Spend time with your customer and understand their needs. You can’t hear this message enough. Spend as much time as you can with customers and potential prospects in order to understand what the market is calling for. And, the degree to which you can be successful in serving them, and the mission, is going to be the cornerstone of your success.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Art Johnson.
Art realized the importance of alignment as his career job responsibilities had spanned multiple disciplines and industries. His competitive spirit, highlighted in collegiate athletics, inspired him to leverage his experience, knowledge, and network to form ISI. Art developed a reputation for strong team leadership, cost savings, and revenue generation. The creation of Orgametrics® has given Art the platform to share his successes on a broader scale. Throughout his career, Art has had an impressive background in both sales and marketing. A strategic thinker and leader, he has an established record of driving revenue and growth through direct and indirect sales organizations. Art is known for delivering a mix of strategy, innovation, and process excellence that expand corporate capability and market leadership, strengthen competitive positions, and increase profitability in highly competitive industries. This dynamic leader is adept at driving alignment, developing executive-level relationships, and fostering collaboration among diverse teams to exceed expectations, increase productivity, and optimize performance consistently. In 1989, Art began his career in Information Technology with International Business Machines (IBM). He quickly moved up in the ranks and obtained a Master’s degree from the University of St. Thomas while working as a branch manager. US West (Qwest Communications) recruited Art for vice president of internet services in telecommunications. Soon after, he was promoted to the position of vice president and general manager of large business sales. In 2008, Art joined Medtronic Incorporated. Until 2013, he was vice president of sales in the CardioVascular Group. His successes in medical devices, telecommunications, and information technology are evident by his President Club participation in every industry. Art holds a Bachelor’s degree from Drake University, in Des Moines, Iowa, an MBA from the University of St. Thomas, in St. Paul, Minnesota, and he participated in the Executive Development Program at The Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you got started?
So when I began my corporate career, I had the aspiration to get into leadership positions quickly and move up the ranks as fast as I could while gleaning as much information as possible. I started at IBM in various sales roles. Then, I moved to US West, now CenturyLink, where I led their Internet Services team. Medtronic recruited me to lead a sales region in their cardiovascular group that had been underperforming.
I was able to be effective in each role and each responsibility that I took on, with broader teams and broader expectations. I kept finding myself needing to get everybody on the same page quickly.
When I had a smaller organization, it was a bit easier to do, but as my responsibilities grew more significantly, it became a bit more challenging. So rather than relying on just instincts to get everybody on the same page, I had to get more, let’s call it “prescriptive.” I began to lean on human resources for information to help me figure out where my organization was at a given point in time.
On top of that, I needed to get out in the street and meet customers and individual contributors, connecting those experiences with the data that I was getting, and what I kept finding was the data was tied to this thing called engagement.
What I found was that not everybody was engaged in the right stuff. There was this disconnect, and I wanted to solve that. And that was the impetus to getting started in this space of alignment: how do we get everybody on the same page, dropping oars in the water simultaneously and performing at the highest level? I felt as if adding purpose to alignment began to get us in that direction. That’s when I started the process of trying to solve this alignment challenge.
At Medtronic, I had connected with some Ph.D.’s to construct a survey that measured alignment to mission and vision rather than employee engagement. The data from that survey and the work we did coming out of it demonstrated how powerful working on alignment could be.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
When I went to work at Medtronic, I was told coming in that it was a mission-driven company. However, when you get outside of headquarters and spend time with individuals who do not necessarily hear the message regularly, that message begins to attenuate and has to be reinforced. The data I got back from the first alignment survey told me about this reduction of mission signal. I needed to address these issues from the corporate office to the farthest reaches of the territory I led.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
All my life, I’ve been faced with challenges. It started with integrating my grade school many years ago, to competing in Division 1 track and not being one of the better athletes in the program, and later, to my corporate experiences of trying to move up the ranks quickly. Each step of the way, the biggest challenge I faced was how to take an organization of substantial size and get everybody on the same page.
The challenge associated with that is immense. Because again, it’s not like you can look them all in the eye; you have to spend the time making sure that, number one, your leadership team has bought into the mission and vision, and that people truly are leaning into it. They see their roles, responsibilities and accountabilities to that mission. Their evaluation will reflect their work, which will be reflected in the degree to which they can effectively embrace and relay that message.
That became the exercise that proved the biggest challenge. And it will always be a challenge. That’s why I wrote my book, The Art of Alignment, which takes 9 pillars of alignment and applies some methodologies that can help leaders quickly get to the point where they’re strengthening the signal and sending it on a more frequent basis.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
It’s a game of attrition. You either are a fighter and keep striving to get better or accept the status quo. I chose the former: to continue to get better and surround myself with people who knew more than I did. I formed a personal advisory board to get an influx of new ideas and have people that would challenge my thinking and push me to strive for better. I had great role models that helped support me to continuously improve and compel me to keep driving forward.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I’ve intentionally picked people to join my company that aren’t necessarily like me. They may not look like me, and they may not think like me or behave like me. And that’s a good thing. Collectively as a group, we’re able to see things from a bunch of different angles, through different lenses, and be able to come to conclusions after considering many aspects.
With those insights, I believe we’ve come up with solutions to some broader challenges. I think we’ve continued to push the envelope from an opportunity standpoint. And I feel like we’re just getting warmed up. We’ve been at this for seven years, almost eight, and have accomplished quite a bit thus far, but I feel like we’re still just getting started.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
During the summer, I have terrible allergies, and I was interviewing for a position at IBM. I was in the final interview. In the middle of the interview, I sneezed, and a good piece of it landed on my tie. It was one of the more embarrassing moments of my life. I kept looking at the interviewer, and he continued to turn more and more red. Finally, I looked down and I saw it. I looked back up at him, and I said, “I suppose I won’t get the job now.” And we both burst into laughter. I did end up getting the job.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
I can tell you that I had a boss back in my early years at IBM. One of my managers suggested that we take the time to hire the smartest people in the class. In other words, to target those with the highest grade point averages, and those that are the overachievers who would be likely to be overachievers in the sales environment as well. I can confidently say that was one of the worst pieces of advice I’ve received. Salespeople aren’t perfectionists. Oftentimes, they’re people who need to adjust quickly and can collect themselves in difficult situations.
And because nothing’s perfect, no sale goes perfectly. No communication is perfect. Salespeople have to be ready to react in difficult situations. People that have a 4.0 oftentimes are very smart, but they’re not as good on their feet in terms of improvising. Adaptability and quick thinking are way more important than the grade point average.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
First, I’m extremely competitive. The desire to win is high. Two, I’m good at selling the vision; I can take and describe the way things will be if we’re successful and can get buy-in based upon that. Third is that I’m a tireless worker. I’m one of those people that, you know, might not be the smartest person in the room, but I’ll outwork you.
Those traits were shown during the beginning of my time at Medtronic. I was brought in as a diversity hire. Added to that, I wasn’t from the industry, so I had to build credibility amongst my team and fellow leaders. These “disadvantages” fueled my desire to succeed. I talk about this in the book. I did a lot of work to connect with the team and connect them with the vision of what I wanted to do. For us to succeed, I had to sell myself and the mission. Lastly, running a vast territory of nearly half of the U.S., I had to make sure I impacted all of the great people on the team.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not burn out?
Empowerment, empowerment, empowerment. Get the right people on the bus, give them the autonomy to make the right decisions, hold them accountable to those decisions, inspect what is expected and ensure they’re effective at cascading the message. Then, do everything you can to get the rocks out of the road, including yourself.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs and founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The most common mistake I see is making it about themselves. It’s hard to get behind someone who’s out trying to seek all the glory. I believe most people struggle with that. The key is to make sure that the common goal of the organization is something that everyone can point towards. Everyone can strive for that common mission and vision together and celebrate the accomplishments. Let’s not as leaders try to steal that glory or steal the thunder of the organization. Share it with others and recognize others for what they’ve done. It’s more fun to do that anyway — to see the smiles on those faces and get the energy and excitement in the organization. If you’re effective at that, you’re essentially creating energy versus depleting it.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
I think one of the most underestimated aspects of running a company is showing people that you care. We talk about it all the time — the degree to which you care about what’s going on in your employees’ personal lives matters. There’s a real authenticity associated with that that can’t be underestimated. This is even more applicable in a virtual, COVID environment. It’s hard for somebody that’s just cracking the whip and trying to drive performance and outcome all the time. You’ll burn people out like that. The more you care about them, the more success and less burnout you’ll see.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
Number one: It’s never going to happen as fast as you’d like. There are so many variables you can’t foresee at the beginning that will challenge your timeline assumptions.
Number two: Pay attention to the macro environment, because it will create opportunities to thrive. We’ve moved into various segments to serve because we’ve seen different things happen in, say, law enforcement or education.
Number three: Get your processes in order. There needs to be some semblance of direction and certainty to see what’s possible rather than changing directions after each flashing light that comes by.
Number four: Surround yourself with professional individuals that you can trust — people like your accountants and attorneys that you can trust to get the work done the way it needs to be done and stay on the right side of ethics and the law.
And Number five: Spend time with your customer and understand their needs. You can’t hear this message enough. Spend as much time as you can with customers and potential prospects in order to understand what the market is calling for. And, the degree to which you can be successful in serving them, and the mission, is going to be the cornerstone of your success.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
It would be leveling the playing field. If everyone got a fair at-bat, you could create a true meritocracy within each organization. Everyone gets a fair opportunity to matriculate effectively. Their contributions are equally rewarded based upon their ability to deliver.
How can our readers further follow you online?
Our website is www.orgametrics.net. We have an Orgametrics page on LinkedIn and can be found on Twitter at @Orgametrics. We also have a great podcast called “The Misadventures in Organizational Misalignment,” available where you get your podcasts and on YouTube. My book, The Art of Alignment, can be obtained wherever you get your books.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!