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Green Chips has a conversation with community leader and American Red Cross Regional CEO, Scott Emerson

July 14, 2015

As this is a feature about community leaders, what do you think makes a good leader?

I have to say honesty, mixed with integrity, a lot of passion, and a little vision on top. If you have those elements, you can navigate almost any kind of opportunity, or change, or conflict.

Do you have a personal philosophy or approach to life?

I do. Its about the journey. I think people need to not sweat the small stuff because we get very task-oriented in our daily world and we need to be more people focused. So, I think, being able to live in the moment more and interact with people as humans rather than resources is important.

What was your major in college and your path to your current position?

I started out doing nursing, for an Air Force scholarship, and then changed and left college for a few years. When I came back, I went into criminal justice because that is the field I was working in at the time. I learned a lot more the second round because I was ready for college at that point. I volunteered for the Red Cross during that whole time. In the small rural community I grew up in, you did sports, 4H and farming, church, or you did Red Cross. What drew me to the Red Cross was the variety of things they did, the fundamental principles they stood for – treating everyone as equal and the same – and I saw an opportunity for a kid, at the time, to do something greater than himself. It was an incredible journey.

Is this where you thought you would be?

Not at all. When I was in law enforcement, and volunteering, I turned down a paid staff position with Red Cross twice. As a volunteer, I liked being able to say, “no.” I also enjoyed it so much that I didn’t want to get burned out. Eventually, I was persuaded and moved to Springfield Missouri as the Director of Emergency Services. Most of my Red Cross career has been in disaster services then eventually the CEO position opened here, in Vegas, and I took it. I never planned to be CEO – I have to consciously reconnect myself with the mission and the people delivering the mission because once you get into an administration role, you can get disconnected from that, if you aren’t careful.

Is there one word that best describes how you work?

Methodical. I don’t like to do stuff twice, or do it over, and I like to make an impact the first time.

What keeps you engaged/passionate about your job; what drives you?

I derive value and satisfaction from two things: number 1, helping people; number 2, empowering our folks to help people. There is a sense of service and empowerment here so that’s what I look for and what feeds me every day. You can walk through this office right now and most of the people you encounter are volunteers – you wouldn’t know the difference between them and paid staff. We are 97% volunteers in our business model. We have some really incredible people that we couldn’t afford to pay and they are here for some awesome reasons. Being able to see them do good and see the people coming through the lobby getting help, is pretty powerful. Its good stuff.

How do you re-charge?

I just had this conversation at home last week. When I was in law enforcement and other jobs; those were jobs. I volunteered to do this for free. This isn’t a job for me. I don’t get drained. Really, I see the paycheck as allowing me to continue my volunteer pursuits full time.

What are you better at than anyone else and what is your secret?

Strategic execution as evidence by the Strength’s Finder Map behind me, where I have 3 strengths in the executing box, and that comes from my law enforcement background and my disaster background because there is an opportunity cost if you don’t do something quickly. You have to make judgement calls without all of the information, I call it the “ready, shoot, aim concept.”

Where are you from originally and what has surprised you the most about this community?

I grew up in a small town of 8,000 people south of Kansas City, Missouri. In the nonprofit sector, I have been surprised by the opportunity for growth for nonprofits but I didn’t realize that because the city grew up so quickly, nonprofits, haven’t had the chance to catch up and they are probably about half the size of what they need to be for a community of our size. I also think there is a huge opportunity for us to educate the philanthropists in tow. There are a lot of folks with first generation money, and they aren’t sure how to spend it to do good. I have had more of those conversations here than anywhere else. When you look at town, the buildings and schools are named after people who are still alive. That doesn’t happen anywhere else! There is a lot of room for organizational growth in this sector (social services, etc.)  but we are getting better at coordination so we aren’t duplicating and that’s exciting.

What is your biggest hope for this community in the next 10 years? 50?

I would hope that in the next 10 years people realize that education is the key for independence and sustainability for our community. There is a huge risk to us as a community by not getting the education thing right. There are a lot of people trying to do something about it but the problem seems so big that they get overwhelmed by what needs to be done. A lot of our youth have phenomenal potential that don’t get a spotlight so I have great hope but hope is not the best strategy. I am encouraged that we can continue to move the ball forward in the education realm – and I think we can start that in the next 10 years.

In the next 50, I hope we are like a lot of other communities. I hope we can take this pioneer spirit that we have and marry that with the phenomenal resources we have in this town, that no one else has, and marry all that together to really make the altruistic part of our dna stronger and greater. And getting folks connected to our community. There are so many first generation families here now – that will take route in the next 50 years and we can really embrace the uniqueness and flavor that is Las Vegas.

What app can’t you live without?

Honestly, and this is going to sound really strange, we have an expense reimbursement app called Concur. It has decreased the stress in my life dramatically. It pulls all my transactions from my work credit card, connects them with photos of my receipts, and automatically send them to my boss. It also handles mileage and travel expenses. It saves SO MUCH time and makes my life so much easier.

What is the best advice you ever received?

When I was in law enforcement, I had a circuit judge that really took to me and I viewed him as a mentor.  He told me the one thing that separates the mediocre folks from the exceptional folks is they spend 15 minutes/day learning more about a topic or themselves. I have found that to be true, it’s simple and something that I can do.

What advice would you give to young professionals starting out?

My expectations are simple. Show up on time and do what you say you are going to do. I have a low tolerance for excuses. Master those simple basics and they will set you apart.

And, one more thing…. “I don’t know” is a great assessment of your education and knowledge, but that doesn’t need to be shared with me. What I try to coach staff in, is rather than saying “I don’t know” come back with saying what you plan on doing about it: “let me find out, I’m interested in finding out about that too, etc.” – it is a much more eager and interesting way of dealing with a question. You are no longer a victim of “somebody didn’t teach me” you are an adult learner of “I am going to go seek this out.”

What is your favorite word?

Muskrat. I love it on Meet the Fockers as their code word for “calm” and I’m from Missouri so it is a hick-ish, sort of back-country word.

Last question, what are you reading right now?

Last night, it was “how to install your ceiling fan” because I believe in purposeful, short, works. Other than that, it is management books. My favorite one is, “What Got You Here, Won’t Get You There.”