Jennifer Weng: Leading an Organization of Leaders
Jennifer Weng, Executive Director of Chief Executives Organization (CEO), always knew she wanted a career that exposed her to cultural diversity and global leadership. And in her 18 years at CEO, an exclusive member-led organization that continues YPO’s tradition of lifelong learning and idea exchange, she found the perfect fit.
A diplomatic career start
While completing her bachelor’s degree in international relations/East Asian studies from the College of William and Mary, Weng went to Vienna, Austria, intending to stay for a semester. She ended up staying for five years. “Vienna is the third largest United Nations headquarters after New York and Geneva, and I made it a goal for myself to join the U.N.,” says Weng.
During the course of five years in Vienna, Weng worked at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), focusing on political military affairs, as well as at the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA). She recalls the importance of those years, “That time in Vienna provided me at a very young age an understanding of diplomatic tact, cultural awareness, and relationship building – all of which served me well later in my career.”
In 2000, Weng completed her master’s degree in international economics from the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of The Johns Hopkins University.
The CEO years: Building skills, gaining experience
After her time in Vienna, Weng was ready to take on more corporate leadership roles. “I was really open to new ideas. Having been in the diplomatic realm for eight years, I began looking at private sector opportunities,” she says. “I hadn’t heard of the ‘O’ worlds when I was interviewed for the director of education role at CEO. I was told I would have a global portfolio with access to heads of state and government, business and cultural leaders with compelling stories to share, so it sounded exciting.”
In 2001, Weng started her “intense” CEO years, traveling the world as the organization’s director of education responsible for the development of high-impact learning programs. “Education is the cornerstone of CEO and in this role, I learned so much. Because our events are all member-championed, I worked arm-in-arm with CEOers from around the world to make their vision take shape. You really have to transform yourself and adapt to different leadership styles,” she says.
A first for CEO
In 2017, Weng became the organization’s first executive director promoted from within. “After 16 years with CEO, I really understood the zest and spirit of the organization,” she says. “I had been in the trenches and understood the extraordinary level of expectations. With my rooted knowledge of the organization and my strong relationship with our members, I also brought a lot of passion, energy and commitment, so I felt well equipped for the role.”
The job didn’t come without its challenges. As CEO’s executive director, her role includes directing its operations, guiding corporate governance, and leading the CEO staff, which conducts 35 to 40 world-class educational experiences annually for CEO members worldwide. “We have to be high-octane to meet the continuously high expectations of our members. Everything that we do has to have a stamp of excellence on it, exceeding expectations again and again,” says Weng.
Those high expectations carry over into her family life. “Trying to find balance is perhaps my biggest challenge,” says Weng. “But having an incredible support team — both at home and at the office — make it possible.”
In this video Weng discusses building and nurturing the right company culture in more detail.
Experiencing her own leadership journey at YPO
One year ago, Weng joined YPO and the U.S. Capital Chapter in Washington, D.C. She is already a forum member, taking chapter champion roles and attended her first YPO Global Leadership Conference (GLC) and YPO EDGE in March 2019.
“It was a dream of mine to join YPO. I’m the only one leading a membership organization in the chapter, but we share similar challenges,” says Weng. “My YPO forum members have been a wonderful support and helped me tackle decisions from technology challenges to how quickly to act with staffing changes. It has been transformational.”
Her quick integration into YPO is no surprise. “CEO is composed of mostly YPO members, so we share the YPO DNA,” explains Weng. “Because membership in CEO is limited to 2,000, our events are very intimate, and the global friendships are very powerful, so our members benefit professionally and personally.”
CEO was established in 1958 under the leadership of Jack Dow, Ray Hickok and others as the original graduate organization of YPO. The cooperation agreement between the two organizations, renewed in 2017, requires CEO members to be members in YPO. Membership in CEO is by invitation only and intended to enhance the YPO experience by recognizing select YPO champions for their leadership and providing additional opportunities for networking and global education experiences.
Leadership qualities from a career surrounded by leaders
“One inside joke in our team is that CEO stands for Change at Every Opportunity,” says Weng when asked about some of the key leadership qualities she values. “The world is going through so much change, so adaptability is a quality that has become essential.”
Another important quality she embodies in her leadership style is inspiring her team of 34 mostly young females. “There is a Napoleon quote that says, ‘A leader is a dealer in hope.’ People want to follow leaders who plant seeds of hope. I strive to inspire my team to succeed in CEO and to blaze trails outside CEO as well,” says Weng. “This takes time to cultivate, but there’s a lot of longevity on my team. That speaks a lot to the organization.”
Closely related to the importance of inspiring her team is the benefits of creating a “friendship advantage.”
“We have a wonderful friendship advantage at CEO — both as a staff and as an organization. We are like a family and given the close relationships we have with our members, intensive long hours and global travel, having a familial sense makes it fun and rewarding. It also makes the team feel valued.”