Maximizing impact and empathy

Q and A with Shannon Lapsley, B.B.A.'09

Shannon Lapsley headshotShannon Lapsley, B.B.A.’09, has had a career that has taken her from internships with the Augusta GreenJackets and Baltimore Orioles to full-time positions with the Tampa Bay Rays and other sports and nonprofit organizations. Today, she is the senior director of development and marketing for YWCA Nashville & Middle Tennessee. Lapsley has found that community impact and empathy are the things that ground her experiences, decisions and the direction she wants to see businesses move.

She shared her thoughts with us in a Q and A that covers these topics and more.

What is the most interesting experience that you have had in your career thus far? Please explain.

I’m very fortunate to have had some incredible experiences in my career so far. Of those experiences, memorable highlights include:

  • Working with Jackie Robinson’s daughter to award a scholarship.
  • Witnessing the Tampa Bay Rays’ first-ever no-hitter.
  • Managing Joe Maddon’s Thanksmas—his annual initiative to feed hundreds of people in the homeless community during the holidays. 
  • Being a part of the infamous Game 162 on September 28, 2011. 
  • Working with a former member of *NSYNC to surprise guests at a fundraiser. 
  • Creating one of the first fundraisers at TopGolf Nashville with Jake Owen and Charles Kelley of Lady Antebellum.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in today’s business world?

Every industry faces unique challenges. The most obvious and prominent challenge we are all facing, and will continue to feel the impact of, is the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the nonprofit sector, we face the challenge of staff turnover. I am working to address this by offering the highest possible starting salary when I hire, as well as continuing to offer opportunities for growth and a clear advancement plan. Corporate giving priorities are also always changing and a constant challenge to navigate. I stay up-to-date on which social causes are at the forefront for corporate donations and have constant conversations regarding giving priorities and how what we offer as a nonprofit addresses these priorities. The goal is to make YWCA Nashville & Middle Tennessee the charity of choice for corporate philanthropy and partnerships. 

Another ongoing challenge is navigating generational dynamics and their impact on professional relationships, marketing and an organization’s ability to differentiate itself while remaining authentic. 

What excites you about your work every day?

I’m incredibly grateful to have landed in a career where everything I do positively impacts someone else’s life. My experiences in my work stay with me and feed my desire to maximize our impact. 

Some examples of experiences I’ve had in my career that demonstrate why my job excites me are:

  • Being able to make multiple Make-A-Wish children’s wishes come true.
  • Working with a 14-year-old with cancer on a fundraising initiative, getting the call when he was told he was cancer-free after three years of treatment, introducing him to a new baseball coach, and then getting a call from him one year later that he was recruited to play baseball in college.
  • Making  children at the hospital smile by playing Bingo, participating in reverse trick-or-treat, or inviting a celebrity to sing to them and play games. 
  • Most recently, working through the COVID-19 pandemic. As the public is told to stay safe at home, not everyone is safer at home. Women and children who are victims of domestic violence are forced to stay home with their abuser. Working for the largest provider of domestic violence services in the state of Tennessee, calls to our crisis line are up over 55% from last year. We are working around the clock to keep the doors of our shelter open, maintaining a healthy and safe environment for women and children.

What is a topic that you think is vital but not getting as much attention as it should in business circles? 

I believe more attention needs to be placed on the mental health and emotional well-being of employees. While there is a lot of focus on professional development, I feel there needs to be an emphasis on personal health and growth of employees. I am hoping to see more companies taking steps in the right direction in terms of supporting the mental health and the well-being of their employees.

Another topic in need of more attention is properly paying, supporting and recruiting for public sector jobs. 

There is also still a lot of work to be done addressing issues like equality, diversity and inclusion, but thankfully businesses are implementing programs and policies to provide a more inclusive work environment for their employees.

How do you describe your leadership style? What do you find to be three essential characteristics of good leaders?

I focus my leadership style on being authentic, leading by example, continuously learning, leading with passion, and not being afraid to admit my weaknesses. 

To me, three essential characteristics of a good leader are dependability, conscientiousness and open-mindedness. 

What has been the hardest lesson you have had as a business professional? Why did it make you a stronger leader?

There are times when life can completely knock you down, yet you still have to show up to your job and do it well. What I have learned is that while getting the job done is possible and important in tough times, so is being kind to people and earning their respect. 

There was a particular year for me that was very tough. I would confidently lead meetings with influential business leaders, steward donors and plan fundraising events. I held myself accountable to perform to the highest standards, all while struggling to get myself through each day. I became homeless due to a fire that destroyed my house, everything I owned, and my entire life as I knew it. People I held meetings with had no idea I owned only one pair of heels, a handful of shirts and pants, and that I was sleeping at a friend’s house while trying to rebuild my life. During this time, it became clear to me that general kindness was needed in today’s professional world, and I told myself that I would work to make kindness central to how I lead. I vowed to be a leader who balances empathy and kindness while continually meeting my performance expectations and holding others accountable for theirs. Because of everything I have gone through and the lessons I have learned so far, my level of empathy has significantly improved relationships, earned people’s trust, and gained respect throughout my career. 

What is the professional accomplishment that you are most proud of?

I was named one of Nashville’s Top 30 Under 30 in 2017, and also received the 2018 Nashville Emerging Leader Award for the nonprofit industry. Nashville is a thriving city with a robust network of young professionals who are doing amazing things. It’s an honor to even be considered, let alone recognized, for the work I do. I am still humbled and grateful that Nashville has embraced me as one of its own.

How did your academic experience in the college of business help you in your career?

College, in general, gave me a safe environment to learn how to push boundaries, challenge beliefs, and not be afraid to speak up and find my voice. I was surrounded by professors who supported me professionally, and respectfully, while challenging me, and allowing me to challenge them in return. From the very beginning of my career, I haven’t been afraid to speak my mind and challenge my peers. Because of my experience in the Haworth College of Business, I have been able to be a problem solver for a variety of organizations and advance to where I am today.

Who was your favorite professor in the college of business? Why? 

In my previous response, I mentioned I had professors who allowed me to challenge them back ... I’d like to thank Dr. Eckert for that! He is a wealth of knowledge who, as I am now realizing, has some serious patience! The sales and business marketing program is filled with many strong personalities, which is what makes it so successful, and Dr. Eckert knows how to teach, lead and empower each of those vibrant personalities.

What else would you like to share about your career, life or WMU experience?

I’m grateful that my parents insisted I visit WMU when I was looking at colleges. Choosing WMU was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made, and I am where I am today because I’m a Bronco!