how to swim [or] how to run and that they had the proper equipment.

“I remember as a child -- whether we were doing an event at the White House with Clinton or Reagan or Bush, or whether she was doing the opening ceremonies and it was being broadcast on national TV -- to her, it always came back to the mission. I never make a decision not thinking about that even if it's indirectly supporting our mission. It's got to have some way to connect back to our program and our core principle of finding volunteers, finding jobs [and] creating leadership opportunities [for people] with intellectual disabilities. If it doesn't support that, I would never do it.”

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On where most leaders go wrong:

“It's always about ego. Hubris, ego, titles, money, expense accounts, planes, hotel rooms -- all that becomes a distraction. A lot of leaders lose their focus and start thinking it's all about them and not about the mission. When it starts becoming all about you, that's the beginning of the end for your business. My big thing is, it's all for the buddies.”

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