Martha  Johnson

Martha Johnson

You, the reader, probably do not know me personally, or you may only know me from an online search, which is most likely dominated by the media circus around my resignation. Allow me to establish a bit of a baseline for you. Leaders learn from one another, and you probably want to size me up so as to calibrate the advice or lessons I am sharing. Fair enough. I come from a strong, socially liberal clan. Various ancestors, including both of my grandfathers, and other relatives were and are activist clergy. They include a circuit rider minister, missionaries to Japan and Appalachia, and a founder of an orphanage. My parents met in the 1940s in Beirut, where they were both teachers for the Mission Board before Dad went to divinity school. When I was in the fourth grade, the free speech movement at the University of California at Berkley was unfolding literally down the road. At the dinner table, my father explained what was happening and declared that it would change my life. He believed in teaching us about the problems of the world. He once took me out of middle school for a day trip to hear Cesar Chavez testify before Robert Kennedy’s Sub-Committee investigating the plight of migrant workers. It was my first glimpse of a Congressional hearing in action. Dad’s edgy preaching contributed to his being pressured out of his pulpit in California. So, we packed up and moved to North Dakota. There he served a congregation and founded a still-flourishing environmental advocacy group. I absorbed the important lesson that losing a job is hardly the end of the world. In fact, it takes a person to a whole new world. Dad thought his children needed good organizational skills. He is a bit of a math savant and taught us his system to balance the family’s checkbook. My sister mastered the mimeograph machine, and we all helped compile materials for the parish’s annual meeting, including a carefully presented budget report. I effectively started my MBA at age nine. My mother, on the other hand, was a musician, artist, and master teacher. My earliest memories are singing in her choirs. We had to stand tall and smile as we sang. Blending voices was important, and it was not a good idea to bellow over the others. Much later, in the middle of the feminist movement at college, I was not at all sure if being assertive was the right goal. To me it meant a diva artistic personality. I did get one thing clear from singing, and that was an exquisitely honed sense of the beauty of teamwork. As a frugal minister’s wife, Mom knew her domestic arts, and so therefore do I. Along with canning, pickling, and sewing, I learned about crafting, although that is not what it was called in the 1950s and 1960s. Our house was a constant art studio. We could not use the upstairs bathtub for months, because it was filled with water for soaking wheat stalks. When they were sufficiently pliable, we wove them into holiday ornaments. Quilting frames crowded furniture in the living room. Our encyclopedias were stuffed with pressed flowers. To this day I look for the prism that will shoot some color or flourish into an issue, a meeting, a speech, or an assignment. As a preacher’s kid from North Dakota, I was a good bet for scholarships, and off I went at age 16 to boarding school, then Oberlin College, a teaching assignment in Taiwan, and eventually graduate school at Yale University. Ultimately, I logged 10 years living in dormitories, with all the attendant noise, annual packing up, and small quarters. Later in life, as landlord of one of the largest real estate holdings in the world, I discovered that I have a blind spot for people’s attachment to and anxiety about their personal workspace. It never occurred to me to care. Live and learn. My studies at the Yale School of Management were life-changing. While we had a traditional business curriculum, the embedded case studies ranged across public, private, and not-for-profit situations. How do you market a symphony orchestra? What core financial principles exist despite differences between bringing in revenue and bringing in a budget appropriation? In the 1970s these juxtapositions were relatively new questions. Our professors drilled into us that to lead we must see across all of society’s institutions, focusing on their points of connection instead of their differences. Collaboration and synergy were the new truths for leaders. In addition, we received a heavy dose of organizational behavior training. I was mesmerized. I had had no idea of the clarity that a leader could gain by framing the issues of roles, boundaries, and power. Again and again, that three-way analysis was underscored in the classes and readings. Institutional behaviors began to make sense to me, as did the previously frustrating office politics I had experienced. With my MBA I set out to build a career, starting with an assignment in the corporate world. My timing coincided with the massive productivity revolution across American industry. The automotive industry and my corner of it in my new job at Cummins Engine Company were staring at the onset of international competition and facing down our old business model by radically transforming organizational culture and processes. The transition was happening fast. To show how fast, I sat for examinations in 1980 to be professionally certified in inventory management. My job was managing an aftermarket parts supply of mostly turbochargers stored in a massive distribution warehouse. For the exam, I had to calculate ideal amounts of inventory based on shelf life, interest rates, transportation costs, number of hubs, and production demand. I was awarded my certification and plaque. Within the year, however, the just-in-time resources management philosophy blew in and uprooted the entire inventory management field. That was when I learned about something called “supply chain management.” In a matter of months, my certificate was obsolete. I was left with a quaint frame on the wall and a huge lesson learned. Never sit pretty on a skill base. It can vaporize in an instant. Eventually I left Cummins when my husband’s career took him to Boston. I worked mostly in the services world as the CFO for an architecture firm, at an executive search firm, and at a diversity consulting firm. Each environment opened a new world about customers and solutions as it also augmented my resume. When the Clinton-Gore Transition Team called in 1992, I was equipped to help the Presidential Personnel division respond to the President’s instruction that his administration look like America. From there I was privileged to receive an assignment at the Department of Commerce to contribute my business experience to the business of government at the front end of the revolution. I was enormously lucky to work for David Barram, the Deputy Secretary, and then to move to GSA when he accepted the appointment as Administrator. As his Chief of Staff, I supported him in aggressively introducing the use of the internet, choosing to offer real estate services competitively, and incorporating new legal mandates. We had a ball. It was hard to leave such a vibrant government assignment, but I subsequently moved into the consulting and information technology industry, where I often supported government clients. At one point, I held the title of Vice President–Culture and promoted creative strategies and skills for transforming large organizations. When I returned to GSA as Administrator, I had amassed experience in a surprising number of the agency’s different business lines. Had I planned it from the beginning, I could not have done a better preparation for the job. Every leader has a stash of formative stories. As a history major, I always appreciate how a back story is valuable in explaining motivation and passion. Leaders make a broad swath across an organization, and it is useful to understand what makes them tick. The key question when probing these stories is whether they harken back or lean forward. I am forever grateful that my stories yielded a string of lessons that repeatedly pushed me into the brave new world of creativity, risk, and change.