Bill and Kathy Magee: Operation Smile Founders Make a Difference

They are among America's Best Leaders for bringing smiles to children's faces around the world.

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When Bill and Kathy Magee traveled to the Philippines as medical volunteers in 1982, they had no idea that the trip would change their lives. But when they found they could operate on only 40 children with cleft lips, cleft palates, and other life-altering facial deformities, turning away 250 others, the couple decided to found Operation Smile. Bill, 65, juggles his job as a plastic surgeon with running the organization. Kathy, 64, is a former nurse and social worker but works full time these days for the charity. Now in its 27th year, Operation Smile has helped more than 135,000 children worldwide. The Norfolk, Va., residents spoke with U.S. News about their successes and challenges and about working as a couple. Excerpts:

What are some organizing principles that allow you to be effective?

Bill: We tried very, very hard not to create a bureaucracy. Once you create a bureaucracy, not only do you increase costs, but you have a hierarchy. All you have to have is someone in the middle who says no to someone instead of saying yes, and then you stop the whole process. We are a can-do organization. We tell people all the time, even if someone calls and it seems like you'll never be able to do what they're requesting, the very first response isn't "Sorry, we can't do that." It's "Let me see what I can do to see if this can happen." And then explore it a little bit.

What have been some of the biggest sacrifices you've made?

Kathy: For [Bill], if you're in a practice, then you're out on these missions, you have to double your time. You're doubling what you're doing before you go out on your trip, you're doing 150 surgeries the week you're out on the trip, and then you come back and you've got all this follow-up on your patients here.

What leadership traits do you each bring to the table?

Kathy: My husband has this vision. We were going to implement our [organization's plan for its] 25th anniversary two years ago. He says, "Well, let's go around the world, 25 countries in a week, 5,000 surgeries." Then there are the details. I'll work in the office with the team and really start to put down the nuts and bolts to make it work.

Bill: My wife is very, very strong at never letting something go by. She is very detailed in making sure that all those things happen, and who's doing them, and how we're going to do them, and how do we raise the money.

That anniversary sounds ambitious.

Bill: We positioned 1,900 volunteers in 21 countries in 41 sites and operated on 4,100 children in 10 days. When you start thinking about all the logistics, that was phenomenal. But we knew we could do it. If you're not thinking about something that's bigger than life, bigger than you are, then your organization isn't going to grow.

After a similarly massive trip, you came under some heavy crit icism, including that the organization cared more about publicity than delivering quality care to children. How do you deal with that?

Bill: In 1999, we did something called the World Journey of Hope. We went to 18 countries in nine days and operated on 5,300 kids. There was a rash of critical analysis. It was painful, but it was probably the best thing that could have happened to us.

Why?

Bill: You have to hunker down and take a good look at what the criticism was and make sure you perfect your system so you don't have to live through that again. So we would have never been able to do the World Journey of Smiles in 2007 if it hadn't been for the tough time in 1999, 2000.

What advice do you have for those hoping to lead a similarly over whelming cause?

Bill: You have to have a passion for what you do. And you have to really, really believe in your vision. You're not going to see the results of your actions, many times, for years. You also cannot be afraid to take risks.

Kathy: When we go back to the Philippines after 25 years, kids are knocking on our doors—they're not kids anymore—saying, "Thank you. I never would have had a life. I am a university student now because of you." That is when you finally say, "Oh, my gosh, I didn't realize that if you stick with it, if you drive this thing, you do make a difference in this world."