Building trust is demonstrably harder to do with people who are different than you, but that trust is what is at the foundation of any high performing team.
As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Sue Graham Johnston.
Sue Graham Johnston serves as VP, General Manager at Juniper Networks in the AI-Driven Enterprise team, having joined Juniper through its acquisition of 128 Technology where Graham Johnston was President. She has spent her career at the intersection of new technology and operational excellence, having held executive roles at Linde, Oracle, and Sun Microsystems. She holds a BS in Mechanical Engineering & Product Design, an MS in Manufacturing Systems Engineering and an MBA, all from Stanford University.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?
Sure thing: the short version is that I grew up in Pennsylvania, and got my love of science from my father, who was a doctor and a researcher. My mother worked in various public relations and communications roles before starting her own business. I’m the third generation of women in my family with a postgraduate degree — my grandmother had two PhDs, my mother a master’s degree and my sister and I both have two advanced degrees.
Growing up, I never bought into the fact that boys were better at math and science than girls. In fact, it wasn’t until well into high school that anyone other than girls were at the top of my classes in those subjects.
I came to Stanford planning to major in physics, and then proceeded to struggle academically for the first time in my life. I was taken aback — and, as a result, didn’t take any technical classes that winter term. However, while working as a camp counselor that summer I saw a banner on the wall that read “what would you do if you knew you couldn’t fail?”
The answer that popped into my head was that “I would major in mechanical engineering.” I had lost a lot of confidence in my technical abilities due to my rough start at college, but I loved building things and genuinely wanted to pursue the degree. I was newly inspired by that quote and my answer — and returned to college with a newfound determination. Even though it took me five years of undergrad to finish my degree, I always reflect on that decision as a turning point in my life.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
One book that had a profound impact on me was The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die, by Keith Payne.
Having spent several years working in other countries and experiencing different models of how governments, companies, communities and societies work, the growing inequality in the US profoundly disturbed me. There is much to applaud about the individualistic mindset here — it gives rise to an entrepreneurial spirit that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world, and I’m all for founders who create profound innovations and thousands of jobs being able to enjoy the rewards of their hard work.
What I couldn’t find an explanation for were the disproportionate pay packages for CEOs, and why we seemed to tolerate an increasing gulf. The Economic Policy Institute showed leaders of the country’s 350 biggest public companies made about 320 times more than their typical employee in 2019, up from 20:1 in 1965. Living in San Francisco, it was hard to reconcile the almost incalculable wealth of the technology boom with the increasingly visible and troubled homeless population — a site that made me feel like we had lost our empathy for the human beings around us.
The book sheds light on the fact that we generally have deep-seated senses of fairness. In an experiment run with a group of monkeys, scientists taught monkeys to give pebbles to them for a slice of cucumber in return. Then, in sight of the others, the scientists gave one monkey a grape in return for its pebbles. The other monkeys were only offered cucumber slices for theirs. Many refused the cucumber in disgust for not getting the same reward as the other monkey. The result of the experiment showed an inherent belief — and caring about — fairness. The monkeys cared that they were not getting the same as the other monkey in return for the same work.
Even more insightful were experiments conducted with people. In a fascinating experiment, researchers had subjects invest in several stocks, being told that the results would be simulated based on real market performance. The results were actually a fixed percentage for all participants, but half the participants were told they did better than 89% of other players, while the other half were told they did worse. Players were then allowed to vote on how the rules should be changed for future generations of players. The “higher status” group wanted to cut taxes and reduce redistribution, and the “lower status” group wanted the reverse. Each group was then given a chance to describe the perception of another player — whether that player was rational or foolish. The research showed that the perception of the other player as biased and irrational was driven entirely by the group being told that they were superior to their peers.
Does wealth, even when fake like in the experiment above, start to change how we see the rationality of others? Does it create a tendency to continue to construct policies to disenfranchise those we now view as foolish or irrational? These, and other experiments cited in the book, would lead a reader to believe that to be true — with many concerning consequences for how we can truly break the cycle of inequality.
These are all critical questions — and ones that do not have easy answers. But as we strive to create a more equitable society it goes without saying that these will have to be addressed.
Unfortunately, as the book discusses, fairness to all has given way to only helping yourselves and the like-minded. The increasing polarization of politics has opened up the ability for those who govern to abandon fairness, disregarding our inherent human desire to be fair to all, and replacing it with a desire to re-engineer the rules of governing to help keep themselves in power.
The importance or re-establishing the belief of fairness across society cannot be ignored much longer. If there’s anything 2020 taught us, it’s that now is the time to act.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?
My favorite quote is from the former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who said: “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other.” In the technology industry, and in many theaters, there are often few women at all — and certainly very few women the higher up in the organization you climb.
Women sometimes perceive that other women need to pay their dues or endure the same struggles as they did. Worse yet, many have a view that there are only so many spots available to women in an organization, so they actively work against helping other women achieve their potential. Not only does this harm the organization by preventing a more diverse set of opinions and approaches from being realized, it also hurts the overall advancement of equality.
Personally, I have been so fortunate to work with many incredible women leaders, some of whom have helped me literally from my first promotion all the way to my most recent role in the C-suite. Oracle, in particular, had a network of strong, talented women within the Oracle Women’s Leadership group. The emphasis of this group was first and foremost on developing leadership skills — the fact that we were mostly women lent some common experiences to what worked and didn’t work in being an effective leader at a large technology company.
Since I have benefited from the unwavering support of executive women in my past, I have worked to pay it forward at every step in my career. At 128 Technology, this meant setting up a women’s group and having formal and informal methods for the women on the team to get to know each other. We’ve had women come in to talk about technologies and trends such as bitcoin and blockchain, share advice on how to get on to Boards, and a founder panel of women entrepreneurs that highlighted the trials and tribulations of starting their own companies.
I strongly believe in the power of mentorship as well. I’ve mentored countless women across my career, both inside companies I’ve been a part of — and outside as well. There is no greater joy than seeing someone that you have helped go on to thrive and lead — and then pay it forward to other women as well.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
Jim Collins’ definition of a “Level 5 Leader” from his book Good to Great struck a chord with me early on in my transition into leadership roles. He states that: “…level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will. They’re incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves.”
What this means is that we all want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves. For example, when you join a startup company, the concept of creating a new business out of thin air requires leaders who can create belief in others, so they join the cause. Without that belief, most startups fail. Startups require incredible tenacity, drive and vision to be successful.
Andy Ory and Patrick MeLampy are two leaders that embody those characteristics. Having previously built an incredibly successful company, they went on to co-found 128 Technology with the mission to fundamentally change how networks operated. They have been unflagging in their commitment to the mission, but also to their team. The way in which they built the organization, the caliber of the team they recruited, their willingness to make difficult decisions while still swinging for the fences — and to do it all while being invested as much (if not more) in the outcomes for the company and team has been inspiring and an excellent example of this. It’s been phenomenal to be a part of the journey. Being able to witness their examples of leadership has helped me to continue to evolve what I see as necessary to be a good leader.
Especially here in the U.S., we have started to confuse celebrity with leadership. Executives and entrepreneurs are revered — the more outspoken and performative they are, the better. Their ability to drive success for their team or their company has almost taken a back seat to popularity and the coolness factor. In addition, CEO compensation is a staggering multiple of the average worker at most U.S. companies, which is simply not sustainable long-term. It is important to focus on the characteristics of leaders who tackle critical problems, who think big with their ambition — but who do so for the ultimate goal and for their teams’ success, not for themselves.
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?
Over the course of my career, I have become a firm believer in the idea of the mind and body connection. Previously, I would have stayed up late, woken up early, and spent every waking hour in intense preparation for a board meeting, or a high stakes executive team review.
Seven years ago, I decided to take a different approach. I started running each day, and the benefits have been tremendous when it comes to de-stressing and being prepared for the day. This is especially true when I have those high stakes meetings; I make it a point to make time for a run in the morning, even if it is at 5am. I always return calmer, with an increased clarity of thought, and more emotional resilience to handle whatever comes my way.
In high stakes meetings there are often difficult conversations that need to happen to move the business forward. Another approach that I utilize centers around taking the time to prepare for these types of conversations. That doesn’t mean taking notes or practicing statements, however; it means taking the time beforehand to think about the person I’m speaking with and focus first on what I value about them.
The idea of positive intent is especially important. I find that by reminding myself why I value this person and what they bring to the table, the difficult conversation can be framed by that value and come from a place of trust and a desire to improve, rather than a framework of assigning blame or misplacing anger.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?
This is such a complex topic, it’s hard to point to a simple cause and effect. As The Broken Ladder shows, inequality has been building throughout the last few decades — affecting both genders and all minorities. The pandemic only exacerbated this effect.
Tied to our screens and news feeds, especially during the pandemic, many of us saw the video of George Floyd’s killing. Hearing him cry “mama” tapped into a universal consciousness of the love of a mother for her child, and the fierce desire to protect, not harm. Meanwhile, what could have stayed a local incident about a single man killed in police custody caught fire on Twitter (as over 15 million tweets circulated in about a week). More importantly, the tenor shifted from George Floyd specifically to Black Lives Matter as a general cause. Sadly, each additional incident over the summer from Breonna Taylor to Ahmaud Arbery added more proof points to the need for systemic, conscientious change.
Gender inequality has also been a long-simmering issue. As divisive as politics can be, the sheer number of women who ran for the Democratic nomination meant that that issue was front and center for the last two years. It made the possibility of a woman President, or a woman Vice President, no longer a theoretical one. Having Kamala Harris speak for all women when she refused to let Vice President Pence speak over her at the debates, stating that: “Mr. Vice President — I am speaking,” gave women a moment of reclaiming their voice on the national stage.
That the time is right to deal with these complex, systemic problems comes down to a combination of moments of humanity, amplified by social media, which captured our attention in a year that was starved for human contact. The combination of these variables made us all more willing to be empathic to the plight of others, especially when we needed to sacrifice our individual freedom to support the safety of the community.
Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?
128 Technology is a software-based networking company that was acquired by Juniper Networks at the end of 2020. Truthfully, our diversity results, like those of many other technology companies, fell short of our aspirations.
To create lasting change at a company, it is important to focus on all aspects of the employee journey. These aspects include the job descriptions, where you recruit, the experience the candidate has at the company, the professional development opportunities you provide, and anything else you do to promote ongoing retention.
As a small startup, we chose to emphasize a shift in our recruiting practices as a clear step. When it came to the 2020 fall career fair season, we made an effort to attend career fairs with schools that put an emphasis on the importance of diversity. We traditionally have hired engineering talent during career fair season, and this past year aimed to attend career fairs of schools in the Northeast that have at least a 10% black and/or Latino population and have a highly ranked engineering program. That was a tall order in New England, where the majority of the population in these states can be upwards of 80% white.
Due to the pandemic, we adapted our onboarding process and mentorship program and proved we can effectively bring people on board remotely. This gives us an even better opportunity next year to cast our recruiting net outside of New England, to schools that have a much larger and more diverse footprint. By early 2021, we are at the point where every function in the company has both gender and ethnic diversity, a dramatic improvement from where we stood when I joined three and a half years ago.
We’ve also had a long-standing partnership with Hack.Diversity, a brilliant organization that aims to help under-represented job seekers, mostly people of color, get their foot in the door at technology companies through internships. We’ve attended and led a Hack.Chat, had a member of our management team be a mentor for a Hack Fellow, and brought aboard our first intern through Hack.Diversity this summer.
Now, as part of Juniper Networks, we can take advantage of the many resources of a large corporation committed to diversity 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?
An organization’s leadership team should reflect the makeup of its employees, and especially of its customers. Without a diverse voice present at the table, not only are you not providing true representation to those you service and employ, you’re missing out on having a diverse point-of-view that can see things differently or share approaches you haven’t even considered.
For example, recent data shows that almost 19% of CIOs at Fortune 500 companies are women. That means to truly understand and speak to a large portion of your potential audience you should have a similar voice within your company. If you’re selling to a diverse population, it is even more important that you establish a diverse organization. It’s that simple.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.
Sure thing — I believe that the steps we need to start implementing are based around establishing trust, being transparent, thinking (and acting) broadly, opening doors to more opportunities, and going out of our way to help others climb the ladder of success. Here are some specifics on each:
- Building Trust — Building trust is demonstrably harder to do with people who are different than you, but that trust is what is at the foundation of any high performing team.
-While I was at a previous company, we had to execute a broad and deep transformation agenda, and 50% of the leadership team was new. We spent nearly all our executive time together focused on building trust with the leadership team. In every leadership meeting where we were discussing high stakes changes, one of the leaders was appointed to be an observer of our team dynamics. He or she would make sure that all voices were heard. This effort paid phenomenal dividends — not only did our organization deliver the strongest mid-term performance results of any of the regions, but many members of the team demonstrated new leadership traits that had not had a chance to emerge in their previous roles.
- Transparency — Transparency is critical for progressing pay equity for both gender and race. Recent, but pre-pandemic research by the World Economic Forum indicated it would take 257 years to pay everyone equitably. This is NOT OK.
-There are immediate steps that countries, states and companies should take. Countries with pay transparency have smaller gender pay gaps (Belgium, Ireland, Norway, and Sweden all have full transparency and have <10% gaps). The U.S., on the other hand, is sitting close to 10%.
-The company I ran in the U.K. had to report our gender pay gap each year. While an imperfect measure, the clear benefit of publishing the numbers brought the discussion to the forefront and made it clear that there would not be complacency. I applaud similar efforts by technology companies to publish statistics on race and gender — you truly cannot manage what you don’t measure.
- Broad-Based Thinking — One of the most inspiring examples of addressing equity issues that I’ve heard of was the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act in South Africa, originally passed in 2003. The government used its massive financial contracting power as a lever for change. That’s admirable on its own, but what was most interesting to me was the range of elements considered in the scope of the legislation — everything from reporting race, gender, handicap, etc., to supply chain development, to community development were part of the overall scorecard rating. No system is perfect, but this endeavored to widen the aperture of what business can influence to the betterment of all.
- Opening Doors — Recent analysis from Stanford University indicates that one of the most powerful factors influencing pay equity and diversity in technology is having an internship first. The engineering and computer science fields have some of the lowest representations of women in STEM — and some of the largest entry pay differentials. The research found that women with engineering degrees earn less than $61,000 annually, while men earn above $65,000 annually. It also found that 2% of the pay differential can be explained by a confidence gap between men and women; a gap which disappears when the women intern for the company first. I personally benefited from an internship that was focused exclusively on increasing opportunities for women and minorities at both AT&T and Bain & Company, and I believe this is one of the simplest and easiest to execute strategies to enhance a company’s (and an industry’s) diversity of talent.
- Sponsoring Others — I’ve found that women often believe they need more skills to get to the next level, and so they focus on finding mentors to help them. Mentors focus their attention on helping a woman with skills she is using “in the room,” e.g., how does she handle a specific conversation, what skills does she need to develop, etc.
What women need to focus on is forming sponsorship relationships. Sponsors are the people who talk about you “outside of the room,” i.e., bringing a woman’s name up for a promotion. Sponsors are the people who have the power to create space in organizations for new leadership roles. This is where senior women (and men) can help make junior female leaders more visible in their organization.
I applaud the #metoo movement and all it has done to shine a light on the harassment that so many women have faced in their personal and professional lives. One resulting problem we will have to deal with is that it may make men more hesitant to make the effort to develop the professional relationships with junior women that will help them to succeed. As leaders, we need to find a way to ensure this can still happen, as the majority of positions of power are still held by men.
We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?
Honestly, I’m very worried about the negative effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the careers of women and people of color. By all accounts, minority groups have been more likely to have lost their jobs, or to have been forced to quit their jobs to take care of loved ones or children that were suddenly attending class from home. Some pundits have claimed that the past year has set back workplace equality by more than a decade.
American Progress found that “…four times as many women as men dropped out of the labor force in September, roughly 865,000 women compared to 216,000 men.” The U.S. Census Bureau says that as of Feb. 2021, “…unemployment for women remains 1.9 percentage points above the pre-pandemic level.”
As schools open and women get back into the workforce, I fear that instead of picking up where they left off, many will need to prove themselves once again — especially to those that didn’t step away for family reasons during the pandemic. Women and minorities have always paid a bigger cost when they’ve had to take time away for family matters — and the conditions of the pandemic stand to make it even harder for women to advance and be successful.
In fact, research by McKinsey finds that employment for women may not recover to its pre-pandemic level until 2024 — two years after they predict men will see a full employment recovery.
With the post-vaccine world in sight, it is imperative that we recognize the increased hardships that women and other minorities have faced because of the pandemic and take active steps to speed up at least a return to where workplace equality was before the lockdowns. Women should not have to wait until 2024 to get back what was lost.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would love to be able to meet Madeleine Albright; as the first female Secretary of State and former UN Ambassador, she’s always been someone I respected and looked up to.
She has done so much to advance women’s causes throughout her career that I’d love to trade notes and learn more about how she strives to build stronger institutions, with fairer and more equitable representation for all.
How can our readers follow you online?
Folks can find me at LinkedIn (https://www.linkedin.com/in/sue-graham-johnston-2830641/).
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!