Cheryl Polk leads by example. And she hopes other women will follow. “Women in leadership positions should always seek to develop the next generation of leadership,” she says.
It’s with that mindset that Polk has served as executive VP and chief of strategy at United Way for the past 12 years. She sets the course for how the $80-million-dollar organization will impact the community, and oversees the board of directors and the operation of 211, which allows Missouri and Illinois residents to access information and receive referrals to life-sustaining resources at more than 170 area nonprofit agencies.
For Polk, annually connecting a million people with resources related to employment, food and shelter, utility assistance, disaster response and senior care is not just a job—it’s the right thing to do. “Helping people was part of my upbringing,” she notes.
Her extensive resume spans multiple industries, from leading the turnaround of the American Red Cross biomedical services division, to becoming the No. 4 salesperson in the nation through her work at Pitney Bowes, and even spending time as a news reporter in New York and Nebraska.
Polk credits her years at multiple major universities—Washington University, Cornell and Creighton, as well as Fudan University in Shanghai, China—with giving her a global view when it comes to business strategy, innovation and leadership.
Now as a role model for other women in business, Polk encourages female colleagues to tap into personal and professional networks to reach their goals. “Seek out those women whose career paths you would like to emulate, find out how they got to where they are and why they’ve chosen the career path they were on,” she explains. “Use that information to help guide your own career—learn from the successes and from the failures of those women.”
Polk also extends her leadership to community organizations, including Missouri History Museum, Saint Louis Zoo, Forest Park Forever, Women of Achievement, A World of Difference Institute, The Teacher Home Visit Program, St. Louis Leadership Roundtable, St. Louis Forum, Links Inc. and Grand Center.
No matter which hat Polk is wearing, she uses the same base strategy. “I lead by example. I always try to deliver more than is promised or expected,” she says. “And I always work in a collaborative way with respect for the expertise of others who are on my team. I also believe in being a continual learner.” While there are challenges in every industry, Polk advises staying focused on your goal. “Surround yourself with sponsors and key advisers who may not be in the same industry, but will allow you to discuss all the things that may impact your business or career.”
That strategy has worked well for Polk. Through her leadership efforts at United Way and various community organizations, millions of lives have been positively impacted. And while Polk is proud of her work, she knows there’s always more to do. “I look forward to helping even more people,” she says, “because the needs are greater.”