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It was 9:30pm on a hot summer night in 2007 when Ellyn Davidson received a phone call that would change her life: the tiny lump that had been removed three days earlier was breast cancer. Ellyn was a 36-year-old wife and mother with three young children, and she had a flourishing career at an advertising agency in metro Detroit, Brogan & Partners. But in that moment, the life Ellyn built for herself seemed to be hanging in the balance, and she hadn’t even seen it coming.
“Up until that call, every doctor I met with assured me that the lump was nothing to worry about,” says Ellyn. “My to-do list for the next day changed drastically — instead of going to the park with my son, I went to the hospital. I had no idea what the next day or the next year would bring. I just knew I had a fight in front of me, and I was going to do whatever it took to win.”
Ellyn started treatment almost immediately. At the agency, she had team members to back her up on days when she didn’t feel she could work. Ellyn had started with Brogan & Partners when she was 22 years old and worked her way up from intern to account director, and her team felt like family. But fighting cancer is a full-time job in itself, so she reduced her hours and focused on her health.
Ellyn’s life became a whirlwind of regular trips to the hospital, surgeries, and days on end where all she could do was sleep. But under the surface, the diagnosis had woken something up inside of her. Even in the midst of her own fight, her focus shifted to the plight of other women facing their own diagnoses. Three months into her treatment, Ellyn started mentoring newly-diagnosed breast cancer patients. She would spend hours on the phone with different women, helping them understand what to expect and assuring them that everything was going to be okay.
“I don’t think there’s anything more important I can do than help a woman on the very first day that she hears the news,” says Ellyn. “Even in the toughest circumstances, you make time for what’s important to you and you make it work.”
Exactly nine months from that first phone call, Ellyn’s treatment, which included six rounds of chemotherapy and five surgeries, was finally behind her. Her hair started growing back and life slowly returned to normal. But Ellyn’s outlook was fundamentally different. Her experience with cancer changed the way she viewed her priorities, her family, and even how she managed her team.
“My outlook was brighter — it made me realize that there is nothing more important than smiling, laughing, and having fun,” says Ellyn. “I’ve always thought it was important to give back and to put good into the community, but the diagnosis was transformational for me. I realized how much need there is, and I realized that I have the power, resources, and capacity to do good.”
Driven by her new mission, Ellyn returned to Brogan & Partners eager to continue building her career. Around the time that Ellyn became more involved with the agency again, the business reached a fork in the road. After a few years of rotating leadership and the decision to splinter the organization into two entities, they were facing an identity crisis. They needed strong leadership and a clear vision for the future, and they wanted Ellyn steering the ship. In 2010 — just three years after her diagnosis — she was named Managing Partner.
“We weren’t quite sure who we wanted to be when we grew up,” says Ellyn. “We needed to work on our infrastructure, and I decided to do it from the inside out. We took the approach of looking inside the agency to define our beliefs and figure out why we come to work every day. We needed to define who we were and where we wanted to go.”
One of the toughest things for companies to do is to change and adjust while the train is moving, but Ellyn knew they had to rebuild from the inside out. She shifted their focus away from new business for awhile and worked to re-establish strong relationships with their current clients. They implemented EOS®, the Entrepreneurial Operating System, to clarify their vision and business model. Most importantly, Ellyn sat down with a team of key players to articulate their core values. They looked at their vision and their mission, and they thought about the values that would resonate with everyone on the team. Ellyn had grown up in this company, and she wanted to formalize and evolve the aspects of it that she was most passionate about.
“Giving back has always been part of our culture, but I’ve grown more passionate about it since my cancer experience and I think that’s contagious,” says Ellyn. “We decided to formalize it by adding ‘a passion to make a positive difference in people’s lives’ to our strategic plan and to who we are as a company.”
To accomplish that, Brogan & Partners has committed to annually giving back five percent of its revenue in volunteer hours, financial contributions, and pro bono work. Now, twelve years after her cancer diagnosis, Ellyn is president and owner of the agency and has helped create and market multi-million dollar brands, all while mentoring hundreds of women through their own breast cancer journeys. Brogan & Partners now has 27 employees, an impressive roster of accounts in finance, healthcare, government, education and insurance, and is consistently recognized for its award-winning work and culture.
Ellyn is also president of the board for Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (FORCE), a nonprofit dedicated to improving the lives of individuals and families with hereditary cancers. She is the first to say that her duties as a mother will always come first, but her children actively support her cancer advocacy, whether it’s being by her side for a benefit walk or clearing the room when she’s mentoring a newly-diagnosed patient. It’s a balancing act, but Ellyn’s guiding philosophy is simple: stay true to what you want to do.
“I don’t ever regret my experience with cancer. It’s a rotten disease — the surgeries were painful, the treatments were tiring,” says Ellyn. “But it shaped me as a person, as a mother, as the leader of my agency, as a cancer fundraiser, as a mentor to newly-diagnosed women. It made me realize the value of making other people smile and lending a helping hand. I continue to fight so that no other woman has to experience the pain and suffering of saying goodbye to their families. Our fight is far from over.”
To hear more of Ellyn’s story and interviews with other purpose-driven leaders, tune into my show, the Growing with Purpose podcast.
July 7, 2019 at 03:40PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs