Denice Torres is an entrepreneur, podcaster, and author who started her journey in the workforce as a bathroom janitor in the steel mills of Gary, Indiana and, against the odds, became the Chief Strategy and Business Transformation Officer and president of several companies at Johnson & Johnson. She knows that the best way to navigate adversity is to shift perspectives and use difficult times as a catalyst for growth.
As the founder and CEO of Pioneering Collective, which invites leaders to share their stories and engage broadly, as well as a lover of powerful stories, I am excited to share Denice’s story and valuable perspectives with others who are also leading, influencing, or preparing change initiatives.
Growing up in Gary, Indiana, Denice Torres distinctly remembers the moment when she was told by a high school teacher that she was not fit for college. She remembers saying to herself, “we’ll see.” In her senior year, she was awarded best athlete, won a basketball scholarship, and was voted funniest in her class. She took the experience of someone trying to predict her future and turned it into a powerful motivational tool to inspire people to find their power, confidence, and, in a word, mojo.
“Don’t accept defeat,” says Denice. “Just because one person didn’t like you or doesn’t get you, doesn’t mean you’re mediocre. Don’t accept that.”
Unload your Backpack
In those early days, Denice was motivated by both possibility and fear. As a young professional, she didn’t fit in, and that feeling was amplified by being gay (and closeted). She struggled with feelings of loneliness despite her penchant for laughter and a deep appreciation for life.
During this time, Denice participated in an Outward Bound course in the Sierra Nevada mountains. A requirement of the hike was the completion of a 24-hour solo period. This time alone proved fruitful. She gazed at the wilderness and began to cry, first because of the immense beauty around her, and then, as she struggled with the weight of her backpack, she cried from the realization that it was symbolic of the emotional weight she had been carrying. Using this as a metaphor, Denice began to evaluate each item in her “backpack” and decided to take charge and free herself from the things and feelings that no longer served her. It was a life-defining moment and a major step on the road from “self-acceptance to self-celebration.”
Denice focused on the power of positivity and possibility. Her personal philosophy was amplified when her daughter, Sierra, was born premature and very sick. While Sierra has cerebral palsy, epilepsy and is non-verbal, Denice describes Sierra as “absolutely perfect.”
These experiences informed her approach to leadership which she took to Johnson & Johnson. Her leadership platform was clear: Be yourself. Have the audacity to dream and be willing to work hard to achieve that dream, and last, but not least, choose gratitude.
Lead with Love
While working at Johnson & Johnson, the company faced quality and manufacturing issues that resulted in icon brands such as Tylenol to be removed from the shelves. Denice was asked to become president of the company that made Tylenol and other over-the-counter medicines. When she got the call to lead the recovery of the product and company, she had to weigh the pros and cons.
“It was a major decision,” Denice said. “The job was two hours away from home. But, in the end, I wanted to have the experience of saying, ‘We did it.’”
No stranger to adversity, Denice applied the lessons from her past to this challenging time for the company. Her approach? Immediately engage with the employees, consumers, and retail customers. Denice quickly assembled a diverse management team and focused on employee engagement. Based on her other leadership experiences, she was confident in her approach to “lead with love.”
Leading with love, as Denice describes it, is about caring, connection, honesty, “straight-talk,” and building confidence while also setting high expectations. She used reality-based optimism and made sure that any promises that were made, were kept. What she asked of the employees was that they speak the truth, no matter how painful it might be to do so. Another tool was the 48-hour rule which said that if there was a problem with someone or something, it had to be dealt with within 48 hours.
The employees were under tight timelines and immense demands. For Denice, it was important that the employees took care of themselves and enjoyed the journey. She placed massage chairs in the lobby, encouraged walks and team activities, and organized pizza parties. She also established core values that reinforced it was a privilege to serve customers. During this time, employee engagement and other leadership parameters were diligently measured, and the results were staggeringly positive.
While at Johnson & Johnson, Denice started monthly conference call sessions with senior leaders and outside guests with the hope these sessions would encourage confidence and a sense of possibility, particularly among women. It was such a success that Denice continued the program for five years, until retirement from the company.
In 2015, Denice was named Woman of the Year by HBA. In 2017, she retired from Johnson & Johnson to begin her next chapter.
So, what does an uber-successful, corporate executive turned entrepreneur and social advocate do next?
After leaving J&J, Torres founded The Ignited Company which specializes in change management, business transformation and leadership geared to executives and fortune 500 companies.
Then, in 2019, she founded The Mentoring Place, a community-based platform dedicated to helping women achieve lifelong career success and fulfillment. Denice states that the focus is on “providing real-world, no BS connection, classes, coaching, and mentoring – all along the journey.” The Mentoring Place does this by providing women with access to successful executives who share their expertise and advice and many of the programs are free of charge. Members can also choose to pay a small annual fee to access additional courses.
With several thousand members already enrolled, the company is relaunching as a nonprofit in July with even more offerings. For Torres, it’s about giving back. “I have a passion for helping other women – especially those who are not in the top 5% who deserve more attention and resources for career development.”
Additionally, her book Flip the Tortilla (and other lessons in resilience, optimism, and mojo) is coming out later this year along with a podcast under the same name. “We talk about resilience and what it really is. Sometimes it’s messy as hell!” It’s this type of candor and humor that makes Torres’ success so approachable.
Torres is also helping bring to market a medical device that will help make healthcare spaces more sterile. “It’s a device that a nurse created and contacted me so we’re helping her with that.” Add finger on the pulse to her special skills.
This is walking the talk. This is putting your money where your mouth is. This is doing it with love. And, clearly, this is what the world needs more of. She adds, “you don’t need to be someone else or sell your soul to get what you want. You can be the person your mom or kids will be proud of today and tomorrow.”
Lessons from Denice
- Lead with Love. As leaders we have a choice of how we want to lead and inspire. While we need to achieve big business goals and ensure focus and accountability, we must remember that employee engagement is the gas in the tank. Giving the gifts of confidence and support lasts a lifetime.
- Choose Optimism and Possibility. Being a student of positive psychology is not about sticking your head in the sand, it is about finding a way. There is a time to complain and talk about what’s impossible and not fair, and then there is the moment when we need to get going with a plan. Denice refers to this as the moment when everyone has a huge sense of urgency (or an “asses on fire”) and intensity to get the job done.
- Confidence and Resilience. Believe in yourself and don’t let others define your path. Fall down 10 times, get back up 11. Ask yourself the question, “Why not me?”
Denice Torres is a former senior executive at Johnson & Johnson, entrepreneur, podcaster, and author. She founded The Ignited Company which provides change management and leadership services to organizations and The Mentoring Place which is a new community-based platform dedicated to helping women significantly accelerate their careers.