Carla Williams Johnson: “Trust your gut”

You’ve got to believe in yourself and forget what others may or may not say. For a very long time, I had a hard time dealing with this. I would hide or not say what I mean out of shear fear of offending someone or being misunderstood. Then one day it dawned on me: I […]

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You’ve got to believe in yourself and forget what others may or may not say. For a very long time, I had a hard time dealing with this. I would hide or not say what I mean out of shear fear of offending someone or being misunderstood. Then one day it dawned on me: I wouldn’t be in the position I am in now, if I didn’t know what I was doing. I like to think of myself as the master of my industry and run with that feeling. I’ve learned it’s bad to say nothing and worse to sound like someone else. So, I just get out there and do it and people love me for it.

As a part of our series about powerful women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carla Williams Johnson, CEO of Carli Communications LLC. Known simply as Carli, she is extremely passionate about helping others and giving back, volunteering her time and skills wherever she can. When she’s not working, she can usually be found in the company of her adult daughter and infant son in the beautiful Caribbean twin island Republic of Trinidad & Tobago.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

Having worked in the field of marketing, advertising and communications for over fifteen years with some of the top advertising agencies, I made my entire life building the dreams of others. Here I am, working my fantastically fabulous ‘buns’ off while others built their dreams and made money on my strength.

My colleagues would always say I should open my own business because I was so talented with such great ideas. A voice inside me said I could do it but fear is such a powerful thing, especially fear of the unknown.

In 2016. I was working a traditional 8–4 and was extremely unhappy, physically sick and unappreciated. It was so bad that I was on an entire month’s sick leave. One morning, as I stepped into office, I was summoned by the Human Resources Manager who informed me that my job was now redundant. After sacrificing to stay in job I hated, here I was being told that I was no longer needed, curiously enough, I felt like I was finally free and I was extremely relieved. I felt like it was God saying that this was my time to shine, on my own.

It was then that I finally decided to believe in myself, trust my gut, and listen to that little still voice inside my head that said: ‘You could do it, don’t worry, you’ll be alright!’

After all these years of companies standing on me, it was time for me to stand on my own. I decided it was time to get paid for my knowledge and expertise.

So here I am, a young single mother, with no job, no plan of action, no money and no clue what to do. I was a bit scared, but a lot determined and decided that I needed to get focused.

Thankfully I had the support of my family and my health slowly improved. I just knew the universe had my back and I decided that God was in control of my destiny. I fell back on what I knew I was good at and I did to make money for other companies. I started to meet people, expand and make connections.

Sometimes I made no money at all and sometimes I barely made enough to cover my bills. There were days I cried long tears and almost lost it because I knew I was working hard but I persevered using the tools that were provided to me.

I went back to my marketing roots as that was all I had to keep going. I used my gifts, talents and abilities to help others grow their business and after months and months of being persistent and consistent with my efforts, the universe again answered my prayers in 2017. I landed my first major client, then like an avalanche of good luck, I was getting numerous calls for interviews and to be featured in local and international publications.

Could you imagine? In just a few months I went from not having a job to being recognized on a global scale. That, I believe, is the reward for using your God given gifts, talents and abilities. I used mine to help others and I didn’t let fear, self-doubt and less than stellar results my first year get in the way of me rising to my dreams, instead, I trusted in the universe and believed that God will give me what I need, when I needed it, once I continued to work hard and believe in myself.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Interesting you say? Hmm …well I do remember this one incident. At the time I was pretty upset but now looking back I tend to laugh and ponder on lesson learned from it which is to always follow my instincts.

I remember when I had only just started, myself and a few other entrepreneurs were contacted by my then coach to work with her on a major project that was supposed to ‘take my business to the next level’. This was someone I trusted, because she wasn’t just a coach, she was a friend…or so I thought. She was there when I was going through my stress in my job and wanted to leave, she was who I called when I needed to vent, or cry or whatever…so when she presented this life changing opportunity, I didn’t hesitate to say yes.

It wasn’t long before the cracks started to show. She was no leader and did not practice what she preached. She mobilized a team to do her work while not sharing the responsibility. She exploited us all for our expertise and refused to listen to advice or feedback. We were treated more like bad employees. Worse yet, she expected all of us to put working on her project above all (mind you we weren’t being paid), while she went off to build her second and third business ventures.

I was crushed…the realization that this person I admired was not who she said she was. I did not want to admit it but I was sold a dream and was being taken advantage of.

Unhappy does not accurately describe how I felt, but I had to face the fact that she was exactly the type of person I vowed to save others from and I got duped myself. I called her ‘friend’ so I didn’t see it coming. I mean, I really expected a lot from this person and, even when the truth was revealed, I still didn’t want to believe that I was being used.

Luckily for me, I realized my worth before it was too late. I learned very quickly that there are some people who would use your weaknesses against you. She knew that deep down inside I did not truly believe in myself. Yes, I spoke a good game and told people how fabulous I was but deep down inside I felt unworthy. It’s weird because I know (in my mind) I am the freakin’ boss when it comes to creative ways to use media to advertise and promote a brand, but I felt (in my heart) that I still had to prove it.

One day, I snapped THE HELL out of it! I did not leave the corporate world and open my own business for someone else to use me once again to build THEIR dreams on MY shoulders…it was time I built my own empire.

I realized that I am good enough…DAMN GOOD AT THAT!!!

I was my own problem. I was blocking my own blessings because I was not courageous enough to stand in my own genius. I didn’t need validation from anyone, I needed to embrace my own truth. So I let her go and when I did things started to flow. I felt happy; I felt free; I felt like the architect of my own dreams.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?

It’s hard to put into words but I guess it’s the strategist in me that loves to see the big picture with all the moving parts working together. As a CEO, I get to set the direction, the pace and ensure the quality of the work that comes out my company all while ensuring I keep everyone motivated and excited to keep moving towards my vision.

I think the fundamental difference between a leader and a CEO is that although both need to inspire, motivate and, well of course, lead the CEO understands strategy and uses this to keep the ball rolling and takes full responsibility for the direction of the company.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

As I mentioned before, it’s seeing the big picture and watching all the pieces fall into place. I guess seeing and believing the end result before anyone else and knowing that it can all come together EXACTLY the way it looks in my mind is just an indescribable sensation. Sometimes I look in amazement when everything comes together the way it’s supposed to and it gives me a feeling of joy and accomplishment. It’s an especially great moment to savor when all the doubters and nay-sayers see it all come to fruition….it’s really great.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

Well for me, I needed to learn patience. I really didn’t have a lot of it growing up but heading out into the world of business, particularly in my field of marketing, patience is necessary. Also, if you’re not careful, you can feel the weight of the world on your shoulders because sometimes only you can see your vision and that can feel like you’re trying to move forward when everyone is pushing back. It’s sometimes a difficult and lonely experience, especially if you’re not surrounded by the right people.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?

What I’ve noticed is that many people think that when they’re the CEO, they’re ‘the boss’ which entitles them to:

  • work when they feel like it;
  • hire persons to do things that they don’t ‘feel like’ doing;
  • order people about because they need to ‘do whatever the boss says’;

Being a CEO and building business requires a lot of work and sacrifice.
Late nights and early mornings, planning, strategizing and a lot of other things. To actually build a profitable, sustainable brand takes guts, a strong will and an understanding that it’s not all about you but the people you serve. Some people need to check that attitude at the door; there’s no place ego in business!

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

I feel that women have to try that much harder to get taken seriously: the way we look, the way we dress, if we smile too much or not enough, if our hair is long, or too short or whatever.

There are too many measuring sticks to judge women and they’re almost always negative when compared to our male counterparts. Men are friendly versus women who are flirty; men command attention versus women who are bitchy…..well you get it…..what’s worse is that sometimes it’s women who say these things about their female counterparts. Instead of saying she worked hard for that position, they speculate and even spread rumors that maybe it was another type of ‘position’ that got her that promotion. It’s sad really. I feel like men don’t have to face those types of things or be subjected to that type of ridicule.

Things are changing slowly but surely but women are almost always second guessed whenever we give direction or offer guidelines. Sometimes to get people to do what we asked we need to change our tone and language. It really shouldn’t be that way. As a woman I do feel like there’s more “against” me than there is ‘for me’ but I rally through to make my mark on the world.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be? 
No one said it was going to be easy but no one said it would be THIS HARD!! I mean I love the challenge; the roller coaster ride of being in business is enough to get the blood pumping but someone could have warned me!

I was ready for the exhaustion but not so much the loneliness;
I was ready to lose some friends but not some of my closest confidants;
I was ready to give up some things and juggle a few others but I was not ready for the emotion and guilt that would follow from my actions.

There was (and is) so much to learn and discover on my journey and I wished someone would have ‘kept it real’. Now I want to be that for someone else.

I want to manage expectations as they say and let persons know what they’re really getting themselves into.

This journey isn’t for everyone and it’s time we shared what it really entails so that persons will know if this is something they really want to pursue.

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?

Patience for one…you absolutely need that so survive. You must have a vision and an unwavering belief in your abilities to make it come to life. I’m not talking ego here but a burning passion to see it through to the end no matter what.

It is amazing the types of things we are faced with on a daily basis; and yes grit is a necessary component in handling whatever life throws our way, grit together with grace is the winning combination for the ultimate success. I’ve had to use my own courage and resourcefulness to navigate this rollercoaster ride; I’ve had to break through barriers of being ‘a little island girl’ from a country that only few know about; I’ve had to make my mark in an industry that tends to favor the opinions of my male counterparts; I’ve had to shine through as being honest, reliable and real where there seem to be so many fraudsters whose main goal is to deceive in the name of making a quick buck.

These are the reasons why I’m here and how I continue to thrive. I take all that I’ve been through and used it to propel me forward. That is the way of the successful CEO.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Don’t focus on what others might think about you (it’ll drive you crazy), instead be yourself and take up the mantle you were born to carry. You’re a leader and as such carry yourself as one. Display your knowledge and command respect! Be forceful when you need to and empathetic when necessary and above all, in every stride you make, learn the lesson along the way and apply it moving forward. You’ve got this.

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?

There have been a few but the person I am most thankful for is my mentor Jennifer Kem. She has been so instrumental in my growth and development. I met her virtually back in 2016. At that time, I was a bit lost and I had gone to a tele-summit where she was a featured speaker and I was hooked ever since. Luckily for me she was doing her own Brand Story Challenge at the time and truly helped me find my own voice……fast forward I am now a part of her signature program and my business has seen tremendous growth. I don’t think I would be where I am today if it wasn’t for her tough love and guidance.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I love that I can truly support people who need it. Sharing my story has done a tremendous job of showing others of what is possible.

I give back by mentoring up and coming entrepreneurs and using my gifts, talents and abilities to assist wherever I can. I’ve been asked to share my wealth of knowledge with both local and international volunteer groups, schools, and I’ve used my skills to help raise thousands of dollars for various projects and charitable organizations.

I feel as if I have fought through so many barriers and have had so many things working against me, but I’m doing it…this small island girl is doing the impossible. I am living proof to everyone that everything you desire is possible.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?

  1. It can be a very lonely place. It’s almost like you’re fighting with the world around you and no one can understand why. Consider it a curse or a blessing but having the ability to see what others can’t and create what others simply dream about is a journey some people travel alone. I wished someone would have said to me, “Carla, sometimes you’re going to think you’re crazy, and you probably are …keep going anyway and let your success speak for itself”
  2. Schedule self-care like your life depended on it…because it does. There are times I get so focused and engrossed in what I’m doing that I forget to eat. It’s crazy!!!! I had to learn the hard way that being unkind to my body and not giving my brain time to recharge can have terrible consequences. Being a CEO means others depend on me so I do everyone a favor and take a break every once in a while.
  3. Failing is OK, even for a CEO. I would beat myself up whenever I made a mistake but as time went on, I realized that it’s all part of the process. As a matter of fact, I’ve dismissed the word failure from my vocabulary altogether. I learned the lesson and I allow it to strengthen me as I move forward.
  4. You’ve got to believe in yourself and forget what others may or may not say. For a very long time, I had a hard time dealing with this. I would hide or not say what I mean out of shear fear of offending someone or being misunderstood. Then one day it dawned on me: I wouldn’t be in the position I am in now, if I didn’t know what I was doing. I like to think of myself as the master of my industry and run with that feeling. I’ve learned it’s bad to say nothing and worse to sound like someone else. So, I just get out there and do it and people love me for it.
  5. Trust your gut. I cannot say how many times I went against my own intuition and got myself in hot water. Now I don’t make a move unless my intuition is in play. It gives me the confidence and the desire to follow through much easier once I feel aligned and at peace with the decision I’ve made.

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 honestly feel that men are ‘groomed’ (for lack of a better word) a particular way and therefore they are ‘expected’ to act and react in situations that can be really unhealthy for them and the people around them. Society still expects them to be a certain way which is counterproductive to how the world is progressing. If I could I would create a movement to address this because while women are becoming empowered, men are still being held to the same outdated stereotypes with their worth measured by an old fashioned value system. I think helping these men unlearn some of the traits they were exposed to can truly help the world become a better, less violent place.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My absolute quote is from Maya Angelou
 “I did then what I knew how to do. 
 Now that I know better, I do better.”

I live my life by this because it reminds me to never stop learning, growing and improving

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

If I could have lunch with anyone today, I would choose Sir Richard Branson because I love his quote:

“Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don’t want to”

It so true but I guess if my some of my past employers heeded this, I may have still been an employee instead of a CEO, but honestly, I love Mr. Branson’s boldness, his willingness to take strategic risks and his entire outlook on life. It would be an honor to meet with him someday.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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