Valerie Davisson, operating advisor for Orangewood Partners and former chief people officer for home-decor giant At Home, started out working full time and taking classes in the evening at the School of Continuing & Professional Studies (formerly University College) at Washington University in St. Louis, where she earned her master’s degree in human resource management. She was brought aboard a new leadership team for what once was a failing retail brand with a whopping 400 percent employee turnover rate, and helped build out an entirely new product from the ground up.
Keep reading to learn more about her journey and inspiration.
Tell me about your position at At Home.
I was brought in as chief people officer in 2013, along with the CEO and others on our leadership team, to scale our business and take it public. We basically consider it a 35-year-old startup, if you will, as formerly it was called Garden Ridge. Since then, we’ve completely rebranded and moved our headquarters from Houston to Dallas.
For me and my partners on the team, the biggest area of opportunity was really to help build a new company culture. We came into what I would call a broken culture that had suffered quite a bit at the hands of previous owners. We had over 400 percent employee turnover in our stores, which is unheard of, even in industries like fast food. We had to do a lot of trust rebuilding with our team. That started with our mission, vision, and values, and when you put those out there, you have to tell them why that’s important, and what their role is. You bring that along with changes and programs. Underneath that, it’s really a rewiring of the whole enterprise.
I began my career from small enterprise to large enterprise, to larger still, and have taken those experiences and worked backward. I’ve taken the process and discipline from larger environments and applied them to this 35-year-old startup environment. It’s small enough that you can still reach out and touch everyone, but the processes we’re putting in place are also extremely impactful.
You received your master’s degree in human resource management from WashU. What year did you graduate, and what lessons did you take away?
What year? If we had evolved past the horse and buggy, I think it was 1985 or 1986.
But really, it was through that pursuit of the Human Resources Management degree through the School of Continuing & Professional Studies (CAPS) that my passion for human resources was awakened, and seeing how it fits in with building a business. It is a more people-centric side of the business, as most people think. You’re hiring and helping people, but what I further discovered was the importance of designing a workforce that will deliver on business objectives, and aligning a workforce plan behind that. There’s nothing I’m more passionate about.
I was working full time during the day, so I took classes at night. My peers were all working in and studying different genres of business, but the skills you learn studying human resources, in particular, are ubiquitous. You can pack up them up and put them in your briefcase and transfer from business to business because as long as there are people in the business, there will always be a level of human resources required for that business’s success.
Do you remember a class or lesson that still resonates with you?
I remember I took an organization-design class that explored the principles behind the structure of an organization and how that can affect the whole outcome of what a business is trying to achieve. Professors brought that to life through an entirely different lens than I’d ever used to examine business practices before. There’s a professor there who had been there forever, and he taught this class on the Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow. That was his passion. At the time, the whole idea of ‘flow’ was deemed somewhat aloof, but it turns out there’s this whole science around what it means when an organization can achieve a focused, flow-like state. And the real challenge is how do you create that so that your workforce is as efficient as it can be? It was a frustrating and fascinating topic.
What originally brought you to St. Louis?
My family moved to St. Louis when I was 10. They left, and I stayed. I became a St. Louis girl. I had a boutique firm in town, but I knew I wanted to get an advanced degree. I thought it would help from a business perspective. The people side of the business is what I gravitated to first. WashU offered a unique experience—especially at the time—that really fit with my schedule. And there was so much underneath the whole profession functionally that doesn’t get a lot of attention on a day-to-day basis, but like anything else, once you start getting a deeper understanding, there are elements underneath the function that you get to experience through education.
At the boutique firm, we recruited doctors to work in hospitals and clinics, all over the United States, and I worked with a guy who had broken away from a larger firm. It was a great way to cut my teeth and learn that business from someone who had been there.
What did your journey look like after graduation?
I worked for Citicorp Mortgage, but then they went through a big downsizing. I took a job in Colorado with a retail organization and really started growing my career from there. It was hard to get a degree, get hired and then laid off. However, it helped me understand the journey and feelings of a person getting laid off. In my career, I’ve had to lay people off and downsize a workforce. You bring a very different perspective when you’ve been through it. You draw on your own experience and know that this isn’t the end of the road. You have it on your resume, and the experience you gained will be valuable somewhere else.
I had some severance, so I was able to take my time to some extent. But at the time, it feels very unfair—that the decision gets made in a room and you don’t have any input in who stays, who goes and why. It was the very first time I learned that things like that aren’t personal. Businesses make decisions all the time, and it’s not about whether you’re a good person or a bad person. It’s a business decision, and you have to move on. Most important is how you deal with it.
Eventually, I landed at Brinker International, and that was the first time I was a chief people officer. We had 100,000 employees, with six or seven different brands and restaurant concepts. It was really important to be able to look at the big picture and make decisions with that in mind.
What has your experience been like in these high-level, C-suite positions as a woman?
At the end of the day, deliver results. It might not always be fair, but no one said it was going to be. But if you deliver results, no one can take that away from you, no matter what. Going above and beyond will get you past any potential barriers in your way. Expecting other cultures or environments to change in order to accommodate you is a much more difficult pursuit. In the meantime, I believe it’s up to the individual to do an exceptional job.
There’s no doubt that having my advanced degree from WashU has opened doors for me. There are opportunities I’ve had because I had that degree, and without it, I may not have been considered.”
How did the skills you learned at WashU impact your journey?
I had the grounding and the learning that took place across disciplines, which helps you develop more tools to navigate any situation. Having that foundation to learn from other students, the professors, the stories and exchanges—all of that you’re packing away to take with you in any given situation to problem-solve.