Meet Ellen Agler, CEO of the END Fund, who uses her strengths as a prominent global health leader. Together with their partners, the END Fund has mobilized treatment for hundreds of millions of people at risk of neglected tropical diseases, including intestinal worms, river blindness, lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis, and blinding trachoma.
Ellen, thank you for sharing your strengths with us today! To get us started, tell us about your role and your top strengths.
I am the END Fund CEO, a private philanthropic initiative founded to combat the world’s five most common neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). We provide financing, technical and program support, and partnerships to scale up low-cost mass drug administration for these treatable but debilitating diseases.
My top 5 strengths are: Input, Learner, Achiever, Individualization, and Futuristic.
What was your first reaction to the strengths report? Which of your strengths do you relate to most strongly?
When I saw that my top three strengths were Input, Learner, and Achiever, it made perfect sense. I have always been someone who reads a lot, has a wide set of interests, and likes to go deep on many subjects. Input and Learner make me think about how we sift through complex information and use data for decision making. But they combine with my Achiever theme to make me want to use the information to make a difference in the world. I see achievement as linked to the moral clarity about why we are here — what am I going to do with my life that will be of service to all beings. The END Fund is a great place for me to try to do just that.
What other themes show up in your work and in your life?
I relate strongly to Futuristic (5) and Positivity (7) too. In general, I am a positive person and can engage others to see things positively. I’ve always looked into the future. I like to envision a positive future and to take practical steps to help create it. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which partners with the END Fund, talks about ‘impatient optimism,’ a phrase that really resonates with me.
But I know that you see many unfortunate things when you travel the world and meet people living in the roughest conditions. How does your Positivity theme endure it?
That’s the crazy thing! I have seen unfortunate and difficult things throughout my career, but I have seen them with a solutions lens. I have seen extreme poverty and violence, tens of thousands dead from a tsunami, people shot in a war zone. I was recently in Lagos, Nigeria, in a slum area where thousands of people with disabilities like leprosy and blindness are so stigmatized that they are forced to live together because no one wants to touch them or have them be a part of the community. So, at times I see the hardest aspects of humanity. But side by side, I see the best of humanity. There are so many tangible and practical opportunities to help, partner, and reach out in a way that is empowering and dignified for all involved.
Can you notice ways that your strengths were at play in your younger years?
I wanted to be a journalist in high school and was in a small, rural school that didn’t have a newspaper. My mother encouraged me to contact the town newspaper, which was only published once per week, and see if I could start writing articles there. I ended up doing a lot of reporting for them and eventually took my portfolio to a larger state-level, daily newspaper. When I was 17, while working as a journalist, I met the Governor of Idaho. He was impressed with my work and asked me to write speeches for him and work on his communications team. I only needed two classes to graduate and petition the school board to overturn guidelines so that I complete my coursework off-site. It was clear that my Learner and Achiever were in play even then.
Did you receive any mixed messages about any of your strengths or need to reclaim them as you got older?
In high school, I think having the Achiever theme was tough. I did get messages to tone down my ambitions and aspirations. For girls, especially, being highly motivated was interpreted as being overly assertive. I remember when I asked my high school principal if I could finish my final two classes and make time to work with the governor and write for the newspaper, she said, “If I make this exception for you, I have to make an exception for everyone.” I realized even then that everyone wasn’t doing what I was doing and that, in exceptional cases, you should make exceptions. Individualization plays a lot here, as I also really respect that everyone has their own unique path and strengths, and sometimes the best thing you can do for people is to support them on their unique paths and share their unique gifts.
How has StrengthsFinder helped you in your role as a leader and CEO?
The team strengths mapping is one of the most useful tools I have ever used as a leader. Everyone at the END Fund has taken the Strengths Finders test and knows their top five strengths, and we have worked with these during team retreats to learn about how to best work with each other to accomplish our big goals.
What I like about serving as CEO is cultivating the potential in others probably because of my themes of Developer (9) and Individualization (4). My obsession has always been about how the team and our partners are doing. How do these big problems in the world get solved while people solving them simultaneously feel supported and able to evolve personally and professionally? It is extraordinary and a huge privilege to be a part of a group of people leaning in with their strengths to solve big, complex problems worldwide and truly improve millions of people’s lives.
Read more about the END Fund’s work at www.end.org