Wanda Johnson: ‘My Leadership Style Starts with Respect’

Author: Michelle Russell       

In November, Wanda Johnson, CMP, CAE, was appointed the CEO of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN), following a 26-year career at the Endocrine Society, where she most recently served as the society’s chief program officer. In that capacity, she led the organization’s education, science, and professional development department, and was responsible for organizing more than 25 educational events annually, managing a multimillion-dollar budget, and overseeing a staff of 18. As part of its January cover and CMP Series storyConvene spoke with Johnson before she assumed leadership of the 6,500-member ASPEN about how she’ll put what she’s learned about leading others into practice in her new role.

Congratulations on your new position. You’ve led a team and now you’ll be leading an entire organization. Can you describe your leadership style?

I would say that my leadership style starts with respect. Each member of the team deserves respect no matter where they are in the hierarchical organizational norms — whether it’s the receptionist or the chief of the department or a colleague. You’ve got to start with respect because everybody who’s in the job is a professional at whatever they’re doing or whatever they’re learning. It’s a big tenet and I think I was blessed very early on [when I started my career in banking] that there were people that showed me how, when you respect the colleague, that they want to learn and that they want to do a good job, and you can accomplish so much. There were people that took my natural curiosity, my willingness to work hard and to learn, and they helped me progress from being a bank teller to a bank manager to a VP in a very short period of time. And it was primarily because I was willing to work hard. I was curious, and if I saw somebody who was struggling, they weren’t getting something done and I had the time, I would say, “How can I help you? What can I do to learn?” Having those [characteristics] when I came to the Endocrine Society helped me as well.

The other piece that I think is really important is to have an understanding of what it is the individual [who reports to you] is trying to accomplish. What I mean by that is this: There are people who want jobs, and there are people who want careers. And you have to really under- stand where a staff person is on the journey. Is this right now just a job for them and they want to do a good job, but they’re not looking for more? Or is it something where they really are trying to build, they really do want to have pronounced growth? They really want more responsibility, more opportunity, and you work with those people differently. I learned a lesson a hard way by trying to help someone build a career who really wanted a job.

Can you explain further?

I didn’t realize it, and I was giving her increased responsibility and I was trying to make sure she was involved on some current projects. And her perception was all I was doing was piling the work on and not letting her focus on the thing that she really wanted to do well. She ended up leaving, but we had this incredible conversation before she left. I had never asked her [if she was] trying to build a career. I took my value of everybody wants to grow, everybody wants to learn — and I put that on her without even asking. I have never forgotten that, and it’s part of what I think is important with leadership. You learn from the experience of good and bad, and you build as you are engaging and working with people in different environments.

I can understand that example because I think there are industry professionals who really like the logistics aspect of their jobs and aren’t interested in using their role as an event organizer as a stepping-stone to a more strategic position. Have you found that to be true?

I would absolutely agree with that, but I also think there’s another factor, and that’s the time of that person’s life. There are times when because of family obligations, after I start with the organization. I will be watch- ing and listening, and as I told them, hopefully not asking too many annoying, obnoxious questions in terms of changing things. I can offer an opinion based on my limited knowledge of that organizational norm, from my experience within the meeting and education world. First though, I’ve got to understand. To me, that’s what collaborative leadership means. It means to know when it’s your time to be the leader and when it’s your time to be in that seek-to-understand mode. I ask people to give me the facts, and we can go from there. And my biggie is: To the best of your ability, try not to assume on any side of the issue. I need to understand what the facts are, the facts as we perceive them to be.

I’d like to ask you about one of the points made by author Warren Berger, whom I just interviewed. He says that when someone comes to you with a problem, a leader usually wants a solution to go along with it. He says that prevents people from coming forward with a concern. What’s your take on that?

I think there’s a balancing act in that because if somebody’s bringing me a problem, well, they know the problem exists and they may have an idea for how to solve it. So I will say, “Do you have an idea of how we should approach it?” So I’m not saying that you have to solve it. I’m saying, “What’s your input on how we would go about solving it?” Because that way I can get them to not only try to learn from the scenario, but also to broaden both the way they’re thinking about it and the way I’m thinking about it. I might have a perspective that’s completely off the mark. But because they’re in the trenches, they may fully understand it. So I want to get that intelligence to come to the fore.

The other thing that I do with my teams is that I tell people that we’re going to make mistakes. There is no such thing as perfect. People are involved so that right there takes the perfect out of it. But my thing is, what will we learn from the mistake that’s made so that we don’t repeat it? That’s when I tend to get a little frustrated because if we repeat the mistake, then we haven’t learned from it. And we should learn from those experiences so that we can build upon something else. I tell people, don’t ever fear that a mistake has occurred. As long as nobody has died as a result of the mistake, we’re in pretty good shape.



We’ve long thought that the only way to lead others — whether you’re the CEO of an organization or managing a small team — is top-down. But as organizations struggle to navigate a rapidly shifting economy and increasingly complicated marketplace, a slew of experts say it’s time to ditch that model. They point to a different way forward: It’s called humble or servant leadership. We explore what that means in our January issue’s CMP Series stories linked below.

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