As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Susan Somersille Johnson.
As chief marketing officer for Prudential Financial, Inc., Susan Somersille Johnson is responsible for leading the company’s global marketing and brand strategy to help drive profitable growth. She leverages her background in technology to spearhead new marketing innovation and bridge traditional marketing with emerging digital tools and analytics. Previously, Susan was corporate executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Truist Financial. She began her career as an engineer at Apple before taking on a series of high-profile global marketing leadership roles at organizations including NCR Corporation and Nokia.
Susan was named “Marketer of the Year” by Target Marketing (2018), among the “50 Most Powerful Women in Corporate America” by Black Enterprise (2016 and 2017) and “Top Influential Women in Corporate America” by Savoy Magazine (2016).
Passionate about philanthropy and volunteerism, Susan is a board member of United Way U.S.A., HOPE Global Forums and CHRIS 180. She holds a bachelor’s degree in engineering sciences from Harvard University and an MBA in finance from The Wharton School.
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?
I began my career as an engineer at Apple, where a manager asked me to consider a role in marketing. I had never considered that line of work, but this leader recognized potential in me and I was excited to discover what could be. After much thought, I pivoted to marketing. It was intimidating to go into something that at first seemed outside the realm of my possibility, but the leap paid off — marketing is powerful and provides the opportunity to really influence behavior and affect change.
Can you share the most exciting story that happened to you since you began leading the marketing for your company?
One of the more exciting moments since starting Prudential includes our role helping reopen Broadway to the world in September 2021. When the pandemic hit, Broadway shut down for 18 months, affecting everyone from actors to ushers to the whole community surrounding the theater. The NY cultural sector employs 300k jobs and delivers $110b in economic activity. So it’s not just a cultural engine but a powerful economic engine. We wanted to help. We partnered with Playbill and put our resources behind it — including a 3-day free festival in Time Square. It was magical and energizing. We also supported the theater community through donations and a financial hub with tools and resources. I was proud to be part of this moment of optimism that had such cultural and global relevance. Feeling the energy as Times Square came alive again is a highlight I’ll always remember throughout my career.
None of us achieves 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?
I’m grateful for my current team. I joined Prudential during the pandemic in 2020, so we were already working remotely at the time. So, I’ve only met a handful of Marketers in person over the past year! Within such a short amount of time, my team has been my Rock. This team’s creativity, commitment, and leadership is truly the glue that helps move our team forward and drive growth for the company.
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?
Before heading into a high-stakes meeting, I often remind myself to go with the flow. Sometimes we try to control everything and end up struggling as we move upstream. I find it’s better to prepare in advance, walk into a meeting understanding the dynamics at play and embrace them. Work with the flow of the room. We don’t truly know how each meeting will go, there may be hiccups or challenges, and that’s okay. Embracing that possibility relieves the stress and frees you up to own your expertise and have fun.
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?
People are at the core of doing good business. Without a relentless focus on building an equitable and diverse workforce where every employee feels seen, heard and valued, a business is just a hollow promise. Inclusion, diversity, and racial equity are moral and business imperatives. Companies and executives have to walk the talk — to put some big stakes in the ground, and be accountable for the progress against them, like the nine racial equity commitments we’ve made at Prudential, including greater transparency around our diversity data, and linking executive compensation to representation goals we’ve made.
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.
The past year and half empowered me to speak more about my perspective as a Black woman, which I didn’t do as much before. It impacted people at all levels of all organizations and for me, personally. I’ve never said the phrase “as a Black woman,” as many times in my entire career, as I have in the last year. I understand systemic racism and I feel the duty to do something about it. The first step towards building a more equitable world is recognizing the racial and gender gap in all aspects of society and business. It takes real actions to close the gap. And companies must rise to the occasion.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
For many women leaders, particularly women of color, it’s difficult to discover and own their voice in the workplace. Many of these women still censor themselves before even saying a word. Women’s voices need to be heard. You aren’t doing any favors by sitting back. Share your thoughts and shine. Let that voice resonate, be in one-to-one interactions or in larger meetings. It gets easier to do. You’ll be surprised how much respect you will gain.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
One small way I leverage my success is being more vocal about sharing my experiences and point of view as a Black female senior leader. For many women just starting out in the professional world, they still don’t see others who look like them in senior roles. That’s a big deal. I make it a point to role model and connect with women who are navigating their lives and careers to reach their dreams. Volunteerism is also very important to me. I serve on non-profit boards and volunteer to help build our communities, because we’ve all got to do our part.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a brief story or example for each.)
I wish I knew to seek out allies and mentors early in my career. Sometimes we, particularly women, suffer from imposter syndrome and it takes others to remind us how valuable we are and how far we can go. I discovered this when working at Apple when my mentor asked if I would be interested in pivoting from engineering to marketing. It changed my life forever.
That same experience also taught me the power of developing both sides of my brain. My analytical skills as an engineer helped me approach marketing from a very different perspective. Too many people lean into their already defined superpower on one side of their brain but fail to recognize there’s another side just waiting to be tapped into.
Building off that would be the advice to leave your comfort zone. Eleanor Roosevelt had it right when she recommended people “do the thing you think you cannot do.” Your world opens when you step away from your comfort zone. That certainly was the case for me when I jumped into marketing.
Allow yourself to fail. There’s no shame in failing fast and learning from the experience. I seek to learn from any misstep. In fact, embracing that as a possibility lets you think more boldly and creatively.
Go where it’s warm. When you have a big idea or are considering taking a big risk, seek out advice from people who support you and are your biggest cheerleaders. They have your best interest at heart and will give you the advice, and potentially the push, you need. I found this to be the case early in my career when I was considering making the move to marketing. I needed my circle of supporters to say go for it!
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.
It would be a movement for us to recognize and celebrate our similarities rather than our differences. To understand we are all in this together and need each other. This would help to dismantle systemic racism and foster an inclusive world where everyone feels safe, welcome, and cherished.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
One of my favorite quotes is from Brene Brown: “Perfectionism is a 20-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it’s the thing that’s really preventing us from taking flight.”
I love that quote — like many people, I strived for perfectionism and came to realize it’s better to strive for excellence. Focusing on excellence lifts the focus off criticism, judgement, and shame. Striving for excellence is a lot more fun.
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.
Ursula Burns, the first black woman to lead a Fortune 500 company (Xerox), not too long ago in 2009. She is a trendsetter and pioneer in the business world. I admire her brilliance, courage, and talent.