Make time to think and have perspective. I had to learn this over time, and I’m still working on it! You can’t put yourself last and your family and work first and keep your center intact. You need time to think and free mind space to consider new ideas and know what you want. My pace of always being busy is my normal, and it can be hard to slow down. But every new idea or change I’ve made — always started with time to think. Plus, you can’t be strategic at work or in life if you never stop to slow down, lift up and think.
How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.
As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Patti Johnson.
Patti Johnson is the founder and CEO of PeopleResults, a successful change & learning consulting firm. Patti is also on the Board of Directors of Pariveda Solutions, the host of the podcast, Be a Wave Maker: Conversations on Change, and the author of Make Waves: Be the One to Start Change at Work and In Life. In addition, she is an instructor on leading change at SMU and a member of the United Way Women of Tocqueville.
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 childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in a small town in Oklahoma, so my world was small too. I couldn’t have imagined what my career would hold as I didn’t see that many options growing up. I followed the “bird by bird” approach, and at every step, I learned a little more and a little more about the possibilities and what I could do.
I was on the yearbook staff in my high school. One day two people from Taylor Publishing, our publisher, came from Dallas to take us to lunch. The woman from Taylor was my first interaction with a powerful, executive woman. She was intelligent, confident, and was obviously the one in charge. She also wore a great power suit. She and her male colleague had flown in on their plane for the day to take us to lunch at the local Ponca City country club. I was amazed. I had never seen anyone like her. That night I remember telling my mom that I wanted to be like that someday. But it took many steps to figure out how to get there.
Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?
I decided to start my business in 2004. I’m not a risk-taker and like to have a solid plan — so the move to entrepreneur didn’t come naturally at first. But, like many others, life got much clearer after September 11, 2001. I traveled often with work and after the NYC attack, I was stuck in downtown Chicago. After a terrifying week, I was finally able to make it home. We had two young boys at that time and when we turned the corner onto our street and I saw the kids playing in the yard — my goals came into very clear focus. Yet, it took me about 3 years to pull it all together.
I worked to blend the career cocktail of ambition and big career goals with being a very involved parent. This inner conflict propelled me to start my own business to have the mix I wanted and do it my way.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
There are many, but my first thought is several stories that I didn’t understand at the time. After starting at Accenture, I noticed that a few women more senior than me were so “nice”! One woman always invited me to lunch with ‘someone I should meet’ when I was in Chicago, or she’d ask me to join other women for dinner. One invited me to meet with one of the top 5 executives at the firm to share the work my team had accomplished. Another more senior woman included me in a task force when I was by far the youngest participant — and she’d ask for my opinion when I was hesitant to speak up. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that these women were much more than just ‘being nice’ — they were giving younger women visibility as we learned to find our voice. I wanted to follow this example as I progressed in my career.
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?
There are a mix of several, but these have been very important for me:
- Persistence — I am relentless in making progress on things I care about. My family can confirm this! If I want to accomplish something — I put enormous effort and focus into making it a reality. It might be finding ‘hard to get’ tickets or writing a book! When I decided I wanted to write a book and find a publisher — I committed myself to it. Deep inside, I knew it would happen and it was up to me to figure out how. I certainly had setbacks and disappointments, but I kept going and accomplished my goal. Adaptable persistence can make up for lots of other gaps.
- Priority on relationships — I don’t mean being friends with everyone but creating a strong circle of business friends to rely upon and call when you need an idea or an introduction. As the CEO of a consulting firm, you rely on people to recommend you and ask for your help because they know you’ll come through for them. We all need wise people to call for advice. I talked to 20–30 people when I started my company because I didn’t know how to do it. I listened, and almost everyone made time to help me because we had a strong relationship and history.
- Stay nimble — Businesses, organizations, and the market are fluid and constantly changing. This constant change means that we can’t stand in cement and still adapt and be ready for the future. Being nimble isn’t always easy for me, but it has allowed me to make changes in my career, try new things, experiment with a new idea that didn’t work, and move on. I like the philosophy of ‘this is how we’ll do this today, but once we know a better way, we’ll change.’
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?
After years of history, this bias against strong women is baked into our society and is today’s reality. Women carry expectations with them — to be nice, respectful, and strong — but not too strong. Confident, but not bossy. The line is razor thin and impossible to walk without someone else thinking you are too this or too that. Yet, I do see progress. The awareness with the #metoo movement and more women leaders breaking through to the top of organizations and governments is having an impact. But we have a long way to go.
Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?
I grew up as an achiever — which can be a pleaser in disguise. I thrived on praise and acknowledgment of success. I wanted to be recognized as successful. Yet, as I learned, the playing field isn’t always level. Earlier in my career, there were about 18 people at the most senior vice-president level equivalent. Two were men. What are the odds that the two promoted — were just the two men? It was a reminder that our culture and the bias that goes with it is a powerful force.
What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?
Nothing. A woman, like a man, should be respectful and acknowledge the ideas of others. It is not our job to take on the responsibility of how others feel. Focus your energy on doing the right thing and contributing however you can — not on everyone else’s reactions.
What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?
We are making progress. The most critical step is making powerful women the standard and a normal part of life and work. If women lead organizations and have important jobs, then those in that organization see that it’s just how it is here. Actions mean much more than any words.
One of my favorite quotes is from Ruth Bader Ginsburg about the Supreme Court, “When I’m sometimes asked when will there be enough [women on the Supreme Court] and I say, ‘When there are nine,’ people are shocked. But there’d been nine men, and nobody’s ever raised a question about that.” So, that tells the story.
In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?
There are many. But one I immediately think of is when I was eight months pregnant, driving into work on one of Dallas’ busiest highways for a critical executive team meeting. I could feel myself becoming queasy and lightheaded. I’d fainted before, so I knew what was about to happen. Luckily, I was able to pull over onto the highway shoulder before I fainted. I soon opened my eyes as the cars whizzed by. I was first on the agenda that day, so I had to carry on. As was typical for me, I was the only woman in the room — much less the only very pregnant woman with a shiny, sweaty face from my fainting episode! I walked in and briefly explained to my boss what had happened in case I had a relapse. He asked with concern, ‘Are you ok?’. And, after my quick ‘I think so’ — he went straight to adding an important point to my presentation and we continued. I made it that day — though I probably wasn’t at 100%. This experience was a reminder of how different work can be for women.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women leaders that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
The biggest challenge is the enormous burden of the “shoulds.” There are so many expectations of what you should be like, what you should say or not, and how you should act. As a test, I’ll often ask others and myself, ‘if a man did the same thing — how would you react?’ Research states that women typically take on more responsibilities at home, as a parent or caring for their parents, making it even harder to find the right balance. And, women leaders are often also the pillar at work and home — so expectations are always high from others. And the more capable you are — the more others expect from you.
Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?
Yes, it was difficult, but it can be accomplished in almost all industries and organizations with intent and resolve. The main thing is not trying to fit your personal life into your career, but the other way around. A fast-paced environment will test you. But you do have control of the roles you take, your industry, the organization where you work or the type of company you create, and who you choose to work for — if it’s not yourself. It starts by knowing what you want and the life you want to create and working backward — not the other way around.
What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?
There wasn’t one instance, but I did see that a high-demand and fast-paced environment would take everything you were willing to give. Boundaries were essential as I had to find my rhythm that fit the life I wanted. I learned to use a ‘no apologies’ approach as a working parent. I planned my work calendar well in advance to be sure I kept my main things the main things. For example, if my son had a school Christmas party or a Mother’s Day tea — I marked that I wasn’t available and protected this time like a client meeting. I learned not to explain or apologize — just that ‘I’m not available at that time.’ In a high-pressure environment, I saw other women agree to miss the school party they wanted to attend or join the first half of the call from the school hallway solely out of guilt. Of course, there are emergencies when being in a big job requires being available — but it can’t be your mode of operation, or you’ll come up short on everything.
I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?
I see this less as beauty and more about caring about your appearance as it’s a part of you. Like it or not, our appearance and being put together conveys credibility and dominates first impressions. Research says that attractive people have an advantage in how they are perceived; however, I don’t think it has to be ‘beauty’ as that is a higher standard.
How is this similar or different for men?
I think a woman is significantly more likely to face other stereotypes if she is ‘too attractive’ — much more so than men.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Do you. Know what you want, what matters to you, and find your unique definition of success — which may change over time, and that’s ok. Be yourself. Knowing these answers will keep you centered and give you a filter to make wise decisions that fit what you want. Decisions like — is that the best job for me? Does this organization fit who I am? What will give my work meaning and a feeling of accomplishment? I’ve seen many women — and men — greatly limit their options by considering only their current company’s org chart or open positions instead of thinking much bigger.
– As I advanced in my career, I looked for role models and women like me. I saw many women who had conformed to what they were ‘supposed to be’ and a style that emulated other male senior executives. I was on a leadership team with a woman who became a role model in “doing you”. She never changed or disguised any part of herself. At that time, it was refreshing to see a senior female executive in a big job easily joke with everyone, ask hard questions and push back her way. That experience created a template for me to know that it is possible to unapologetically be yourself and also be respected and very successful.
- Name what you want. If you are willing to put what you want out in the universe, it can create momentum. If you want to be promoted to the next level, take on a new job, create a job that doesn’t exist today, or start a company — declare it. Name it. Not only does it let others know your expectations and goals, it helps you too because you begin to internalize it.
Any promotion I received was propelled by telling my boss and mentor(s) what I wanted and discussing how to get there. Of course, it might have happened anyway — but probably not in the same timeframe.
- Build your circle. Your circle and network of friends are vital for your career and you. This circle of other women juggling what you are juggling can give you suggestions and someone to listen when you need it. A network is the engine for building a business of those who will be your clients or recommend you. These relationships help you solve problems and learn how stuff really gets done in the organization. You know who to call to get the real story or give you the idea you don’t have. And your circle will bring laughs and fun that you know you need.
-My circle of friends, and often women friends, have made the difference in my work and career. I have many work friends who are team members, and some own their businesses too. We have an ongoing dialogue over wine and lunch and talk about business and life. This conversation is a blend of learning, career therapy, and fun for me that has made my career so much more fulfilling.
- Do what you are afraid to do. If you have big career plans, you have to take on challenges that are scary and that you don’t understand. Get comfortable with the discomfort. Yet, at the same time, know what it will take for you to get more comfortable. I decided to start my business two years before I finally had the courage to do it. Because I’m not a huge risk-taker, I decided to rely on the two things that help me feel more confident: information and breaking hard things into smaller pieces.
Before starting my business, I talked to so many people about being an entrepreneur — asking them what to do and what not to do. I asked about their experiences and for their advice. After I’d talked to about 25 people, it didn’t feel so scary anymore. Every person shared at least one great nugget of wisdom that I still carry with me today. The more I listened, the more I learned. My discomfort started to shift to confidence.
Secondly, I played a mind game to think of my first year in business as a one-year experiment. I had a year-long plan with a very moderate definition of success. This approach was very different than my usual way of creating an aggressive plan and goals. I allowed myself to learn and adjust as I went. I knew if I made the challenge feel too big, it might undermine me by feeling I hadn’t accomplished enough. One nugget I learned is that it typically takes a year to get a consulting business going. My first year was well beyond my goals, and I’ve never looked back.
- Make time to think and have perspective. I had to learn this over time, and I’m still working on it! You can’t put yourself last and your family and work first and keep your center intact. You need time to think and free mind space to consider new ideas and know what you want. My pace of always being busy is my normal, and it can be hard to slow down. But every new idea or change I’ve made — always started with time to think. Plus, you can’t be strategic at work or in life if you never stop to slow down, lift up and think.
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’m a big fan of Adam Grant, author, innovator, and professor at Wharton. I like Adam so much because he makes work human and he takes the hard and complicated and makes it feel simpler. I know he’d have some amazing wisdom and insights to share with me over coffee.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.