I wish somebody would have told me to establish a personal board of directors sooner than I did. That I should include not only people who are subject matter experts and execute with precision in their chosen area of expertise, but to also include people I have long-term relationships with too. For instance, family members should also be on that personal board of directors. Family members see you differently. They know about your passions, purpose, will to succeed and overall growth. More so than other people that you meet along the way.
As a part of our series about strong women leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Carolynn Johnson, CEO of DiversityInc Media. She is a prominent voice addressing large company culture challenges and an advisor to boards and executive leadership teams. A wife and mother of two, the role of CEO was not initially on her radar.
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?
What led me to work in this space, modern media, was my watching Aunt Carol, my father’s younger sister. In my impressionable years, she showed me a Black woman could develop her plan, execute, and win. Win on her terms, even in white-male dominated spaces, like advertising.
After college, she landed at the Chisholm Mingo Group then Essence Magazine. She went on to start a full-service marketing and communications agency, Correct Communications. I interned with her starting at the age of 14.
While working on my undergraduate degree, I worked with her full-time. I took on more responsibility. Gaining valuable experience, and love for publishing in the print magazine space.
My Aunt Carol would develop memorable campaigns for major corporations. Allstate Insurance Company, Coca-Cola, and Prudential Financial, to name a few. She was influential, powerful, and responsible with that power too. Mindful to align with companies that upheld their corporate social responsibilities.
She is unflinching when it comes to her values. Values that help shape the person I am today. So early on, my Aunt Carol was my example of true grit and leadership accountability. She is a living example of unstoppable excellence, and I am so grateful.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
On May 7, 2019, I was named CEO at the annual DiversityInc Top 50 dinner with over 950 corporate decision-makers present. But, the chapter of my life titled “Leading at DiversityInc” did not start there. The journey began in 2010. Luke Visconti, my chairman, who is also the founder of DiversityInc, tapped me to be his successor.
Let me give you a little background. When I got married in 2007 to the sweetest, most gorgeous man I have ever laid eyes on, my father was in the hospital. My father fought in the Vietnam war. After proudly serving his country in the United States Airforce, he was never the same. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a result of his service in Vietnam.
It broke my heart that he was not going to be able to walk his baby girl down the aisle. He had already lost so much. When it became clear that my father would not be at my wedding, I asked Luke if he would walk me down the aisle. He said yes right away.
He and his wife, of 30 plus years, attended the wedding. Our family and professional relationships have deepened since then. Luke is my daughter’s godfather. He handed me my degree on stage the day I graduated with an MBA, and he is a constant bright light in my life. As a leader, an advocate, and a warrior against injustice, he is everything I want to be when I grow up.
Now, back to 2010 and my rise to leadership at DiversityInc. Luke called me in his office around lunchtime. He began the conversation declaring the major accounting firms got it right establishing a mandatory retirement age of 60.
At that moment he told me he wanted me to be part of his legacy. I was honored and scared all at once. I also did not even know if I wanted the responsibility or if I could do what he made look so easy, day after day. At that moment, I was cool on the surface but a lot was going on beneath.
We talked about the timeline, expectations, and how he would support my growth. Luke would serve as a mentor, coach, and sponsor. I got comfortable with the idea and said yes. Then, and as well-laid plans often do, everything changed and I had no control over what happened next.
In May of 2014, Luke had a stroke while I was still learning the business. This rocked my world and changed everything. There was no time for crying and the training wheels were officially off. With Luke paralyzed on his left side, which he still is today, I had to stand taller than I ever had. I had to lead, learn, sell, and execute simultaneously. In May 2014, my life changed forever.
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?
There is humor in this story now yet it was not funny when it happened. I made my first mistake the same night, at the same event, where I was named CEO. I was interviewing Randall Stephenson. At the time, he was the Chairman, President, and CEO of AT&T. That year, 2019, AT&T ranked number one on the DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list.
Before the event announcement, Randall expressed his appreciation for the top honor. His remark caught me off guard. On camera, I said “thanks for finally earning it,” and covered it with a laugh and big smile. It came out as borderline disrespectful, even though I didn’t mean it that way.
That night, that moment, enhanced my appreciation for preparedness. For making room for the unexpected and not letting it distract me or take me off my game. To this day, it also forces me to do something that I do not like — watch myself on video.
For those reading this who know me well, they can attest to the fact that Randall is my favorite FTN 20 CEO. He leads unapologetically and is one of the most effective communicators I have ever met.
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?
I never thought about the position of CEO. Luke had confidence in me. I watched him be exceptionally good at the role and could not picture myself in his shoes. I am an introvert. I am a behind the scenes person. I was comfortable in Luke’s shadow, comfortable as his second in command.
After Luke had the stroke, I knew I had to lighten the load so he could focus on his recovery, his wife, and two daughters. I. Could. Not. Let. Them. Down. Standing 4 feet and 10 inches, I unleashed my competitive nature and a healthy ego. Then, I made calculated risks to keep the doors of DiversityInc open.
So, what initially attracted me to the role of CEO was aligning my purpose with passion. Delivering on promises to our customers and keeping my word to our employees. It was not the title, it was accepting the responsibility and everything that came with it. We could not fail. Not on my watch.
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?
That question takes me back to one of the macroeconomics classes while working on my MBA. We would discuss investor and consumer confidence. Talk about the engagement of customers, employees, and key vendors. No matter the formula, I found everything, to an extent, stems from confidence. People will take a hill for you if they have confidence you will help them win. If they have confidence you will support them through the journey. In essence, what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders is we build confidence.
What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
The opportunity to learn and teach is what I enjoy most about being an executive. My actions and priorities are data-driven. This combination helps me to remain focused. Focused on what is most important and where opportunities, and their shelf life, exist.
In 20 years or so, I look forward to being a tenured college professor. I want students to learn from someone that has held several positions in the C-Suite. Positions where I have excelled. Positions where I have learned.
It is important to share that we all can nurture a family and a career and achieve academic success too. Education is the most important gift you can give yourself, next to grace.
As COO of DiversityInc, I leveraged organizational performance, continuous innovation, ambition, relationship development, and trust to accomplish my goals. As CRO, I managed a portfolio of programs to attract, engage, and convert prospects. Now as CEO, I’m learning to be more agile.
What are the downsides of being an executive?
The downside is interacting with people who do not mean what they say. There are two things in this life that we cannot get back. They are the words out of our mouths and time. So, it bothers me to no end when people waste time — my time. That is what I enjoy the least.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
There is this idea that everybody does what you say, that they march to the beat of your drum, on time and inline. That’s a myth. Also, people think this is a glamorous position. I will tell you that it is not. It is a grind, it has its ups and downs. It is stressful but the reward is great when you marry your purpose to the vision of the company.
As I shared earlier, your team will take any hill when they believe in the mission. With that in mind, leaders must invest the time to understand and remove any barriers. The key to retention is being present and committed to individual and team success. We have heard it many times, and it is true. People leave leaders, not organizations.
Merck CEO Kenneth Frazier nails it when he reminds us “leadership eats culture for lunch.” Further, people know when you believe in them. People know when you have their back and when you don’t. So, this idea that you can just tell people what to do, and they will just go on and do it, is a myth.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
For women it is instinctive, we want to make sure we do a good, thorough job. And, if it is not done exactly like those we admire, it is not good enough. This leads to a lack of confidence that may negatively impact how you show up.
In 2019, I interviewed Arne Sorenson. He is the CEO of Marriott International. He said he was promoted to CEO because people believed he could effectively do the job. Not because he had the experience already.
Like our male counterparts, we have to give ourselves credit for what we are capable of doing. Currently, there are only 38 women CEOs of Fortune 500 companies. Yet, in 2019, women earned more bachelor, master, and doctorate degrees than men. There is no excuse for how we are underrepresented in key positions of power. No excuse. We need to apply that same ambition and belief that we can learn. Have that knowledge tested and graduate to how we view ourselves at the office.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
It’s easier! Once the last person walked out of the ballroom on May 7, 2019, I created these negative scenarios in my head. I thought people would not respond to me. I thought I was not going to be viewed as a peer by other CEOs and senior leaders.
To date, the exact opposite has been my experience.
Further, I had a great example of what a real CEO does, how a real CEO shows up in Luke. I had model behavior ahead of me as an indicator of how to take this job on and do it well.
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?
The definition of an executive is too broad. Let’s start there. You can be an account executive. In some sales situations, they are at the bottom of the organizational chart. That does not mean you are not a leader or have the potential. You can lead without a title if you are willing to do the work, to be an influencer. What I focus on is how people achieve goals, develop relationships, and create culture.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
First, make sure you are true to yourself. This is important because sometimes we forget how we got here. We got here because of who we are. We got here because of our convictions, our commitments, and our capabilities.
At times, people “arrive” and take on a different leadership style. They take on the point of view of the people of the dominant group around them. They lose the fire in their belly. They feel the need to hide the strength of their convictions to conform to the group norm. Do not let situations or people change 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?
There are two people. A former colleague and my mother. Let’s start with my former colleague. His name is Charles. Over a decade ago, he helped me see past a drastic conflict before I received a pink slip at the company I now lead. He was so in tune with the culture, that he helped me save my job.
Also, Charles gifted me with the prowess to take credit for my work and I have not let that jewel get away from me. If I did, you and I would not be having this conversation right now.
The second person is my mother. We are total opposites. But, when things are the hardest and the darkest, I remember obstacles she met head-on. As a child, I was figuratively attached to her hip. I saw her accomplish and power through so much.
A stay-at-home mom, she did not allow labels to define her. If she thought something was wrong she got out there to make sure it got fixed; right was right, and wrong was wrong.
When I am tired, discouraged, and think I cannot go on, I remember she overcame great obstacles. To give up, to not press on, would be dishonoring and minimizing her sacrifices for me and my brothers and sister.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
For me, making the world a better place starts with the people closest then working my way out. I have a four-year-old son, Jeremy Joseph, and a seven-year-old daughter, Joey Corrinne. Coming home late before they get a chance to see me and talk about their day is a hurdle I try to avoid.
For my daughter, I listen to her. I express when I am proud of her. I ensure she knows she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to and I will be there every step of the way. For my son, I ensure he feels like we are having a conversation and that he is an equal contributor.
Outside of my home, I am making the world a better place as a servant leader. For over a decade, I have served as the director of the DiversityInc Foundation. I am an active member of the National Board of Directors at INROADS and a founding Board Member of the Rutgers Business School Center for Women in Business.
I also regularly advise FTN 200 CEOs, their BODs, and ELTs on being active allies in the quest to ensure all are treated equally and that human rights are honored for not just some, but all.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
First, I wish somebody would have told me to fake it until you make it. Imposter syndrome is real but you are capable of so much more. Those are the words I wish somebody would have told me. But, I learned I was capable of so much more when Luke had a stroke.
Second, I wish somebody would have told me that your memory is your greatest asset. Not only your memory of the good but your memory of those dark times too. I have been with the company for over 18 years. My level of institutional knowledge is a combination of experiences, processes, and data.
Third, I wish somebody would have told me to establish a personal board of directors sooner than I did. That I should include not only people who are subject matter experts and execute with precision in their chosen area of expertise, but to also include people I have long-term relationships with too. For instance, family members should also be on that personal board of directors. Family members see you differently. They know about your passions, purpose, will to succeed and overall growth. More so than other people that you meet along the way.
Fourth, I wish somebody would have told me not to talk myself out of my own game. Do not have this idea that you are not welcome or wanted. More often than not, that couldn not be further from the truth. Nine times out 10, most people want to interact with you. Want to see you. Want to hear from you.
Fifth, I wish somebody would have told me early on that it is okay to be kind and to lead with empathy. You have to communicate effectively, but you do not have to be hard and you do not have to be mean. That whole rule with an iron fist mentality is counterproductive, and so silly, especially in this COVID-19 reality.
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 would build upon what is already working. In service to all mankind, I am a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. As Alpha Kappa Alpha has grown, it has maintained its focus in two key areas: the lifelong personal and professional development of each community it serves; and galvanizing its membership into an organization of respected power and influence, consistently at the forefront of effective advocacy and social change that results in equality and equity for all citizens of the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
From kindergarten to the fifth grade, I was the only Black student, in my classes, in a predominantly white area. The youngest of four at home, I often did not feel heard.
Fortunately, our parents taught us not to set our sights on what other people view as successful. But to make sure we are doing what we know is best for the people for which we hold responsibility. I take that pearl of wisdom, or what you call a life lesson quote, with me everywhere.
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
Melinda Gates. I am moved by the work she is currently doing with the Equality Can’t Wait Challenge. I want to contribute and be part of the effort. Equality Can’t Wait is an initiative launched by Pivotal Ventures to accelerate progress toward gender equality in the U.S. by 2030.
In 2030, my son will be 14 and my daughter will be 17. I want them to see the tangible results of accelerated progress toward gender equality. I want to align with Melinda Gates and the Equality Can’t Wait initiative to make that progress.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.