Shannon Stephenson: “Understand the expectations people have of you”

Spend some time in our shoes. There are so many deeper issues than what you see on the surface. Listen to the experts, and go spend some time in the field. Spend time at clinics, at social service agencies. Take off your title, go serve one day, two days, a week. This can really help […]

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Spend some time in our shoes. There are so many deeper issues than what you see on the surface. Listen to the experts, and go spend some time in the field. Spend time at clinics, at social service agencies. Take off your title, go serve one day, two days, a week. This can really help you understand how decisions and policies impact people. The easiest decision isn’t necessarily the best decision.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Shannon Stephenson.

Shannon Stephenson is the Chief Executive Officer of Cempa Community Care, formerly Chattanooga CARES. Shannon comes from a background in regulatory compliance, public health and safety, business administration, and emergency management.

Shannon has a proven track record as a pioneer in cultivating the values of an organization to lead it to success. As an innovative and strategic leader, she uses her visionary approach to move the agency forward by developing culture, enhancing communication, creating strong alliances, and building high-performing teams in a desirable work environment.

As an emerging leader in healthcare administration, Shannon has engaged as a speaker and panelist concentrating on innovative practices, fiscal oversight, and program compliance. Nationally, she serves as President of the Ryan White Clinics for 340B Access. Regionally, she serves as the President for the Association of Governmental Accountants. Locally, she serves as a board member or committee member with several community-based organizations.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was running my family business, and I decided I wanted to do more. It was essentially operating on its own at that point, and we decided we didn’t want to grow it further because we felt that if we tried to scale it, we would lose the quality of what we had built.

I connected with a friend to put my feelers out for contract work with a nonprofit or business that needed financial assistance. Lo and behold, I was notified about Chattanooga CARES. (Cempa’s original name). Their finance director had just quit, along with their executive director — there was lots of turnover at the time. I was brought in as a consultant to get the organization’s finances back on track. That led me to become the interim executive director and eventually the CEO.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Our staff does so many great things — this is really hard for me to answer! But I would say that the thing that’s most interesting to me is all about our commitment to people and how that has trickled down into our community. As you might have deduced from my first answer, things were not in ideal shape when I first began working with the organization. There were so many people who didn’t get along, the board was in upheaval, people were literally working against each other. I remember coming home in tears and my husband saying, “You don’t have to go back.” But the patients needed me, the staff needed me… I had found my passion.

Fast forward about four-and-a-half years, and I am so incredibly proud of where we have come. We have gone from turmoil and turnover to becoming one of our area’s leading community health organizations. I think a key factor in all of that was building trust. Our team had to trust where we were going to be able to instill trust in our patients and community members. They had to trust me, they had to trust each other. Rebuilding an environment of trust isn’t an easy task, and it doesn’t happen overnight. But if you really commit to this culture shift, it will pay dividends down the road.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Chattanooga C.A.R.E.S. was originally founded as an HIV and AIDS support organization, and as Cempa, we still do a great deal of outreach for HIV testing. We had an intern once upon a time helping out with some of our community outreach events, and we told him he was going to go to a drag show to help with testing. While he was getting ready, he asked, “Do I need to bring earplugs?” He thought we meant “drag race” when we said “drag show.” It was hilarious, and he was such a good sport. The story still cracks me up. The lesson learned here is to always be as clear as you can in communication!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

So, I mentioned trust-building in reference to our staff and running a successful organization, and trust is also at the foundation of our ability to make an impact in our community. We are dealing with some challenging topics — our city has some areas that represent the worst health outcomes in our state, and if we’re going to help improve those disparities, our community has to trust us. They have to know we’re not judging them and that we are here to treat them with respect and make them our priority.

We’re also very strategic about our offerings. Needs vary among communities, and it’s our job to use the data we have to determine needs and then meet people where they are. For instance, we rolled out primary-care offerings in 2019 because we knew people were dealing with health problems and comorbidities that could likely be managed if they just had that primary care provider who could connect them with support services at a holistic level. And again, in order to get people to engage with you, they have to trust that you have their best interest at heart.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

There are so many stories. We had one young lady who graduated after becoming connected to Cempa. There was a mother who had lost her child, her home, and was incarcerated. Eventually, she regained custody of her daughter. Another person came in through harm reduction, had lost their job, their family, and was living on the streets. This individual was able to get into treatment and wound up turning their life around. It’s amazing to see what can happen when you treat someone with kindness and compassion — as if they were your own family — and give them the tools and resources to make their life better.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Spend some time in our shoes. There are so many deeper issues than what you see on the surface. Listen to the experts, and go spend some time in the field. Spend time at clinics, at social service agencies. Take off your title, go serve one day, two days, a week. This can really help you understand how decisions and policies impact people. The easiest decision isn’t necessarily the best decision.
  2. Don’t believe everything that you read online. The internet is an incredible resource, but you can’t get your M.D. from Google University. Look for an expert you can trust. The internet is only as good as the people posting and citing information, and there’s a lot of misinformation out there.
  3. Actually interact with your neighbor. Talk and listen to people that are in your community — people who look like you, people who don’t look like you, people who live near you, people who don’t live near you, people of similar backgrounds, and people of totally different backgrounds. Take time, have face-to-face interaction (which I know is even harder right now with the pandemic).

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

To me, being a leader is more about your actions and motivations than it is about a particular set of rules or definitions. Leadership is championing the people who work with you to be able to move things forward — probably further than you imagine they could go. It’s training people so well that you give them a better chance at success than maybe you even had. It’s humility. It requires confidence and giving people something to believe in. Leadership done well creates a snowball effect of positive change that evolves and grows.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. You’re going to fail. You’re not going to win every battle. It is what you do with that failure that makes all the difference. Making mistakes will give you some of the best experiences you can have as you learn and grow.
  2. Do not micromanage. Let people make their own way. Give them the opportunity to make their own decisions and take time to discuss the good and the bad of those decisions. People need to know you’re going to give them a chance to do it right.
  3. Understand the expectations people have of you. And also make sure the people who answer to you know what’s expected of them. If expectations aren’t set on either end, it can create a lot of chaos.
  4. You’re not going to make it through life in leadership without a dog. In all seriousness, not everybody is going to be happy to see you all the time. That can be heavy. You need something or someone that always makes you happy (a dog). Or get a cat and just get used to it. 🙂
  5. Take time for yourself. You can’t do everything, and in order to be a resource to other people, to empower them to do great work, you have to be the best version of yourself. I still struggle with this one and wish I had it engrained in me early on.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I would love to do something that embraces people’s differences and uniqueness in a way that ultimately highlights our sameness. All of us have so many interesting backgrounds — our cultures, our experiences, our histories. If there was a way to pull positives from our stories and highlight and share those, I think we could all learn so much — and probably uncover a lot of similarities.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Be brief, be bright, and be seated.” (As in make your point concisely, be positive and knowledgeable, and then sit down and listen!) Leaders tend to be the ones that are willing to speak up and share their thoughts, and it can be harder for us to listen. In my life, the more I focused on this motto, the more action I witnessed.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

In my opinion, and according to many “Google experts” out there, humor can improve your overall mental health and wellbeing. If there is anyone I could sit down with right now, it would be Kevin Hart — because he is hilarious. I could have never imagined or predicted 2020, and laughter has always been my best medicine, so, Kevin Hart, let’s get together and talk about how 2020 kicked us all in the face. (I am laughing just thinking about how this conversation might go.)

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Personal LinkedIn:

Cempa social channels:




This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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