EXTRA | Leaders Scaling Up Like You: CEO of Adventure Nannies (Full Interview)

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Woman with Child in Home Office

In ‘Leaders Scaling Up Like You’, we interview some of our rapidly scaling executives on how they are leading their fast-growing companies. Each featured leader is committed to two success imperatives; igniting a company that makes the world a better place while simultaneously developing themselves as a leader.

This quarter’s interview is with CEO Shenandoah Davis of Adventure Nannies. You can read the full interview below or an abridged version here. 

Leading a Nanny Agency During COVID-19

Ms. Davis and Adventure Nannies faced a uniquely difficult time this year managing the direct impact of COVID-19 on their business. However, like any wise and innovative entrepreneur, Ms. Davis ideated with her founder and leadership team to find a new business model that they could not only pivot to but that they could leverage into a rapidly scaling company that is doing better now than ever.

Shenandoah has been leading Adventure Nannies since 2016. Adventure Nannies is a full-service nanny agency that initially focused on matching top nannies, educators, & household employees, to active and traveling families on adventures around the world. For obvious reasons, their initial business model was hit HARD by the current pandemic. Instantly travel shut down and the demand for traveling nannies started to decline.


We asked Ms. Davis what it was like to lead a company impacted with COVID, and how she went about landing on Adventure Nannies’ new business model.

“In March when COVID hit, I was in Germany and was instantly faced with the realization that I may have difficulty getting back into the US. [I became aware] that the next few weeks would determine whether or not I was going to be firing my staff of 10 over Zoom. 

Our high-touch business went from 30 clients to 4 overnight. We immediately gave families the option to put their searches on hold. We suspended commissions temporarily and quickly shifted our focus to offering private educators under the assumption that many families would be seeking private educators for the rest of the school year and the upcoming academic year. We were able to devote our staff's extra time preparing new resources to share with families who were considering this option. 

While we had been offering private educator searches for 5 years, it was a small percentage (less than 5%) of our annual revenue, but our assumption was on target and  in 2020, this part of the business grew to over 30% of our revenue.” 


What are the new differentiators that set Adventure Nannies apart from other nanny agencies? How did you distinguish these for the company?

 “A concentrated focus on education and diversity, our ability to attract amazing candidates from all different walks of life (ex-Google or Facebook employees, Radiolab producers, macrobiotic chefs, foreign language tutors, underwater photographers) who are excited to work in the private sector supporting busy, innovative families, and having a deeper understanding of the needs and preferences for modern busy families and the evolving landscape of household staffing holistically supporting of entrepreneur's families and home lives. We don’t recruit nannies from babysitter sites like care.com - we know that hiring a nanny and working with an agency is a luxury for many families and we take the trust families place in us very seriously!”


Due to the company’s ability to pivot and scale, in just 9 short months Adventure Nannies has expanded their team from 10 to 13, added in local searches in Colorado and Seattle, and they’ve increased their revenues by over 30 percent, with a customer base of 140 families in 2019 to now over 300 clients in close of 2020. What were/are the key factors you implemented for a successful pivot and rapid scale? 

  1. trusting and empowering our team to boldly forge ahead on new ideas and giving them the ability to 'try things out' in the midst of an ever-changing landscape during COVID;
  2. being gracious in providing resources and support to the families who reached out to us who weren't going to convert into clients
  3. being able to give our employees job security and committing to maintaining their positions and absorbing a lot of the stress at the onset of COVID-19 while at the same time provide transparency surrounding the financial impact on our business
  4. having our process steps fully mapped out so that our team knew the process backward and forwards, allowing us to tweak it quickly to address changes to a family's typical needs, and identify new patterns and trends early on!"


Development of Leadership Style and Coaching

As CEO, Shenandoah knows that continual learning and development are fundamental to success. Shenandoah has her degree in opera performance and English and toured as a musician (http://www.shenandoahdavis.com) in 12 countries spanning four continents. Clearly, she is no stranger to the discipline it takes to be a successful entrepreneur. 


What leadership skills do both career paths require?

  • Flexibility / adaptability,
  • willingness to roll with the punches,
  • perseverance,
  • patience,
  • being used to working lean and 'scrappy' while scaling.”


How has your leadership style developed over the last few years?

“My strength set has actually shifted a lot! I began running Adventure Nannies in 2016 and was the implementer to the founder's visionary. In 2018, the founder stepped all the way back to start her own family and I've found myself transitioning into more of a visionary role, developing more of my strategic strengths instead of focusing on my execution strengths. I've also gotten a lot better at delegating and being able to recognize the strengths of my employees and where their approach or solution to a problem might actually be better than mine.”


At what point did you decide to use executive coaching? 

"From the moment I began working at Adventure Nannies, I felt immediately over my head. We entertained the idea of hiring an executive coach early on in the process but the company was not yet solvent when I was hired and it was just an additional expense we weren't able to make. After spending a few years getting very involved in the nanny agency industry and working with boards from a few industry-related trade organizations and nonprofits to improve inclusivity, diversity and best practices industry-wide, it felt like we had learned as much about the domestic staffing world as we could from our peers and wanted to expand from running a successful agency to running a successful business. My relationship with executive coaching now is such an inherent part of my decision-making process that I can't imagine living without it - it has made it so much easier for me to take on big growth projects at Adventure Nannies knowing that I have had the opportunity to bounce ideas and potential pitfalls with Ann."


What challenges/problems, both from the POV of personal leadership development and tactical business building, has coaching helped you address and/or solve?

“Coaching has really improved my relationship with my leadership team (even though they aren't being coached!) and given me new opportunities for bringing them up to a bigger-picture view than we were previously able to get to before. Big decisions, or the things that go wrong, have less of an impact on me because Ann can remind me of similar situations we've been in before and bring to light how many of the tools for success are already in our toolbelts without being aware of them. With Ann, I have the opportunity to go on deeper dives with the issues that I'm struggling with and reach a full resolution in less than an hour, whereas before the same issues would cause me to stress out, overanalyze, and overwork for days and weeks on end.”



How has your leadership style changed as a result of coaching? How has it impacted your team if at all?

“As a result of coaching, I've been able to take more of a step back from my business and develop more of a coaching mindset with my team to empower them and reduce the number of fires I have to put out daily. I didn't realize how much knowledge I was accidentally hoarding! I’d gotten so used to having my phone glued to my hand from dawn until dusk and on the weekends just waiting for an 'emergency' to pop up.

After passing more tasks off to my team and ensuring they had the information they needed to complete them as a result of my coaching, I was able to go on a road trip from Seattle to upstate NY and stay in a yurt in the mountains for a couple of weeks in October and was able to get by with a quick trip into town to check my emails every day or two.

Many of my 'work calls' now are coaching conversations with my leadership team and assisting them in having coaching conversations with the employees they manage. More of my work revolves around the 'why' and not the 'how', which I enjoy, and that honestly works better for everyone.

In the early days of Adventure Nannies, I knew how to do every task in the company but now that our process and tech has evolved, it is to the point where I am now unfamiliar with the intricacies of our process and can instead focus on making sure everything is efficient and that people are in the right seats.”


What personal benefits do you see in coaching and leadership development?

It has been a huge stress reliever for me to have a dedicated person and space to bring my 'head-scratchers' to, rather than setting up a series of meetings and trying to troubleshoot issues or strategize for growth with my team – who are amazing, but we don't know what we don't know! I know my partner is also very grateful to have a little more free time to spend with me during these last months of being homebodies.

When larger question marks or issues come up, I have a sense of calm in dealing with them and feel confident every problem will be solved - but they don't all need to be solved at once, and they aren't all waiting on me specifically to swoop in with a winning solution.


Would you recommend coaching to other CEOs? If so why?

“A resounding YES! While so many CEOs and entrepreneurs start their own business or rise to leadership because they crave 'being their own boss' to some extent, the truth is that we can all benefit from a leader or coach of our very own at various points in our journey. I love and trust the leadership team at Adventure Nannies and bring some issues to them, and other issues to peer groups of other CEOs through Entrepreneur's Organization or mastermind groups, but having a standing call with a coach where you can bring your largest question marks without judgment or fear of saying something wrong has been a life-saver.”


Contact Information and Citizenship of Adventure Nannies

How can they contact you/Adventure Nannies? 

“I can be reached at [email protected]. Families who are interested in learning more about Adventure Nannies can reach out to us at 917-310-2300, at [email protected], visiting our website, or by filling out our Family Contact Form.”


Anything else you want our readers to know about you?

“In April, at the start of the pandemic, I was part of a founding team that created a non-profit called Nanny Relief Fund to provide financial benefits to the many nannies across the country who have been impacted by COVID-19. It is estimated that over 95% of nannies working in the US are not paid legally by the families who employ them (for a variety of reasons - lack of resources and knowledge on the family's end, nannies hoping to retain access to other benefit programs like SNAP or Medicare, or families being confused about how to set themselves up as domestic employers and just not wanting to deal with it).

So naturally, in March when many people lost their jobs, especially when their employers fled larger cities, tens of thousands of nannies suddenly found themselves without a job and, in some cases, without a home. Many were not eligible to receive unemployment, stimulus checks, or other sources of aid because they had been working cash jobs. This is still an ongoing issue, and many nannies are still unemployed, unable to find work that provides a living wage. Folks who are interested in learning more can visit their website, and if you have a nanny, please pay them legally! I'm happy to introduce people to the domestic payroll company we refer to if they'd like assistance in getting legal pay set up and handled easily.”


Thank you Ms. Davis for doing good, having fun, and prospering!