Lessons From Lifelong Learner Wanda Johnson

The path to the top doesn’t always follow a straight line. For ASPEN CEO and PCMA Groundbreaker Johnson, it’s what she did with what she learned along the way that’s made all the difference.

Author: Barbara Palmer       

Wanda Johnson

Wanda Johnson speaks after being honored as the PCMA Foundation’s Visionary Award for Meeting Professional of the Year in 2018, when she was chief program officer at the Endocrine Society. Johnson, a member of the PCMA Board of Directors from 2012-2015, is the latest industry professional to be recognized as a PCMA Groundbreaker.

Editor’s note: PCMA Groundbreakers is a recent initiative honoring industry trailblazers who represent diverse sectors of the business events community, recognizing those who have made a significant contribution to their organizations and programs that advance inclusion and equity. Conceived by PCMA’s Black Lives Matter Working Group, the honor helps to create a living history of pioneers in the business events industry.

Wanda Johnson, CMP, CAE, followed an award-winning, 26-year-long tenure at the Endocrine Society by becoming the chief executive officer of the American Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ASPEN) in 2019. During her first year as CEO, Johnson recalled, “I felt like I was trying to drink from a fire hose — and trying not to drown.” Then, just as she was getting her footing, Year Two brought COVID-19 and the travel shutdown.“Managing an organization through a pandemic,” Johnson said, “was not part of the job interview.”

Her experience at the Endocrine Society, where she was chief program officer, put her in good stead to lead ASPEN through the rapids of the last 16 months, she said, which included converting the association’s 2020 annual meeting scheduled to be held in Tampa, Florida, to digital in a matter of weeks — held over the same dates, March 28-31. “In hindsight, I say, ‘Good for us,’” Johnson said. “In the heat of the moment, I felt like I was making decisions based on luck, gut, and faith.”

Johnson also relied on what she refers to as her toolbox, a concept that has guided her throughout her career, and one that she picked up from a mentor early on: “We all have a toolbox that we carry with us, and from every experience, you need to walk away with something,” she said. “As you make decisions about where you go and what you do, think about: Are you adding something to the toolbox?”

That guiding principle helped her to embrace offering digital education years before most of her peers. It’s also reflected in her approach to one of her most recent challenges —leading a medical association to establish greater diversity within the field of nutrition support.

‘The Dumbest Great Decision’

Johnson’s professional journey began, she said, with “one of the dumbest great decisions I ever made.” After graduating from high school, Johnson got cold feet about taking on debt to attend school full-time or allowing her single mother to do so. “I got this incredibly, brilliantly stupid idea that I could go to school full-time and work full-time,” she said. When that didn’t work, Johnson pared down her class schedule, and continued to work full- time in banking. Although it slowed her progress toward earning a degree, Johnson was regularly promoted, rising from bank teller to vice president.

When new leadership took over at the last bank where she worked, executives, including Johnson, lost their jobs. Johnson began looking for another comparable job, but when she discovered that it would be difficult to get hired without finishing her degree, she returned as a full-time student at the University of Maryland.

On top of a full load of courses, Johnson also took a temp job at the Endocrine Society, helping out at its annual meeting. “I had never been to a meeting,” Johnson said, “and I didn’t even really understand associations at that point, having come from a corporate world.” But when she graduated with a double major in management sciences and paralegal studies, and the Endocrine Society offered her a job, Johnson decided to take it.

RELATED: In a Career of Firsts, Yet Another for Events Industry Pioneer Carol Wallace

One of her new boss’s questions to her was how long Johnson intended to stay. Her answer: “As long as I’m not bored, I’ll be here.” One of the major factors underlying her success at the Endocrine Society was her innate curiosity, Johnson said. “I view myself as a lifelong learner. When I would get bored, I would focus inward and ask, ‘Is there a credential I should get?’ That’s how I got my CMP and CAE.” Sometimes, she said, the focus was on an external project, such as when her boss came to her and asked her to design a program that would allow the Endocrine Society to create education that was supported by industry, following the accreditation rules at the time.

‘I was taught that your hard work and your efforts spoke for you, and you don’t necessarily beat the door down. … But there’s a part of me that’s a little sorry that I didn’t speak up more than I have.’ —Wanda Johnson

Johnson became an early advocate for using digital platforms at the Endocrine Society because it provided access to education for more people. “The people who attend conferences, particularly international conferences, tend to be those who are in the top echelon in their specialty in their country,” she said. “I’m always wondering, well, what happens to the rest of the people? I’ve always thought that there’s a group that doesn’t get to attend but could benefit from the content. So how do you get the content to them?” Technology has continued to evolve to make it easier to get information to people in their own environments, and although there are language barriers and other challenges, she added, “it just always seemed to me as a way to get the information in the hands of people who need it. If you create good content, people want it.”

But to create good content, “you have to be part of the strategic thought and direction of the organization,” she said. Logistics are important, Johnson said, but understanding how the content — and the way you’re delivering the content — makes an impact on participants, “that’s when you start making that strategic shift.”

‘You Have to Be Better Than the Rest’

When Johnson was hired as CEO at ASPEN, she became the first Black woman to serve as the association’s executive director. ASPEN’s staff “is very diverse,” Johnson said, “starting with me.” Over the years, however, as a woman of color, doors have been closed to her, she said. Her response was to follow an adage passed on to her by her mother: “You have to be better than the rest.” Johnson’s great-grandfather was a dentist, her grandfather was a physician, and her mother, her aunt, and her father all earned graduate degrees. “It was always a given,” she said, “that I was going to be educated and work hard.”

Early in her tenure at the Endocrine Society, the then-CEO asked her to serve as the staff liaison to the association’s first diversity committee. “I paused for a moment, because I thought, ‘Now, are you asking me to do that because I’m qualified or are you asking me to do that because I am a person of color?’” Johnson said. “I quickly decided that it didn’t matter — that it was an opportunity, and I would try to help the committee move forward.”

Some members of the committee were huge advocates of diversity and were much more forceful in the way that they thought the committee should take action than she was prepared to be, Johnson recalled. “When they were getting ready to have a revolution, I was busy trying to figure out how to manage it. I wasn’t trying to say, ‘You’re right — we need to do that.’ I was trying to say, ‘Okay, well, let’s think about how we can work through that in the scope of this organization at this time.’”

RELATED: Elliott Ferguson: ‘Never Accept a Ceiling That Someone Else Might Create for You’

It was a completely different mindset than that of Johnson’s two children, who are now in their early thirties. “They would say, ‘You want to knock the door down? Go have a talk with so-and-so.’” But, she said, “my age, my upbringing, and my reality is that I was taught a very different way. I was taught that your hard work and your efforts spoke for you, and you don’t necessarily beat the door down. There were many, many, many situations I’ve been in over the years where I was the only [person of color] there and I governed myself so that I ensured that I stayed there. But there’s a part of me that’s a little sorry that I didn’t speak up more than I have.”

As ASPEN’s CEO, Johnson is now charting a course to ensure that diversity will remain a key pillar at the medical association. Her strategy includes the use of tools, like measuring outcomes and storytelling, and she’s building in processes that will allow the association to learn more about its members. That includes adding the context of diversity and working to raise awareness of the rewards of the field in order to attract more people from underrepresented groups, she said. “They all have these unique, incredible stories,” Johnson said. “I want to try to get the word out, so that I can show people that you can have a very rewarding career in this field.”

While nutrition support is critical to health outcomes, the science and practice has a lower profile than other medical specialties. At the same time, Johnson said, “I’ve never seen a more passionate, engaged community, which excites and energizes me.” The current climate of advocacy around diversity also is exciting, Johnson said. “But I keep thinking, so how else do we help? How can I, as a leader, move this forward?”

Two Voices

Johnson’s strategy to increase diversity at ASPEN will go beyond talking about change, as important as that is. “All the advocacy I see is encouraging,” she said, “especially by those younger than me who have really stepped up and are saying, ‘This is no longer acceptable. This is no longer going to be allowed — and we’re going to have these difficult and painful conversations.’ That didn’t used to be the norm.”

The way that younger generations can influence a shift in mindset is apparent in Johnson’s own life. It was her children who were the first to point out to their mother that she was code-switching — adjusting how she spoke depending on who she was speaking to over the phone. “I was like, what?” Johnson recalled. They said, “We can tell who you’re talking to by the way you talk. You’re very proper if you’re talking to someone who’s not African American. And if you’re talking to a friend, you have a much more relaxed cadence.”

Johnson said she was stunned, and then remembered the many times while she was working in a bank, she would meet someone in person after talking to them on the phone, and “they were shocked that they were talking to an African-American woman,” she said.

“I realized, wow, they’re right,” Johnson said. “They realized very early on that I had sort of this dual persona, I had my proper persona and I had my relaxed persona. And I remembered my mother drilling into me: ‘You have to speak properly, you have to speak in a certain way.’ And she never said — but now I hear — ‘So that they don’t know who you are.’”

There was a cost to that, Johnson said, in “trying to really understand and appreciate yourself from who you really are at the core, who you are really inside. That’s been an interesting part of my life journey, being a child whose mother was focused on living in a certain community to get educated to increase your opportunity for advancement. So I’ve always sort of been on the outside looking in at various communities. It took me a while to understand how to fully relate to other African Americans, because that wasn’t necessarily what I was around and exposed to.

‘We are all products of our environment and our upbringing, and you know I am Grace’s daughter, and Grace was very avant-garde in some things and had very strong feelings about some things based on her upbringing and life experiences. I now see those in myself — in a different manifestation than how she saw them, but I do see the impact. The pandemic, the civil unrest, all the killings of Black and brown people, the racial strife — all of that had me reexamine some of those pieces to try and understand how I view the world. And I don’t always view it like others — and I’m okay with that.”

Barbara Palmer is deputy editor at Convene.

Related Posts

Become a Member

Get premium access to provocative executive-level education, face-to-face networking and business intelligence.