Anita Tiessen, the new chief executive of the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, says a strong sense of community, the expectation that she will volunteer and the urge to act as an advocate for social justice are in her DNA and have driven her career in the voluntary sector.
Human rights were strongly sewn into me early on," says Tiessen who was raised in the Mennonite faith – a Christian sect that emphasises peacemaking and voluntary service – in Manitoba, central Canada. Although she is no longer active in the church, she believes human rights are a secular expression of the values she grew up with and inspired her to move from newspapers and local government in Canada to heading communications at Amnesty International's global headquarters in London in 1990.
In her last position, as deputy executive director at Unicef UK, she led work to embed children's rights in the UK and says her new job at WAGGGS, a membership organisation for the guiding movement that dates back to 1928, will continue this passion. "At the heart of the organisation is empowering girls and young women," she says. "I'm thrilled to be heading an organisation of 10 million dynamic girls and young women who are fired up to change the world."
Tiessen, who describes her leadership style as "modern and inclusive", says her immediate focus is to get up to speed with the organisation, which represents Girl Guides and Girl Scouts in 146 countries and includes 1.5 million volunteers. She says she is relishing getting to grips with its "beauty and complexity" and regards its role as ensuring members adhere to strict guiding criteria and providing practical support. She already has trips organised to the US, the largest member country, and Finland.
Growing the guiding movement is Tiessen's next priority. "I want us to have a stronger and more visible voice and to be the go-to organisation for girls and young women," she says. "We need to be true to our heritage but also be forward-facing." She says she will draw on her communication and campaigns experience to direct the organisation's work and give girls a voice in relevant issues, ranging from eliminating gender-based violence to body image issues.
Just two days into the job and Tiessen, who was never a member of a guiding organisation herself, has at least one new recruit: the youngest of her two daughters has become a Brownie.