You’re going to fail forward and learn from it. There are a million examples of those in my career. But any time the outcome might not have been what I anticipated, I’ve been able to learn from it, not only maybe how I could have changed the outcome, but how I could have changed my approach.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Martha Johnson.
With over 25 years of leadership experience, Martha has a proven track record of bringing multi-billion-dollar products and services to market. Striking the balance between strategic vision and operationally achievable, she has been successful across various startups and industries, including content providers, manufacturing, hospitality, consumer packaged goods, and cannabis. Martha brings her mastery at creating and managing monetization to Hypur, driving the implementation and operationalization of Hypur’s services.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I was born in Honduras and never really even imagined growing up here in the United States. I’m far away from where I started, but in all good things. I have a degree in psychology and you wouldn’t necessarily think about having a psych background in marketing. But in some ways, it’s the perfect major because it’s all about people, places, and putting things together.
I got my first job through the newspaper, and my boss saw something in me that I didn’t even know existed. I was young, and was still trying to figure out what I wanted to do. He gave me the opportunity to work at his tech company and help manage the office. Two weeks later, he promoted me to a recruiter. He realized that I had a knack for talking to people, learning about people, and putting things together to find the right candidate. From there, I moved into operations, made a huge career change to run a network operations organization at Cox Communications, and eventually decided I wanted to move into business development. Because program execution and delivery is so closely tied to your brand, all those things ended up providing me with the experience to drive products to market, which is where I sit today as Chief Marketing Officer at Hypur.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Joining Hypur in the midst of COVID. I officially came on board in July, at the height of the pandemic. It’s been an interesting ride to learn how to work with my peer group and manage a team remotely, including building that rapport that you can miss out on with Zoom meetings. I’m curious to see what things are going to be like when we get closer to working together every day in person, but I don’t suspect that those relationships that we’ve built remotely will change.
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?
The one I think about isn’t from when I first started, but it’s threaded throughout my career. I worked at the same consulting company three times, at various stages of my life. The first time was before my family, the second time I was pregnant with my second child, and the third was after my kids were older. What I realized is that a tiger doesn’t change its stripes. You can’t make a person be something else or someone they’re not.
In those three separate experiences, I learned more about myself than anything else. The environment didn’t ever change. Every time I thought I could increase diversity and inclusion and that didn’t happen, I didn’t leave with my head down thinking I had failed. I came back thinking, “I’ve gotten better.” It taught me how to be a better version of myself. I met some fantastic people and realized that I had a unique opportunity because I was so familiar with the culture. I realized that I could support my colleagues and make sure they had someone to talk to who could reassure them that they’re not crazy. This is how it is. Learn to adapt or find something else that benefits you.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Christopher, our CEO and Founder, is certainly one of those people. I’d say he took a chance on me, but I know he didn’t; he knew what my capabilities were. I wouldn’t be in this role or working for this company if it wasn’t for him, so I’m thankful for that.
Every single opportunity I’ve had was from someone who gave me a chance. Whether it was moving forward in a position or moving forward with a scope of work, with different challenges and demands, I’ve had many people allow me to work for and with them. Every single one of them saw something in me that I knew I had, but it just allowed me to refine it.
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
In both my personal and professional life, I work out when I need a release. I also unplug and spend time with my kids and my husband, which doesn’t necessarily get me prepped for a meeting, but gives me perspective.
When it comes to preparing for a high stakes meeting though, I plan. I have a background in project planning and program delivery, so I plan and set my objectives and intentions. I like understanding a subject inside and out rather than being a jack of all trades. I remember I gave a speech at a Cisco conference when I worked for Capgemini. To prepare, I practiced and recorded myself over and over, and continued to refine my notes. It’s repetition, listening to yourself, setting the objective, understanding the outcome, and understanding who the key players are.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
Everyone has his or her story and there’s value to be learned from other people’s mistakes so we don’t need to reinvent the wheel if we don’t have to. I think having a diverse group, whether it’s gender, ethnicity, or culture, gives us a better perspective. It helps give the team a 360-degree view versus being one-sided. I’d say the most important thing we can do is embrace our differences and try to figure out how to adapt and apply diversity to any situation.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
- Pay it forward. Mentor and give people the opportunity. Try to see that people have the best of intentions. Sometimes that’s not what they lead with, but try to find the good in them.
- Let go, especially as a leader. People have their own stories and experiences, so listen and let other voices be heard.
- Believe in support. This is very applicable both professionally and personally. Things are not always going to get done the way you want them to get done. As long as the end outcome is achieved, that’s all that matters.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
Be willing to make hard decisions. Be willing to have difficult conversations and take risks, but understand the risks and how to mitigate them. Take a look at all the angles, and most importantly, take accountability for your decisions.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
This is pretty simple and straightforward: that you can’t have a work-life balance.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
What I’ve seen throughout my career is that men aren’t afraid to ask for what they want. As women, we tend to compromise. Don’t be scared to ask for what you want, step up, and take on more if you want to take on more.
The other one I would say is that, as a mom, professional, wife, and all the other roles that myself and other women play, we tend to carry the guilt of work-life balance. We try to do it all. That’s not to say that men aren’t also focused on this, but I think women respond differently because we want it all done perfectly. We carry the guilt that we might not be there for every little thing that’s going on in our children’s lives, or that we’re failing because we’re not keeping everything going or balancing it all just perfectly. That’s something that I’ve experienced myself and seen in my friends and the women I’ve worked with.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I haven’t had any real surprises. I think what Christopher and I talked about is in line with the role. Working for a smaller company, you have to be willing to take on whatever, and you need to get the work done. It’s about going to market, understanding the different personas, roles, dynamics, markets, consumers, demographics, merchants, and understanding how they all fit together, then creating and capitalizing on monetization opportunities.
Certainly, not everyone is cut out to be an executive. In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive, and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
Be ready to fall, shake it off, and get back up. You need to have thick skin and be agile, creative, and resilient. Most importantly, if you’re a person who only has a “me” attitude, this kind of role is probably not the best fit. You should win and lose as a team.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Be real and be yourself in the role that you play. Lead by example and don’t think in terms of can’t. Don’t limit yourself.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’d say paying it forward throughout my career. As we talked about earlier, mentoring, helping, and sharing with others has always been really important to me.
Outside of work, I’m passionate about women and children-focused organizations. These focus on helping women who are trying to transition out of shelters and get a job, build their resumes, practice their interview skills, and sometimes even get the clothes they need to go in for these interviews. Having the opportunity to give back and help inform these organizations is extremely meaningful.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.
- You’re going to fail forward and learn from it. There are a million examples of those in my career. But any time the outcome might not have been what I anticipated, I’ve been able to learn from it, not only maybe how I could have changed the outcome, but how I could have changed my approach.
- Take chances, be bold, and take risks. I would say one of those is where I sit today — going from a business and technology background in the everyday market to now working for the leading fintech payment processing provider in cannabis.
- Don’t be hard on yourself. I’m still trying to learn that one. I tell myself that every single day.
- Be patient. Another one I’m still working on.
- It doesn’t have to be perfect. This is something that I apply to my everyday life, regardless of the role that I’m playing, whether personal or professional.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I’d say take a chance on someone. If you see something great in a person who might be lacking courage or confidence, give them a chance. That doesn’t have to be someone working for your company. It could be someone that you meet on the street or someone that’s just down on their luck. If everyone would just open the door for someone else, it would make the world a much better place. So, instead of judging, look for strength, and figure out how you can help someone.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can do anything you set your mind to,” I say this to myself, I say this to my boys, and it’s so applicable looking back on my career and in my life. I’ve had so many different roles, and each one has completely gotten me out of my comfort zone. There’s always the anticipation of starting a new position. Knowing that you’re about to encounter each new role as a parent, spouse, or professional — every one of those is something new. You go in thinking, “How am I going to handle this? Am I going to succeed?” But as long as you set your mind to it, you can do anything. You have to get out of your head.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
Out of all the amazing people out there in this world, I would choose Sheryl Sandberg. As a first-time mother, she significantly impacted me with her book, Lean In. Going back to what we discussed earlier, there’s the guilt that comes with being a mother and balancing a career, of “Why am I not staying at home? Am I a bad mother?” I choose to do both.
Reading her book impacted me because it made me feel like I wasn’t alone and wasn’t wrong in what I was doing. It made me realize that I needed to lean in more. That goes back to the idea that men usually ask, and women do not. Also, the myth that you can’t have a work-life balance. With every single job I’ve had, I’ve always said, “I’m a mother, and I will get the work done.” I’m confident in my ability to deliver for you and work for you. Still, I’m going to get it done in the way that I need to, to make sure that my family doesn’t have to suffer or be put on the back burner. Every single time I’ve said that, it has been completely fine. It’s one of those moments when it’s off your chest. You put it out there and say, “you can take it or leave it, but I’m not going to sacrifice my family.” There’s one quote from Sheryl that has always stuck out to me, which is, “we’re failing to encourage the moment to aspire to leadership. It’s time to cheer on girls and women who want to sit at the table to seek challenges and to lean into their careers.”
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.