“Just get over yourself!” With Johnna Torsone and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Inclusivity: I believe we must start with the recognition that diversity is a reality. The general population and more particularly the workforce are becoming more diverse. In order to attract, retain and most importantly to engage that workforce, a focus on inclusiveness has to be a priority. The focus needs to be intentional, because only […]

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Inclusivity: I believe we must start with the recognition that diversity is a reality. The general population and more particularly the workforce are becoming more diverse. In order to attract, retain and most importantly to engage that workforce, a focus on inclusiveness has to be a priority. The focus needs to be intentional, because only then will you break down the barriers among and between people. This is especially true in the workplace where we are most likely to regularly encounter people different from us.

As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Johnna Torsone.

Johnna Torsone, Executive Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer at Pitney Bowes, has been the leader of HR and a member of the company’s senior leadership team for almost 30 years, during which she played a critical role in the transformation of the company. In addition, she is the Chair of the Pitney Bowes foundation and has at various times taken over interim responsibility for legal and corporate communication. Often recognized for the cutting-edge work in HR as well as contributions to her profession, Johnna’s role at Pitney Bowes followed a successful career as a management labor and employment lawyer as a partner in a New York City law firm.

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 wouldn’t have it any other way, but this career path is certainly not what I imagined I’d be doing when I graduated from college and law school. My original plan was oriented to public service — out of law school, I worked for a chief administrative judge for New York State. Shortly after that, I joined a fairly large New York City corporate law firm in the labor and employment area to gain critical skills as a lawyer — such as counseling, negotiating and litigating — with the intention of leaving with those skills to go into a public-oriented profession.

However, I found I liked the work, became a partner and was also very active in professional and charitable organizations. In the later part of my 15 years at the firm, more and more counseling and preventive work shifted in-house. It became less satisfying for me — I wanted to build healthy relationships between employees and companies, rather than fight over those that were already broken. That led me to think about what might be next, and a retired client of mine recommended I look at Pitney Bowes. At the time, Pitney Bowes was looking to fill a role that matched my experience perfectly and one from which I would be able to advance. I was actively recruited by both the General Counsel and the CEO at the time for the role of Employment and Labor Counsel and effectively, the Director of Diversity.

What drew me to Pitney Bowes was meeting all the executives and reading its rich history — in fact, we celebrated our 100-year anniversary this year. It had and has continued to have a forward-thinking view of the importance of diverse talent and healthy employee relationships in service of its clients, stockholders and the communities in which it operates. I knew this was a place I could make a positive contribution.

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

There are so many stories over the course of 30 years. At Pitney Bowes, there were many interesting moments in partnering with four different CEOs and multiple senior teams as the company underwent significant change, and keeping our core value, “doing the right thing, the right way” at the forefront, but it would be impossible to select just one.

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?

My funniest mistake was not anticipating that the schedules of New York law firms — which tend to start in the late morning and end in the late evening — did not translate into the corporate environment. On my first day at Pitney Bowes, I got in around 9 am, and found a lot of meetings had started much earlier. At 6 pm, I was ready to begin the next part of the workday when I wandered around a largely empty floor wondering where all my colleagues were. It occurred to me then that I had to readjust my orientation from what it was like to work at a law firm to a corporate environment.

I also had to adjust my style a bit. When I started at Pitney Bowes, the hard edge of being part of a very aggressive New York law firm didn’t initially translate to a more friendly corporate environment.

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 are innumerable people who have helped me along the way — from my wonderful supportive husband, family and friends, to teachers, mentors, people I’ve worked for, and those who have worked with me and for me. If I had to choose just one person from a professional perspective, it would be a mentor named June Martin, who, at the time I met her, was the Chief of Staff for the Speaker of the Assembly and then later to the Governor of New York State.

When I was a sophomore at Vassar, I was offered an opportunity to intern in state government for Mrs. Martin. This was around 1970, so professionally, it was quite a different world for women. She taught me so much as a young professional woman about demonstrating confidence, self-respect and credibility in a man’s world. She was extraordinarily helpful to me not just then, but later in life as well, sponsoring me for different jobs during law school and mentoring me throughout my career. She had a long-lasting impact on me.

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?

As a lawyer, I learned to prepare, prepare, prepare. Throughout my time as an executive at Pitney Bowes, I still firmly believe in the importance of preparing, but I’ve also learned to connect with and rely on others for assistance and input, and step back to focus on what is most important and on the particular audience to whom I am communicating. I ask myself: What is most important to them? What do they need to hear? How do I need to listen and what do I need to listen for? Whatever the presentation or meeting might be, I prepare but make an effort to remain open, less scripted and more natural, even as I focus on the points or decisions at hand. That has certainly been a process for me, but it has served me well in the long-term.

Of course, I also think it is important to eat healthy, stay active, and surround yourself with family and a core group of close friends. I make sure to carve out time to read and take part in other activities outside of business as well. I am involved in a lot of professional and nonprofit organizations. I love history and biographies, theater and music.

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?

I believe that in order to get the best out of talent, organizations need to understand that every individual is diverse in their own way, and by creating environments where all individuals can be themselves and feel welcome, that talent flourishes as does the organization. That said, there is a more urgent need to understand the reality that people of color and women have had barriers to their success and creating a truly inclusive environment takes more effort.

I’ve always believed that inclusivity and diversity are important, and in the mid-90s, Pitney Bowes worked with The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School to prove the business case for diversity, beyond the moral case. That was the seminal research that analyzed the difference in outcome to a business problem when working with a homogeneous vs. heterogeneous group. Research found that the homogeneous group — whether in race, gender, communication style or education, for example — may come to an answer more quickly. However, the better, more innovative and effective answer would always come from heterogeneous groups — with different backgrounds and life experiences comes the ability to examine a problem from multiple angles and arrive at different solutions from their varied perspectives. And of course, diversity is needed to avoid groupthink, and having a broader, richer view will attract more diverse clientele.

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.

  1. Inclusivity: I believe we must start with the recognition that diversity is a reality. The general population and more particularly the workforce are becoming more diverse. In order to attract, retain and most importantly to engage that workforce, a focus on inclusiveness has to be a priority. The focus needs to be intentional, because only then will you break down the barriers among and between people. This is especially true in the workplace where we are most likely to regularly encounter people different from us.
  2. Representation: I am passionate about voting rights, because to create a truly representative society, we must remove all inappropriate barriers to voting.
  3. Equity: In order to be a truly equitable society, we need to close the education gap. I feel it’s important to invest heavily in early childhood education, reskilling 18–25-year-old young people who may not have gone to college to help them develop new skills for the future, and in closing the digital divide.

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?

At a CEO and executive level, one’s words and actions are magnified, and one’s authenticity and integrity is more strongly tested. One has to always be thinking about what might come down the line, have an intense intellectual curiosity and ability to learn, scenario plan and be decisive even in uncertain and ambiguous circumstances. That takes penetrating and analytical rigor. CEOs must also balance the interests of multiple stakeholders, have the right talent around them and create and inspire followership in the organization he or she leads. These are important factors for all executives, but existential for CEOs.

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

There is often a perception that a CEO has to be all-knowing — however, that’s not possible or true. All chief executives are backed by a team that help offer different strengths and perspectives. Another myth is that vulnerability or humility is a flaw — the notion that CEOs need to be confident doesn’t mean they can’t be self-aware, reflective and vulnerable about the mistakes they’ve made and the things they’ve learned.

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

Though this is improving, there is a double bind of unconscious roles that have been expected of women. If women are aggressive, they go against the stereotype of being supportive. Yet, if they’re too supportive, they’re not viewed as a leader. Unconsciously, this affects women, and, while I believe things are improving, I have seen this play out at various times throughout my career. I’ve noticed when women are criticized, it’s often about their leadership style. Women are also at times held to a higher standard in order to be accepted, and mediocracy isn’t an option, especially as they reach more senior or C-Suite roles.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

A career and life goal of mine has always been to have a positive impact. When I chose the role of Chief HR Officer over General Counsel, I believed it would provide me personally with the ability to have the most positive impact on the business, though I was not sure because it was viewed less prestigiously at the time than the legal officer role. In the end, I believe I made the right choice for me and the company.

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?

There are plenty of traits of successful executives, but one thing an executive can’t be is a perfectionist, unable to learn, adapt and deal with stress. Executives often need to make decisions with less than perfect information and ambiguous circumstances — they need to be both willing to make these decisions and be accountable for the decision they make, regardless of the outcome. Some other traits that make a successful executive include having the ability to:

  • Examine business issues with analytical and conceptual skills. Executives need to have a deep self-awareness of their strengths and weaknesses, be receptive to feedback, and learn and adapt quickly, especially given the rapid pace of change in today’s world.
  • Be intellectually curious
  • Assess people and situations for maximum impact and influence
  • Have both mental and emotional toughness
  • Create a high degree to followership among diverse stakeholders
  • In addition, given the volatile external environment today and the speed and transparency of social media, executives and most particularly the CEO need what the thought leader and consultant Stephen Miles calls not just emotional intelligence but “social intelligence.”

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

I would suggest women leaders surround themselves with diverse and talented people who they trust and respect, and then invest time into their growth and development.

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

I like to think I’ve used the gifts and insights I have to help those around me do well. I have invested my time and money in a number of non-profit organizations with missions I believe in and that makethe world a better place, such as The Caroline House, which works to break down barriers that have kept low-income immigrant women from building better lives, the Westport Country Playhouse that has brought theater worth talking about to our community, my educational alma maters, The Connecticut Business and Industry Association, and the Fairfield County Community Foundation, which is dedicated to closing the opportunity gap within Fairfield County. I also have been very active in several professional groups such as the Human Resources Policy Association in DC and the National Academy of Human Resources.

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

I could have benefited from learning the importance of choosing the right people to be on your team, and the need to delegate to and empower them. I didn’t have that clear an understanding when I first started, but I learned quickly the need to position people that you trust and who understand the work in the right roles so that together we could make a difference. Learning that was the key to transitioning into a leadership role.

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.

Especially now, there are already movements that can make a difference and that I support. If I could call out one movement needing inspiration right now, it is that people become better and fully informed and civic-minded. In fact, I believe we need Civics back in the educational curriculum.

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

There are two quotes that come to mind almost immediately — the first is, “It’s never as good as you think and it’s never as bad as you think.” If you keep yourself in balance when you analyze problems or solutions, you’ll come out with better results, and I try to always keep this in mind.

On a lighter note, another phrase that I keep top of mind is, “Just get over yourself!” A former coach once told me this when discussing my frustrations, as a way to remind me that I should only focus on the controllable, and that most of the time, the issue I was concerned with wasn’t as significant as it felt in the moment.

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

I would choose to have breakfast with the Pope. I like to think of myself as a spiritual person, and it would be an incredible honor and experience to meet with him. At the same time, the Church is also facing many organizational and people issues right now, and just maybe, (smiling) I could offer a few insights as well.

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

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