Rules of Engagement

If employees do not feel that the channels of communication are open a lot of your efforts will not reap the fruit you’re hoping for. You’ve got to engage folks. —Yvette Donado

How Yvette Donado’s business-minded approach to nonprofit work and employee engagement have been essential to the rise of Educational Testing Service’s $1.6 billion sales

Effortlessly charismatic and gracious, Yvette Donado is the chief administrative officer and senior vice president of people, process, and communications at Educational Testing Service (ETS), the organization that administers and scores more than 50 million tests every year in more than 180 countries. With such responsibilities, one may be surprised to encounter Donado’s warm personality. Without a trace of “stuffy academician,” Donado peppers her conversations with “darling” and begins by explaining that “people should not get hung up on titles.”

ETS is a not-for-profit organization that brings in $1.6 billion each year for developing and administering achievement, admissions, academic, and professional tests. Donado joined ETS in 2001 as the vice president of human resources. With a president at the helm who had business practices in mind, ETS turned to Donado, a graduate of the Harvard executive MBA program who also has certifications from Wharton, Cornell, and Boston University and experience as a human resources senior vice president with a booming technology start-up.

Mentor for a Minute

“People have to know that at the end of the day it’s not about your own agenda. What is in the best interest of the enterprise? That has to be your overriding principle. You’ll lose credibility if it is self-serving.”

—Yvette Donado

Donado’s first principle for transitioning into a new leadership position was to seek to understand the culture of the organization before making any changes. Her aim was to “be respectful of what is.” She advises new executives not to “jump to make many changes before understanding the culture and environment you’ve entered. Listen very carefully. Make changes that people will readily see as good.” Her approach to engaging departments that underperform would make Dale Carnegie proud. “Instead of creating conflict, I negotiated … instead of attacking I went with [an attitude of] service,” Donado says.

Donado’s strategy upon entering ETS was to determine who had the greatest “pain points.” She proposed to serve them first. “Win them over and now you have an advocate. Success breeds success. You will eventually win over those people who are threatened by you. [It is a process of] developing trust and being impeccable with your word,” she says.

Donado is passionate about leaving a legacy. She has spearheaded ETS’s English-language learner initiative that is currently developing tools to better assess the needs of children who may not be proficient in English. She is also committed to using her influence to help the Hispanic community. She serves on the board of Hispanics Inspiring Students’ Performance and Achievement (HISPA), which enables Hispanic role models to connect with middle school students who may not otherwise meet Hispanic professionals. “If children don’t have access to professionals they can’t even imagine [being one]. We bring folks in who have Ph.D.s and titles to mix it up with the kids. It’s very rewarding,” Donado says. She is also involved with Parents Step Ahead and the Committee for Hispanic Children and Families. Both organizations seek to serve families and increase the opportunities for Latino children to succeed.

Donado leads with an attitude of service and respect. The prudence she exhibited in her early days at ETS has paid off. She began by managing a staff of 30; she now leads more than 500 employees and oversees marketing, public affairs, quality assurance, philanthropy, human resources, process management, government and community relations, and facilities. As part of her facilities oversight, she assures the effective management of ETS’s Chauncey Conference Center located on its 370-acre Princeton campus.

Donado summarizes her leadership philosophy like this: “If employees do not feel that the channels of communication are open a lot of your efforts will not reap the fruit you’re hoping for. You’ve got to engage folks. That’s how you gain the trust of your community. Without trust and relationships you can’t be successful. That’s at the heart of principled leadership.”