Erin Davison of Big Brothers Big Sisters On Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Uncertain & Turbulent Times
Stay the course — Regardless of what is happening you have a mission to fulfill. That should never leave your priority list. You must remain operational. You are a business.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Erin Davison.
Erin Davison is the Chief Executive Officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Southwest Louisiana, the region’s largest donor and volunteer-supported mentoring network. The mission of BBBS is to create and support one-to-one mentoring relationships that ignite the power and promise of youth so they may achieve their full potential.
A seasoned nonprofit leader, Erin has over 25 years of fundraising, grant writing, program design and development, community outreach, and human resources experience. Since joining the organization in 2017, she has built a solid foundation of quality excellence, implemented innovative technology for enrollment and mentoring practices, streamlined processes and created efficiencies with BBBS service and delivery, and created and implemented MentorU, an innovative curriculum-based group mentoring and 1–1 program in Calcasieu Parish.
Against daunting odds, Erin found creative ways to financially sustain mentoring programs through a global pandemic and four natural disasters that impacted Southwest Louisiana (including Hurricane Laura in 2020) while building the capacity of youth in all six of the parishes (Allen, Beauregard, Calcasieu, Cameron, Jeff Davis, and Vernon Parishes) where BBBS of SWLA serves. In less than six years she grew her staff from five to seventeen, restructured the organization into a strong mid-level affiliate, diversified and strengthened the agency’s financial portfolio, increased DEI among staff, mentors, littles, and community stakeholders, and absorbed the Rapides Parish region to expand mentoring outreach to rural and underserved areas.
Erin is a dedicated civic volunteer; she was appointed to the Calcasieu Parish Children & Youth Planning Board in 2021, is a member of the Kiwanis Club of Southwest Contraband, serves on the Chamber SWLA Women’s Business Network Advisory Council, is a Graduate of the Chamber SWLA Leadership Class of 2018, Chamber SWLA Volunteer of the Year 2012, Thrive Magazine Thriving Thirty-Somethings Class of 2013, Thrive 2019 Leading Ladies in Business, is a Sustaining Member of Ellevate Louisiana, and a member of the CABL Leadership Louisiana class of 2023. She belongs to numerous industry organizations including the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), and the Imperial Calcasieu Human Resources Management Association (President, 2015–2017).
Erin holds a Master of Business Administration from the University of Phoenix and a Bachelor of Science in Sociology with a Minor in Social Work from Lamar University.
Erin has been married to her husband Chad for 24 years (who retired from the USCG in 2009 and is now a GS 12 Marine Inspector with DHS), has three bonus children, three granddaughters, one grandson, two dogs, and two cats. She loves NASCAR, reading, traveling, dancing, and spending time with family and friends. Fun fact: Erin is a former morning radio host.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I graduated from Lamar University in 1996 with a BS in Sociology with a minor in Social Work. I have always been curious about people, how they work, and what makes them “tick.” Someone suggested, while I was in college, that a sociology or social work degree would suit me well. Upon graduation I accepted a position with Life Resource MHMR in Beaumont, Texas as an outpatient case worker with the mental health side of the organization. Working with behavioral health clients was extremely challenging but rewarding. I loved assisting them with finding independent living, stability with medications and behavioral health support, speaking with them, sometimes for fun and sometimes having hard conversations, and uplifting them in their mental health journey. That pivotal two year experience working in the MHMR field gave me a solid foundation in working with diverse communities who are marginalized and often unseen and unheard in society. My career path has never been “planned,” which has allowed me to work in various industries such as higher education, behavioral health, occupational health, and talent acquisition/HR. Upon completing my MBA in 2013, I was ready to lead an organization into growth and opportunity, which opened the door for me to become the CEO of BBBS SWLA.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are so many that have mentored me along the way but the first one that stands out is Dane Bolin, Assistant Administrator for the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury. Dane and I have known each other for almost 10 years. We met when I was going through the interview process for a new position created with the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury. During my interview process, I met with Dane and the interview committee multiple times. Unfortunately, I did not get the position at the time. When the CEO position with BBBS SWLA opened, Dane and I spoke and he strongly recommended me for the position; he said he was impressed with me, my experience, my community passion, and said that the BBBS SWLA CEO position would be beneficial for me AND for the organization. That was the start of a great friendship/mentorship between Dane and me. He calls me “kid” every time we speak and has been a wonderful mentor through my six year journey with BBBS SWLA. He doesn’t sugar coat anything but is always in my corner.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your organization started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Big Brothers Big Sisters of America started in 1904 with one vision and purpose, to mentor young men that were connected to the juvenile justice system. Over the years, our mission has grown to include young women, LGBTQIA, BIPOC, and other races and ethnicities across the nation. In 1984 BBBS SWLA was established in Southwest Louisiana and for almost 40 years we have mentored thousands of youth ages 6–18. Youth that are now adults and thriving in their communities across the nation.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
2020–2022 is what I refer to as the “apocalypse” in Southwest Louisiana. When I started in the CEO position with BBBS SWLA, we were a small organization that had lessened its footprint for many years. From 2017–2020 I built a stronger financial portfolio, better youth safety and quality of delivery protocols for our youth mentoring programs, we engaged and retained compassionate and experienced staff, and began to rebuild the board of directors to move from advisory to strategic. In March 2020, that all changed when the President gave the stay-home order due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Immediately I had to move my organization from in-person mentoring activities to virtual mentoring activities. I had to close sixty-five big/little matches in accordance with our program policies, and school-based mentoring programs were paused due to the stay-home orders so that my staff, bigs, littles, parents/guardians, and board members were safe in their own environments. We had to cancel our largest annual fundraiser within just two weeks of the event date, losing an estimated $120K in fundraising revenue.
Fast forward to the Summer of 2020, we were finally reopening the community and reopening our mentoring programs. Then on August 27, 2020, Hurricane Laura drastically impacted Lake Charles, Louisiana, and the Southwest Louisiana region. I immediately shifted into an extremely stressful survival and recovery mode for the next 18 months. Not only did I have to keep the organization open, keep my staff employed, and our financial portfolio strong, I had to ensure that over 150 youth, mentors, parents/guardians, and community stakeholders were safe while dealing with the impact of a major hurricane and a pandemic. As if things couldn’t get worse, in October of 2020 Hurricane Delta slammed into our community followed by Winter Storm Uri in January 2021, and the great one hundred year flood in May of 2021 — yes, FOUR federally declared natural disasters in less than a year! This is how I kept our organization going.
I immediately connected with one of our sister affiliates in Texas, BBBS Lone Star, which took over all youth safety checks and family tracking two days post Hurricane Laura. This enabled my staff and me to mitigate our immediate family needs and begin recovery. In November of 2020, we transitioned back into recovery-operational mode and began to transition our bigs/littles/families from BBBS Lone Star back to my local program team. I secured a funding partner and was able to purchase an AT&T Hotspot for them to use from their home, camper, hotel room, or wherever they were residing at the time. Connectivity was KEY for us to remain operating for youth safety and support. I applied for every disaster recovery grant and funding program I could find, and I leveraged existing partners to continue to support us, and possibly add to their annual funding investment. I had to find a temporary office space to move into, as our building was not operational for use until after hurricane repairs were complete. And I had to continue to serve youth as our primary focus. In December of 2020 we made our first post-pandemic and post-Hurricane community based match in Southwest Louisiana!
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
The truth is that I considered giving up daily, sometimes hourly. The magnitude of the disaster in our community was overwhelming, pictures and videos don’t do it justice. Hurricane Laura was a beast! But a leader leads through the best of times and especially during the worst of times. I am stubborn so I don’t give up that easily. As soon as I hear “no” I am like, nope. The word NO is just a maybe in my language. The motivation? Fight or flight. I am a fighter, so I guess it is in my DNA to stay, fight, and win. I have always had a drive to succeed for as long as I can remember. Some say you can attribute it me being a middle child, some say it’s my love of Wonder Woman, but I think it comes from my internal compass that lives with compassion for my community, extreme compassion for youth and families, and the idealistic view that I can change the world. Or it could just be my ego that reared its head for three years. If not me, then who?
I’m an author and I believe that books have the power to change lives. Do you have a book in your life that impacted you and inspired you to be an effective leader? Can you share a story?
The Mountain is You: Transforming Self Sabotage into Self Mastery by Brianna Wiest. Of all the books I have read, this one spoke to me. My friend Jay Parsons with Hayah Consulting recommended it. Jay is a life coach and he and I had a life coaching session in the Spring of 2022. That was a pivotal time for me. I was living with PTSD from living in fight mode for over two years, and I was questioning if I still belonged in my role or if it was time for me to move on. Jay offered me an opportunity to do the work; so, I did. It reaffirmed that I am in the right role, that it wasn’t time for me to leave BBBS SWLA, but things had to change. The first thing that had to change was ME- I was the mountain. I was so busy surviving, that I never stopped to change the self-sabotage that I was living in (why me, why this, etc.) and turn that into self-mastery. I had everything I needed inside, I just needed to stop building a mountain around it.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Don’t give in to the fear. The phoenix rises from the ashes. When I am backed against a wall and I don’t see a viable way out, I make my own way out. If you genuinely believe in your mission, your team, and your community, you must never give in to the fear of making a mistake, making someone mad, disappointing someone, or spending money responsibly. Business 101 — you must spend money to make money. If it is critical to your organization’s mission, spend the money. I grew my staff from eight to 16 between 2020–2022. I launched two new mentoring programs. I was confident that spending critical infrastructure money that I really didn’t have was going to pay off, and it has.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate, and engage their team?
Snacks. Lots of snacks. Seriously, listening and being empathetic is the most impactful thing you can do. Show your team that you are also hurting, scared, fearful, but that we are all going to come out of this as a family. Give them the time necessary to care for themselves, their family, house, or whatever they need. Position mental health and self-care front and center in any conversation during a difficult time. One of the best decisions I made was bringing in an EPA (Employee Assistance Program) fully funded by the organization.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Straightforward with full transparency. Period. You don’t have to share all the sordid details, but it should come directly from you. You are the leader. One thing I have always promised my board of directors, my staff, and my community is that they will hear the good, bad, and the awesome directly from me and NOT someone else. Integrity is key.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
You can and must! Since I became CEO in 2017, I have never stopped making plans. The future will always be unpredictable. We are not seers; we can’t predict what will be when we work through today and plan for tomorrow. It is going to sound silly, but the past three years have allowed me to break the barriers of what is expected of me and my role and be free to innovate, find new funding, continue to diversify my organization’s financial portfolio, grow youth served and staff numbers, open a new satellite office in a rural region we serve, and start an endowment that will future proof our organization from future catastrophe. We started creating those plans in 2017 with no way of knowing the tribulations ahead for us.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Cash is king. Every healthy business or organization should have a healthy reserve fund of NO LESS THAN 10 months of operating costs. If you do not have a healthy reserve fund, you will not make it through turbulent times. Fact.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Not asking for funding. Waiting for a white knight to save them. Waiting for the government to save them. Or just giving up. You do all four of those things and you will definitely fail. Instead, stay the course, continue working on and in your strategic plan, continue to look for more opportunities, and fight for your organization.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Lean down the budget — In March of 2020 I had to lean down my operating budget to anticipate that funding and fundraising would be significantly impacted during the Pandemic. Leaning down, in my book, means no travel unless it is a necessity, no outside conferences or training, and lean fringe benefits such as cokes and snacks, etc. Anything that you can eliminate or reduce in your overall budget helps, no matter how small it might seem.
Mobilize — Mobilize your team and board of directors. Prioritize what is essential, what is non-essential, and what may be paused. I met immediately with my staff and board of directors to review everything that we did, what we could pause, what financial challenges were anticipated, and to talk through creative solutions to meet the challenges.
Stay the course — Regardless of what is happening you have a mission to fulfill. That should never leave your priority list. You must remain operational. You are a business.
Rest — I found myself not “resting” during the turbulent times but giving rest options to my staff. BIG mistake. You MUST refill your cup if you are going to continue to fill others’ cups.
Know when to give up — Now, this doesn’t mean that you quit or run away. However, you should know when to give up on something that is just not going to work out or work in your mission’s favor.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I love and hate this one but — Everything happens for a reason. Why else would I have survived cancer 11 years ago? Or have you personally and professionally thrived for the past three years? God, the universe, whatever you believe. I say it’s reasons and seasons!
How can our readers further follow your work?
The best place to follow me is on my LinkedIn page. I also post updates about the organization to my Twitter account. We are always looking for mentors who live in Southwest Louisiana and donors from anywhere to support the important work we do with young people or contribute to our new Big Defender Fund endowment. Find out more about our organization and mission at www.bbbsswla.org.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!
Erin Davison of Big Brothers Big Sisters On Five Things You Need To Be A… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.