If Carol Johnson were Karl Johnson, she might lead off with her curriculum vitae, or unabashedly tick off the many accomplishments and awards she’s accrued over her 35-plus years as a leader and executive in the fields of nuclear operations, project management, environmental remediation and research facilities – from her position as CEO and president of Savannah River Nuclear Solutions, where she was responsible to the Department of Energy as overseer of the 5000 employee organization at the DOE’s Savannah River Site in South Carolina, to her work as president and project manager at the Columbia River Corridor nuclear clean-up project in Richland, Washington, to her stint as executive director of infrastructure and site services at the Sellafield nuclear project in Great Britain.
But that’s not her style.
Having worked in heavy industries almost since the day she graduated with a degree in chemistry from Marshall University, in environments where big egos tend to run rampant, her style relies on communication and collaboration, building people up instead of tearing them down, taking people as they are but focusing on their strengths and getting them to work as a team, taking chances, speaking her mind, asserting herself, being clear and transparent and being authentic.
In short: Leading, as she has throughout her career, like a lady and maintaining elegance under pressure.
Which, as Johnson sees it, means: If you’re a woman, embrace and maintain your femininity; if you’re a man, don’t always rely entirely on a my way or the highway stance.
“I have been very blessed not to have had much resistance to my position of authority,” explains Johnson of how her leadership style evolved—speaking from inside her home office in Santa Fe, where she’s surrounded by her framed vintage New Mexico scarves and other Southwestern collectibles, her vintage Lucite purses, handbags and evening bags and framed pictures of her and her husband’s greyhound (a former race dog and lovingly rescued). Their current canine, a miniature schnauzer named Vino for their love of good wine, scampers in and out of her office. “There are always people who did not like me or like my style. And I have had people comment to me that they were uncertain about working for a woman. But once they came to know me, all their fears went away.”
Born in the late 50s in Huntington, West Virginia, and raised there and in Kentucky and Ohio alongside her older brother and sister, Johnson always had a penchant for school and for learning. She even cried when she had to miss a day of school. Very much a blue-collar family, her father was a World War II Army veteran, a coal miner and then a lock and dam operator along the Ohio River; her mother stayed at home to raise the kids and was a very traditional homemaker.
By the time she got to high school, she gravitated to the hard sciences—chemistry, physics—and biology and initially wanted to go to medical school. She worked her way through college, all four years, full-time. As a waitress, as a phlebotomist at a local hospital and then her final two years as a lab technician for a specialty alloy manufacturing plant. When she started at the there, she worked the graveyard shift, 11 pm to 7 am—giving her less than an hour before she had to show up for her 8 am organic chemistry class. In time, she transitioned to the 3 pm to 11 pm shift. Better hours, but no less demanding.
“This was great experience for a variety of reasons,” says Johnson. “It gave me experience in my chosen field. I was working in a unionized environment and really got to know the workers and what it was like to earn a living in an industrial environment. And there was always the need to meet deadlines and production commitments. Although it was extremely challenging to do this while carrying a full course load, I would not trade this life experience for anything. It helped me see perspectives from all sides.
After she graduated, the company promoted her to the position of chemist.
Which was partly why she abandoned the idea of medical school for a job offer from DuPont, where they asked her to join on with their nuclear weapons production site in South Carolina. “Although I didn’t know much about this industry, I was delighted to have the opportunity to work there,” says Johnson. “I loved it. I loved the people I worked with, the technical challenges and the vast learning curve I had to achieve.”
And it was a learning curve learned largely on her own with only a few bona fide mentors. In fields mostly male and heavily skewed toward men who had grown up in a different era where a heavy handed approach to employees was a given. “That’s a leadership style that was trained and embedded into them,” observes Johnson in hindsight. “Even my husband, who had a 21-year-long career as a naval officer in command of a nuclear attack submarine and later worked at the same company as I, had to modify his behavior once he left the military. He learned a more collaborative approach to working with people was far more effective”.
Johnson learned from all those around her – making it a normal practice to understand what made people successful and what did not. Oftentimes she learned the most from those she did not want to emulate.
“I could see peoples’ reactions and this heavy-handed leadership method didn’t work,” says Johnson. “The results are begrudging. That’s when the importance of trust and respect really sunk in for me.”
The “leaders” she had early on in her career especially—“I didn’t want to emulate many of them,” says Johnson. “It was more about how I didn’t want to be.
The turning point came about midway through her career, at a time when she was a midlevel manager. She and the human resources manager were trying to figure out how to discipline an employee. He wanted to punish the individual. Johnson disagreed. He ultimately said to her, “Carol, you’re just a bleeding heart”.
“After that,” she recalls, “I said to myself, I know I’m doing the right things the right way. That was a critical moment for me. I didn’t have to be like anyone around me from that point on. I decided I was going to do things my way.
Also, because of experiences like that one, it gave her a real passion for her to want to help others. To help women in particular. Women in the fields of science and engineering, but women overall.
As pointed out in an early 2016 report, Barriers and Bias: The Status of Women in Leadership, women make up just 19 percent of Congress and just 28 percent of corporate executives. Which is a shame, because in a study from that same year conducted by McKinsey & Company, gender-diverse companies outperformed others financially by 15 percent. And fewer than five percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. Clearly, stated psychologist Alice Eagly of Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research only a year earlier, in 2015, “women are profoundly underrepresented in the United States in truly high-powered roles.”
Hence, Johnson’s desire to mentor, coach, lead and otherwise pass on all that she knows, all that she has experienced to other women.
“Being a woman in such a male-oriented and highly specialized technical industry has been an interesting journey,” muses Johnson today. “There were and still are very few women in executive level positions. Therefore, making the significance of setting an example even more important. I took this responsibility to heart and reminded myself of it regularly,” she continues. “The woman’s ‘touch’ is very powerful. Our relationship skills, our communications skills and our problem-solving techniques give us the basics to be great leaders.”
Often considered more of the cool aunt, or even described as motherly by some of her past employees and coworkers, these are not labels that Johnson shies away from. These are not pejoratives. In fact, they’re almost reason for celebration. And to be copied and passed on.
As is her notion of femininity and leading like a lady—as a way to maintain one’s individuality. It’s neither feminist nor anti-feminist. It’s who Johnson is, it’s how she has chosen to move through the world, especially the work world, with authenticity, realism, and connection to people of all types.
It’s a way to have your voice be heard.
It’s a way to grow into one’s position as a leader.
It’s a response, a methodology for not being respected, or not always being respected, and learning how to deal with it—constructively.
It’s about relating to people at all levels of an organization.
It’s about being heartfelt, graceful, self-reliant and elegant under pressure.
“I really want to show other people, but especially women, how to maneuver their way through these industries, these cultures, these work environments, and be happy with who you are and be successful,” says Johnson. “I want to mentor people so that they can be a change agent—for themselves and for others.”