CEO Spotlight: Sharon Roberson of YWCA Nashville & Middle TN

Sharon Roberson

The President and CEO of YWCA Nashville and Middle Tennessee shares lessons from navigating the financial crisis in '08, being a military kid, and what she's learned from leading the largest domestic violence shelter in the state.

Spark: Over the past year we've all experienced massive change with COVID-19, something that we never could have imagined a year ago. How has your world been in the last year?

Sharon: We've faced some of the greatest challenges. Really there's been challenges for the country, there have been challenges for the community, and there've been challenges for the YWCA.

            We operate the largest domestic violence shelter in the state. We provide more domestic violence services than anyone, and it is a 65 bed shelter. And that includes a crisis call line, a texting line. We also provide services for children in the community. As a result of that, our Weaver Domestic Violence Center had to stay open. In fact, it was more necessary than ever given the safer at home initiatives that were part of the safety standards for COVID-19. And so operating that shelter in the midst of a pandemic with domestic violence cases surging was the most challenging thing that we've had to do in the history of the Weaver Center. 

Can you go back before your role with the YWCA and tell us about how those jobs equipped you for what you're doing today? 

My background is a corporate attorney, primarily in the insurance world. I say that I've done the trifecta. I was a regulator working in government. My longest part of my career has been in the private sector, and now I'm in the nonprofit sector. So I can tell you about experiences all the way through, but I really think that the greatest benefit I've had going into this position was that, one, I knew that you really had to stay dedicated to whatever the mission was of the organization you're working for. Two, you really learn about dealing with people at all different points. There are people that work for government that are some of the most fabulous people I've ever worked with.

            Of course, in the private sector, people tend to get better financial resources, but there are those base level people that keep the organization going every day that work very hard. And so I think that foundation of being able to deal with different kinds of people really helped me going into the nonprofit world. So I can deal with the business personal corporation that wants to really contribute to our mission, but I have no problem with dealing with the people that are really trying to make it through a minimum wage and support their families and children. So dealing with different kinds of people really has been fundamentally helpful to me.

You navigated a giant organization through the financial crisis in 2008. Do you see any parallels or lessons learned from that experience to what you're doing today?

Yes, very much so. I think it really tells you something about yourself as a leader, because I will tell anyone that if you can manage through a crisis, you can manage through anything. I was general counsel for AIG company and later Operations Officer for AIG company as we went through the financial crisis, and our company was at the heart. We were one of those companies that were viewed as causing a major portion of the crisis.

            I will say this, is you really learn a lot about yourself. I'm a person that's very grounded in faith. And so that really helps sustain me. And I will tell anyone you find out the best and the worst of humans when you're going through a crisis. So I think that those who rise to the top and meet the crisis head on and find solutions will really, really benefit your organization.

            And you never know, you never know who's going to step up because some people are stellar employees when things are going wonderfully. When you're making tons of profits and everything's smooth and everything's good to go. They're not necessarily the same people that are going to step up when things are really going poorly. So, because I had seen that so much and had to make very difficult decisions and been in that crisis, I think that it really did help me in understanding that I shouldn't get angry. Because back then I would get frustrated with people who just really could not do what they needed to do. This really helped me a lot in really being able to understand that people are doing the best that they can do, given very difficult circumstances. And it's not something you get upset with. You just move on to the next person that can really meet the challenge.

How has your past shaped you into who you are today?

I'll go back to, believe it or not, when I was in fifth grade and I actually have a picture that someone just sent me because I happen to know people who are really into Facebook, which I am not. And they say, "Oh, look at this picture we have from fifth grade." And the reason that it was very important to me is this, I grew up in a military family. My father was 101 airborne. He spent 20 years in the military. I was born in Germany, the whole nine yards that go with being a military family, which I'm very proud of.

            And when we were ... my father in 1966 was in Vietnam. And so as a result of that, my mother, my mother was actually a teacher before I was born, so she was an educated black woman. One of the few that during that time had credentials to be a teacher. And so she sought a position at a school in Clarksville, Tennessee, which is right outside of Fort Campbell, and his Byrns Darden Elementary School. Little did she realize that Byrns Darden, this was their first year of integration at that school.

            I was in a class and I have the picture. I'm the only black child in the class. And it was tough. It was tough. I had not been exposed to that kind of racism before. I just thought that everyone, because military life, even though there was some racism, of course, everywhere in the United States and every institution, it had kind of given you this view of everybody was together, the black soldiers and white soldiers, the families, we'd play with white children on base.

            So I wasn't accustomed to this level of, we won't play with you because of the color of your skin. The teacher would not call on me for a solid year. I was a very smart child. I just was. I'll own it. As women, they say, women don't own it, but I will own it. And so I knew these answers. My mother was a teacher. I was smart. I was reading, and she would never call on me. There was a little girl, and I'll call her by name. Her name is Cassie. And she would always say, "Sharon's hand is up. Why won't you call on Sharon?" She was very defiant. We were little kids and she was very defiant. Why won't you call on her? And she often got in trouble. They said, "Kathy, you have to leave the room. You're not doing right," and this sort of thing.

            But she knew in her heart, a little white girl that something wasn't right about the situation. Now I do know that she came from a very, very large type religious family. And I don't know if that was the reason of her parenting or whatever. I wish that I could find her and ask her, "Why did you take up for me, even to your detriment?" Because people stopped being her friend because she was my friend. And I think that going through that stress at a young age where I knew I had to keep pushing through, I would go home, my mother said, "You just keep doing your work. You keep doing the right thing. You just keep being prepared." So I pushed through that.

            And then we had this ritual in my household because my father was in Vietnam. My mother says, "You just have to pray for your father every night." So my sister and I, literally there are these pictures of us on bended knees by our bed before we went to bed every night, and we asked God, we said, "We'll be good girls. We'll do the right thing if you bring our daddy home." And my father is 90 years old, as we speak and still alive, still going. So he answered. But I always think back to those days and that ritual

            I've tried to stay true to that little girl that I was. I've always tried to work hard. I've always tried to do the right thing and tell the truth. I've always tried to never discriminate or look down on someone, because I know how that feels to be the outsider. So I've worked very hard at that. I've always tried to make the institutions where I work the fair to all those involved.

            And I think that that really came from those lessons. And I always knew that despite someone being totally different from me, you could be white, black, brown, whatever, there are people that know the basics, have the basic integrity and morality to help every situation. So I've never judged on, "Well, those people don't like me," because you can't really judge people by what they appear to be when you just see them. So that to me was the hardest year, believe it or not.

What advice would you give to women who aspire to lead?

First of all, to not get themselves as wrapped up in, I'm going to be treated differently. And I guess that was easier for me because I took it for granted I would be treated differently, because we are treated differently as children, you just assume that, but I always thought that would never stop me.

            I always thought back to that discrimination holding me back. I just felt as though I'm going to outwork anyone. I'm going to be a valuable employee and work very, very hard. And I've always said people will often in these leadership groups that I'm on, I'm on a lot of panels with women. They'll say, "Well, women should ask for what they want." And I always said believe it or not, despite everyone looks at all these different positions I've had, I've never asked for a raise in my whole career. I've gotten a lot of money, but I've never asked for it. I have asked for extra responsibility.

            And I say that if you are prepared to sacrifice, and I tell everyone it's a sacrifice. You have to have really a lot of a support system. And I have two children. They're adults now, of course. And they've been through it with me and with my husband, but you have to have support. And I would say to young women that, first of all, get your support network. You're going to need support. You can't do it all yourself. You can't be a superwoman. I said, you can't have this career that's push, push, push, come home and cook dinner every night, do all the laundry, have a spotless house, and all of that. You're going to have to have some support system and people to help you.

            I think you're going to have to buy off from your whole support system, including your kids. Kids are going to have to understand that this is what mommy does. Bring them into your circle. When they get old enough, talk. When my kids were little, they knew what lawyers were. They knew what you did, and they become proud of that. But you really have to work hard at having, I call it that broader success, and success is not judged by your jobs and your money. That's one small portion. The success at the end of the day is having valid, good family relationships.

            And if you have a valid, good family relationships, good relationships with your children, with spouse and partner, with those around you and have good friends that will pay off and that really will help your career. It really will truly help your career. So I would go at it from that angle, as opposed to saying, "I've done X, Y, and Z for the company. Where's my money?" I just thought that's just not it. It may work for some people, but I think that actually being a value to the organization and actually being someone that's a contributor in a big way, I have to believe that that will help you get ahead.

Where did you learn how to delegate?

Delegation is very difficult, because you'll have a vision of how you want something to be and because you can work and do it yourself. But I really learned those lessons well from my mother, because my mother as being a teacher, she would say, and I knew there were things she could do really well, but she would have us do things, even things down to learning how to cook things or learning how to clean up. And I always remember that the reason that my children can cook to this day is spending the summers with their grandmother. Because you know, she was like, "We're in a program now."

            They had to get up, because my father says that they get up out of bed, and they had certain things they had to do. So they just learned to do things. And I learned that over time, people's skill sets get better at doing something, but you have to start off letting them do it, not necessarily to your standards, but they'll get there if they do it enough. And so they just learn by doing it. But it is difficult. That's probably my greatest challenge is turning the reins over to someone else. But I've learned certain things people do a lot better than I do. 

How can leaders overcome fear of failure?

Well, I think that people have to realize that it just happens. And I think that some people, I think it's a form of arrogance because "I cannot be wrong. I'm too smart to be wrong.” And so therefore when things can go wrong and they shy away from that responsibility, because it seems as though it's the end of the world, but people every day fail at things, brilliant people fail at things and they keep trying.

            Anyone that you see their story of achievement, they've had so many things, that didn't work, or this didn't work. It's all in how you survive. It's the resilience that, that failure gives you. There have been initiatives we've had, and I've said, "Oh, this is great." And we go about something and you can do something and you lose money on something. You have to look at, well, what did I learn from that? What are the good things about that failure?

            Even people with startups, they start a business, it doesn't work, but they learn so much. And a lot of people you see, they're very, very successful in business, had a lot of ventures that did not work well for them. They just kept at it and kept going to the next thing. And they learned from those experiences. So I would say that people have to get away from this, "I can't fail because if I fail it's over," and just go ahead and put yourself out there and do your best, and do your homework, though. Be prepared. Don't just get out there willy nilly and just try to do something that doesn't make sense. Really be prepared, do your homework. And then if it doesn't work out, then just learn from that.

What are some exciting things you're working on at the YW?

Earlier this year, the YW did what's called a 21-day racial equity and justice challenge. It takes 21 days to really educate yourself enough to change your habits. You get on there and it takes 10 to 20 minutes to go through and read articles and look at videos. And I think the difference is I think that people really didn't know what happened in the '60s. Even people that lived through the '60s.

            I had a very good friend call me and she was talking about the integration. She was part of the integration of a Nashville public school. She's a woman in her sixties. And she said that she really ... there was only one black boy in her class. And she said, she never understood how hard that was for him until she took our 21 day challenge. And this was someone that sat there every day. He always sat by himself. He wasn't interfacing a lot with the group. She said he was very quiet. So I think they took his quiet, which I guarantee you, he had been coached, like I was. Don't act out, don't act up. You're representing all of us. You have to be good. You have to do this.

            So he was probably brought up on that same way of thinking. And so yes, he sat there quietly. Yes, he took a lot and didn't fight back, but he had no power and nor should he have had to fight back like that. And so she took that to mean that it wasn't hard for him, but it was very difficult. I can guarantee you, it was difficult for him, but it wasn't until now she has that realization.

            So really what we're doing now is coming to terms with those unanswered issues or unresolved issues from those days, because everything's sort of evolved. The integration system, it sort of happened. So people sort of felt like, "Well, this is done," but all it really was, was painting over unresolved issues from those days.

Will the 21-day challenge be an opportunity for the community again?

Yes, because we've had close to 3000 people participating at different levels, and it's the kind of thing that you can do with much or all of it. And some people have had, we have separate groups, I've been asked to speak and to have debriefings. And we're looking now at next steps, because people say, "Now I know. Now I'm educated. What can I do?" And we're going to have the next steps.

            And I think there were really, really good people in our community that saw themselves as positive forces, but they had never taken an action step. And that's how I go back to when I was in fifth grade, there was a little girl there that said this wasn't the right thing to do. So even though if you probably took a poll in the classroom, even the others went along with it, they probably would not have independently treated me differently, but they weren't willing to stand up and say, "It's not right to do it." But that one girl did. That's what we want to empower others to do today.

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