As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Danielle Johnson.
Danielle Johnson is the President of MogoSME and SVP, Client Success at LEARFIELD. She is a digital marketing expert who thrives on building high performing teams and driving company growth. Danielle is a proud wife and mother to 3 children, ages 12, 9, and 6.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! 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?
Initially, I hadn’t considered a career in programmatic marketing when I started college, but I stumbled into it. I was a Humanities major, with a minor in musical theatre! I worked 3 jobs at a time to pay my way through college. One of the jobs that I worked was as a front desk receptionist for a publisher that was making the transition to digital. I asked the CMO and President if I could do projects for the company in my spare time so I could learn more about the industry. Those projects led to my first job in marketing. I loved working with data, selling the company’s value proposition, and learning how to use the ad serving platforms to execute the ad buys. I continued to work hard and evolved my career from that point on.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Since I began leading my company, I have had the opportunity to travel across North America to visit with hundreds of clients. A lot of our clients are in the Arts & Entertainment vertical, so many of those visits have included exposure to some of the most incredible performances in Broadway, Symphony, Opera, Ballet, and Theatre genres across the country. The time I’ve spent with these clients in their cities have greatly deepened my appreciation for their craft and understanding of their challenges.
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?
Early in my career I was invited to attend a team outing at a 5k mud run. Anyone that knows me, knows that I am not particularly athletic. Being new to the team, I wanted to do great on the course and impress everyone with my skills. On the day of the event, despite my best efforts, I wound up covered in mud, and scratches from a failed attempt at army crawling under barbed wire. I finished the race before most of the team, but I learned that a good leader sometimes has to follow to avoid unnecessary heartache.
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 so many people that have directly influenced me throughout my career, it’s difficult to choose just one person. I am so grateful to everyone that has taken a chance on me, saw my value and offered me a seat at the table.
In particular, Kim Damron, President and CEO of Paciolan, has always been a true mentor, advisor and all around inspirational force in my career. I have learned a lot from her poise, authenticity, leadership and creativity.
I also greatly credit my firstborn child, Jayla, for helping me get to where I am today. Becoming a mother at a young age gave me a new perspective on life and motivated me to be relentless about achieving my goals. From the moment they were born I was determined to be a role model and a blueprint for what is possible in life. I wanted them to confidently dream big and know what it takes to make those dreams happen.
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?
I became a certified Yoga instructor during the lockdown in 2020 to build my personal movement and meditation practice. I’ve found that the things I have learned on my yoga mat have served me greatly in my professional life. When I pause to breathe, stretch, eliminate distractions and allow myself to be in the moment, I am calmer, clearer, more engaged and focused on the task at hand. One quick pre meeting exercise I like to do is to close my eyes, place one hand on my heart and the other on my core and inhale for 5 seconds, hold my breath for 5 seconds and exhale for 5 seconds. It helps me to shift focus from the external stress of the meeting, or decision that needs to be made, to the internal, to my intuition, my confidence and my expertise.
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?
A diverse executive team brings together a variety of backgrounds and perspectives, which leads to more innovation, creative problem solving, and increased acquisition and retention of top tier talent. A diverse executive team reflects the diversity of the world around them, and provides for a more well-rounded understanding of the client experience, employee needs, company culture, and business opportunities that all lead to greater success for the company and the individuals that are a part of the organization.
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.
This is a complicated question, and I think there are many ways to get to a “right” answer. A few things that must be done to create the inclusive, representative and equitable society we all wish to see:
- Listen — At our core, we are all just human beings that want to be seen and heard. We want to feel like our perspective matters, that our experiences are believed and that our lives have value. I’ve found that the pathway to progress is opened by first listening — to really hear, not just to respond. There has to be a willingness to confront uncomfortable truths, to own our part in the pain that we may have caused others and a genuine commitment to do better.
- Lead with empathy — We don’t know what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes, to live their experiences. We have to approach each other with kindness, empathy and compassion. Empathy for those that are fighting daily to survive systems of oppression, and compassion for those that are trying to create more equity and inclusion.
- Be intentional — Listening with compassion is only the first step, we have to be intentional about how we will create meaningful change. Whether it’s addressing pay gaps across your organization, correcting inequity in hiring and promotion practices, or creating opportunities for connection and inclusion of all groups — nothing truly changes without action. Doing the work is the hardest part, because it requires discomfort, sacrifice, and doing things differently than before.
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?
An executive bears the responsibility for all of the decisions that are made for a team or for the business. The buck stops with me on decisions that I make on behalf of the company, and those decisions impact more than just the business, they can impact the people that work for the organization. I do not take that responsibility lightly.
Additionally, the CEO/President is responsible for solving big problems, keeping the team engaged and aligned on the vision for the company, and for ensuring the success of the company in meeting its revenue and profit objectives.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
Leaders are not infallible and we don’t know everything. We have a breadth and depth of knowledge in our industry, to be sure, but situations will always arise that are novel. We rely on the expertise and experience of our team to inform decisions that we make on behalf of the organization. We do not inherently have all of the answers, and we’re not immune from making mistakes. I think the difference between a good leader and a great one is the ability to hold themselves accountable for their mistakes and learn from them to improve the business moving forward.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
In addition to the demanding work of our professional careers, women executives often have to navigate the invisible domestic labor of caring for the home and rearing their children at rates much higher than their male counterparts. This has become especially true during this pandemic, where, according to a Mckinsey poll, “one in four women are considering leaving the workforce or downshifting their careers versus one in five men”.
I would also add that being a woman and an executive can be incredibly isolating and it’s difficult as one of a few women, and in some cases only people of color, in a boardroom, to feel heard and taken seriously.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
For starters, there are a lot more meetings than I could have imagined! I’d say that I’ve had to rely on my own intuition as a guiding force more than I anticipated. Like all things in life, I suppose, the solutions to every problem are not always readily apparent. There is not always a predetermined rubric; at times, you have to take your experience, and the data at your disposal and use your intuition to make decisions, and to do it with the confidence that you are altering the direction of your company for the better.
Do you think 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?
Executive leadership, like anything else, is a skill. I think that everyone is capable of developing those skills with hard work, an insatiable curiosity, and time. That said, I do think it takes a specific type of person to thrive in an executive role. Someone who is confident, driven, self-motivated, relationship oriented, emotionally intelligent and a strong communicator are most likely to succeed. If a person is not willing to sacrifice something to lead or make tough decisions, this path is not for them.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
Find what makes the people on your team special, and seek out opportunities to let them shine. Equally important is to understand their limitations and give them opportunities to grow.
High performing teams require communication and trust. As a leader, that trust is earned so it’s imperative that you lead by example and be authentic and transparent with your team.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
During the pandemic, I’ve started a local effort to fund and build survival/self-care kits for the homeless. I include toiletries, blankets, reusable water bottles, non-perishable snacks, etc. in each pack and deliver them to the homeless shelter. I also keep a pack or two in my car so I can deliver them on sight as I’m driving around the neighborhood.
Beyond that, I believe that raising strong, healthy children will make the world a better place. It’s important to me that my children see that they can go out into the world and be wildly successful while still prioritizing kindness and compassion towards others.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Perfectionism is the enemy of growth. When I first started in my career, I was admittedly terrified to do anything “wrong”. I wanted all of my deliverables to be perfect, because I wanted to be perceived as perfect. What I’ve found over time is that aiming for perfection slows you down, makes you less effective, and robs you of opportunities to fail fast and learn from your mistakes. Above all, the façade of perfection makes you less relatable and approachable to your team — they need to know you’re human, it makes you a better leader.
- Relationships are as important as the work you do. While the work output is of critical importance, reputation and relationships become more crucial to your success as you continue to move throughout your career. Job opportunities will depend on them, promotions will depend on them, success in business will depend on them. People may forget a report you delivered, but they won’t forget your character, your integrity and the care you take in your relationships with them.
- Don’t be afraid to set boundaries. While I firmly believe in hard work and dedication, I also believe that people will take as much as you’re willing to give. No one will prioritize your self-care for you, it’s something that you have to own. Take your PTO, care for your mental and physical health, and set boundaries on your time. You can’t pour from an empty cup, you have to fuel yourself so you have more to give.
- Go head first into fear. Run confidently in the direction of things that terrify you. I have found that in my experience the growth is where the discomfort is, you can’t have one without the other. If your dream doesn’t scare you, it’s not big enough. It’s perfectly okay to be afraid, there can be no courage without fear. But don’t let that fear sideline you from pressing forward.
- Ask for it. Your bosses are not mind readers. Your work does not always speak for itself. You have to ask for what you want. From compensation and promotions to career opportunities and projects, you have to communicate and advocate for yourself.
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 truly believe that no one can be free until we are all free. I feel grateful to be alive in this time where so many of these movements for freedom and equality are happening and gaining momentum across the globe. I am a supporter of these fights for women’s equality and reproductive rights, racial and LGBTQ+ equality. There is much work to do to eradicate hate and promote equality for all. I feel that my position as a black woman executive is a representation of just how far we’ve come and how much farther we have to travel in this journey for equality. It’s my goal to lead by example and use my voice to further amplify the work of these movements
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.” ― Rumi
I love this quote as a mantra for my life. It reminds me that I have my own brand of magic. That I am built to handle the pressure that comes with my calling. That I am bigger than anything that scares me. That, like the ocean, I am powerful yet soft, vast with depth and full of so much wonder and so many surprises.
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 have two beacons of female executive inspiration; Bozoma Saint John, CMO at Netflix and Angela Ahrendts, former CEO of Burberry and SVP Retail at Apple. They are both innovative, agile, and powerful leaders. They have managed their careers with authenticity and creativity, and have achieved admirable success while simultaneously navigating motherhood. I would love the opportunity to listen and share over a meal with either of these powerhouses.