Trailblazing Women: Marilyn Johnson, CEO of International Women's Forum

An interview with Marilyn Johnson, CEO of the International Women's Forum.
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An interview with Marilyn Johnson, CEO of the International Women's Forum.

This interview is part of a series on Trailblazing Women role models (Entrepreneurs and Leaders) from around the world and first appeared on Global Invest Her. You have to see what you can be.


"I am a work in progress, constantly growing, constantly changing and trying to make a difference. Always concerned about the safety, happiness of people I intersect with - what you see is what you get! I appreciate talent, intelligence, and ambition, and want to contribute to the success of others by recognizing their attributes."

Marilyn Johnson is the Chief Executive Officer of the International Women's Forum. The IWF advances leadership across cultures, careers and continents and brings together an unprecedented global membership of over 6,000 women leaders in 33 countries . With 74 affiliate forums, IWF members connect locally, regionally and globally through programs and leadership exchanges.

In her previous capacity, Marilyn was the IBM Vice President of Market Development and led an organization responsible for developing IBM's strategy for, and marketing to, businesses owned or operated by Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Women in the Americas. In 2005 she expanded her mission to include women-owned and women-led businesses in selected markets around the globe, expanding IBM market share significantly.

A graduate of John Marshall University, she holds two advanced education degrees. She has held several board positions including on the Executive Board of the Council for Better Business Bureaus and the National Council of Negro Women and has been applauded for her active commitment to mentoring and coaching activities. Marilyn has been a featured speaker for numerous professional organizations around the world and has received numerous awards including the "Corporate Supporter of Women Entrepreneurs Award" in Beijing, "The Profiles of Prominence Award" from the National Women of Achievement, Inc. Marilyn was also named one of "The Top 25 Influential Black Women" by The Network Journal Magazine and was inducted into the YWCA of New York City's prestigious "Academy of Women Leaders". For more details, read Marilyn's full bio.

Visit the IWF website her blog MarilynJSpeaks, & find her on Twitter @marilynjspeaks

Who is your leadership role model?

Madiba - Nelson Mandela. When I joined IBM in 1977, it was still an issue whether we should do business in South Africa because of apartheid. I was just out of graduate school and was not very aware of global politics at the time when I heard about this man who had been incarcerated for a couple of decades. I am proud that IBM sold their business to a German-owned business at that time, because our IBM systems were managing the 'pass system', monitoring who was where, who was able to be out, and at what point people were out in the city. We were also very progressive, hiring blacks, having black managers, not separating facilities; we even had women in management. I felt so proud of my company that we pulled out of apartheid and only went back in when there was a free South Africa, a true democracy.

"What inspires me about Mandela's leadership style is that he was inclusive, thoughtful, and considerate, knowing that everyone offers value - don't just focus on the rock stars in your organization. In his presence, we wanted to be better human beings and business people - he just inspired people."

I heard Mandela speak at the Los Angeles Coliseum. He was so humble, not the militant leader that the press, the media and the Afrikaans presented to the world. Fast forward 28 years later and I was in South Africa on IBM business and it happened to be around the time of his 90th birthday. The whole city of Johannesburg was on fire with excitement, people erected a statue in his honor - it was so moving. To lead when times are good, especially in my industry - Information Technology - wasn't that hard. It was competitive, but it wasn't difficult. I used to think how difficult it would be to lead in times of chaos and turmoil - now that is true leadership.

How would you describe your leadership style?

I would say that I lead by example. I don't ask anything of my people that I haven't done or am not willing to do. I like to walk through the depths of their work with them. I like to communicate and understand the challenges they are going through. When I first became a line manager many years ago in IBM, I told my team, 'I've never done this before, so you're going to train me to become a manager. So I will learn and grow through you, reflecting back to me my ability to inspire you, guide you, correct you. You will shape my leadership'.

"We are a team, let's collaborate, let's communicate effectively, let's make sure we identify the resources that are needed and expected, and if we run into roadblocks - let's together find the solution."

I viewed my job as getting all the obstacles out the way for my team, so they can do their work. Basically, I inverted the corporate pyramid and I said you are on top and I'm there for support - it's my job to be there for you when you need it and I will assume that if I don't hear from you, that everything is working well and you are making your numbers (I was working in sales). I assume that when you come to me, you can tell me about your success, or explain to me why you failed and are willing and open to adjust and change, so that we can succeed together.

"My style is collaborative, results-focused, stating a clear vision so everyone is marching to the same beat and communicating that vision constantly, then measuring and rewarding based on that."

I wasn't so ambitious that I was willing to sacrifice neither parenting nor friendships. I wanted to be a wife, mother, active church member, volunteer on boards and in community service, and wanted career success as well. All things in time.

What are your key career highlights to date?

I have 4 key career highlights:

  • Tri-State Weather Girl and Consumer Reporter for WSAZ TV 3 (Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky).
  • Being hired in 1977 into one of the fastest growing Information Technology companies.
  • Retiring from 35-year career at IBM, in 2012.
  • Starting my own MJinx LLC while signing with Wilhelmina Brown Talent Agency.

1) I finished college in 3.5 years and then got a scholarship and went onto graduate school. To pay my fees during graduate school, I got a job as a weather girl in the Tri-State Area and then became consumer reporter. This gave me the presence and ability to stand up and speak, use a teleprompter, think on my feet, and be daring and brave, knowing that I couldn't control all aspects of a day. I really grew up professionally in that job, learning to take instruction.

2) With the professional skills I acquired in broadcasting, despite my background in education, I decided to take my skills to the private sector and joined IBM as a teacher, to teach customers how to use the equipment. Having the broadcasting experience made me stand out from all my peers. Whereas they knew all the technical answers, they were nervous whenever they had to present. I was always the one they picked to be their spokesperson. I had those skills and the ability to hide my fear.

3) In 35 years at IBM, I have had many different jobs, which always made me feel like I was in a new company. I remained vibrant and young and retired on my terms, when I wanted to.

4) As vibrant and energetic as I am, I knew I always wanted to give back. I started MJinx LLC so that I could continue to travel to different countries to talk about global women. Now I'm focused primarily on speaking to a female audience. 4.5 months after I retired, I received an email from the Wilhemena Brown Talent Agency and I thought it was spam! They invited me in to meet the owner, saying they needed my profile for work. So I signed with them and I find that challenging and exciting.

How would you describe the differences between Women's leadership styles and Men's leadership styles?

People are people, some are more inclusive and some are more coercive. I try not to paint with a broad brush. I've been socialized, through educational activities and community, that it's nicer to be nice than to win. I think a lot of women in the Western Hemisphere (North American, baby boomers) grew up doing lots of team activity like dance or choir, where it was important to be part of, and in sync with, the group. I think that women have a more inclusive leadership style and men are encouraged to be more coercive. Men tend to think, 'get the weak one off your team, get the strong ones on, get the best athletes, win at all costs'. On the other hand, women tend to have compassion and want to be accepted and approved by those we are working with or leading. I find that some men don't care if you like them or not - they just want the results. Those are some of the observations I have experienced and I have many exceptions on both sides. I've known a few women in the Information Technology industry who are very unpopular, coercive, self-centred, and very dominating, and quite a few men who are very compassionate, caring, devoted to team and very willing to reach out.

"There is no such thing as a glass ceiling - especially in our industry. But there is such a thing as a dense layer of men... With the help of a few good men, the dense layer is thinning. God bless those few men that helped me along the way."

This layer exists only because they started the industry prior to women getting hired. There are a few men who reached through that dense layer and pulled women up through and beyond their achievement. It should be called a 'silicon ceiling' (you can see through it and perforate it). I often I received support from women as well and didn't experience much competition with other women.

What kind of corporate culture do you help create and support in your organization?

I always try to use 'We' instead of 'I' when I write and speak about team achievements. If I'm talking about failure, I don't use names; I use my position or title to talk about it. People appreciate that. If I need to discuss something with you that I'm not happy about, I do it in private, never publicly. I'm not generous in my appraisals, I'm pretty tough, but I'm fair. The IBM corporate culture is a very strong one and remained so throughout the 35 years of my experience. I invested in people. I was always willing to pay for travel, magazines, books or resources, trade articles, whatever it took to make my team feel like they were better off having worked for me.

How do you help grow leaders in your organization?

Giving them more responsibility, letting them stand in for me at meetings and representing the team to other divisions. Letting them know, that this experience isn't essential for your day to day effectiveness, but later on, when you are a manager, you will understand what it's like and will be comfortable in staff meetings, because you have stood in for me. I built camaraderie and fun, and a corporate culture that is built around superior performance, that addresses poor performers. That's meritocracy. I want those who contribute the most to reap the most results. I don't want anyone to feel under-appreciated or undervalued. I want to be the example, be fair and viewed as a balanced leader because I think we grow our leadership skills based on the leaders we were exposed to.

"If someone expresses the interest and desire to be a leader, I will constantly mentor, coach, guide, and spend time to encourage them forward, whatever I can do to make them feel safe on that high wire act."

I was shocked when I became a first line manager and had some team members who wanted a cheque and a chair, which to me represented a C average. It's ok to be average, but I wanted an A team with ambitious people who always wanted to be top of their class. It's not my strength to mentor people who want to be mediocre. I still maintain a mentoring relationship with 16 of the 21 mentees I had when I left IBM. What makes me feel good is that they all wanted to maintain the relationship and be advised. I like to leave every relationship on as positive a note as possible.

What is your greatest achievement to date?

I value so much my advanced degrees, the opportunity to make a lot of money, and I value the title of Vice President of IBM Corporation, one of the biggest brands in the world.

"But if someone said, 'How would you remember Marilyn?' within the first paragraph, I would hope they would say she was a loving mother and a wonderful daughter. That's important to me, because it's so easy to outsource those responsibilities."

I tried it all in the past, so it was important for me to know that my children would be responsible adults. Now, they didn't do it my way or didn't choose the university I would have chosen, but they are really good people! It warms my heart to see my son interact with his two children and my daughter as an aunt, with all that love and attention - both of them investing in the next generation of our family. Sometimes I demonstrate tough love, but the achievement is that as a result I have really fine children. I'm very proud, because they are confident, smart, and good looking, with good hearts. I didn't want them to be arrogant.

My parents know that I'll be ok if something happens to them. I want them to relax and enjoy their retirement, and I enjoy helping them as much as I can. They are in their 80's, are healthy and aware, and my mom still travels a lot with me. I know they are proud of me and that makes me feel good.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

My advice would be to marry wisely! I married young (at 23 years old). I was in love and I know he loved me, but I really didn't assess what decades of partnership would deliver. Given my ambition professionally, I really didn't marry wisely. My husband preferred if I was second to his career; when I travelled it was an inconvenience and when he travelled that was the way it was supposed to be. I would have married someone more confident and secure, not intimidated by my success. My ex-husband was 11 years older than me and exercised a lot of control in the relationship. I grew up and my business savvy rolled over to my own finances, investing re-financing/saving. He felt threatened and intimidated because he felt that those were his decisions to make and I felt that we were in a partnership. So after 18 years, I ended my marriage. It was a hardship on my children, but it was a blessing on my career.

"Marry wisely! I would have married someone more confident and secure, not intimidated by my success...who has the same philosophy of life that I have and who is at a similar stage and level as me."

I probably would have waited to marry someone more my own age who was willing to grow up with me, whereas my ex wanted me to remain a 23 year old, to present publicly his image of marital bliss versus truly investing in a truly loving relationship. I love my children and grandchildren. I regret it was a disruptive family change, but career-wise, when I could focus on managing my time, finances, work, I did very well. I am far happier as an independent, happy, travelling Marilyn. I do want to get married again, but I will be looking for a partner who has the same philosophy of life that I have and who is at a similar stage and level as me.

How do you give back to society?

I give my son and daughter - my best work. The longest gift we can give to this earth are good people. As far as my time is concerned while I'm still on earth, I like to give my time and energy to causes that deal with people, especially young people. I serve on several community boards such as the Child Reach Programs at One World Theatre, in Austin, Texas. I am also National Council of Negro Women (NCNW) Section President, in Austin, Texas, which is a women's activist group, focusing on civil rights and leadership for women of color. I don't give myself and my time to impress other people with money and prestige. I seek to impress the people that will benefit. When you give of yourself, your time and attention, it benefits society overall.

What would you like to achieve, as a leader, in the coming 5 years?

I would love to be accepting international speaking engagements based on my book that is inspiring excellence and changing lives globally. Writing a book is like having a baby! When is the right time? Can I commit the time? Once you've written the first one, then you know what to expect! I decided to use my business and my speaking opportunities to build material for the book. It would have to be something relevant. I don't want it to be about me. I think the best way will be to re-tell stories based on my travels and experience that will include 35 years exposure within IBM, and also talk about relevant, more up-to-date issues.

My predecessor, Lillie Richardella, former CEO of the International Women's Forum, once kindly said about me that

"Marilyn is the kind of person that takes your meeting from success to significance."

Whatever I do, I want to be effective, to make an impact and change things.

Three key words to describe yourself?

  • Effective
  • Serene
  • Sincere

For other interviews with Trailblazing Women leaders on Huffington Post Read More Here

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