Executive Education

Peer Talk Profile: Stan Johnson

Chicago Booth: What were some of the challenges you were facing in your work that led you to the Chicago Management Institute (CMI)?

Stan Johnson: My employer was recently purchased by a private equity group. If you know anything about PE, you know that the group’s goal is to take the company public within three years. To do this, consistent growth over many quarters is necessary.

As a sales leader, I was challenged to grow my region by more than 30 percent annually. Those growth rates were unheard of in our industry. I knew how to sell. I had been doing it successfully for more than 25 years. However, growing my region at those rates required a different approach. I had no formal training in finance, marketing, and strategy, and saw CMI as a way to brush up on those skills.

Chicago Booth: In what ways did the program help you meet those challenges?

Johnson: CMI vastly exceeded my expectations. As I said, I came to CMI to learn about strategy, finance, and marketing. I already knew about people. However, the sessions with Linda Ginzel opened up a new world for me on how to inspire my team. I began using everything I learned immediately, and I was able to inspire my team to exceed the growth rate while still having fun. Overall, the leadership skills I learned have been instrumental in meeting the growth challenge that I was given.

Chicago Booth: Of all the skills you learned in the program, which have been most useful to you and why?

Johnson: Although I use all the skills that I picked up in CMI almost every day, the people and leadership skills have been the most useful. I use the leadership skills in every part of my life, from work to family to friends. “Pygmalion in Management,” an article about the power of expectation (high and low), has had a tremendous influence on my management style. I use the lessons learned from it with my high performers and low performers, as well as with my kids and friends.

Chicago Booth: What’s a typical day like for you in your work? 

Johnson: I lead a sales team of 12 direct reports, and they have others reporting to them. I travel almost every week, calling on customers, putting out fires, coaching managers and reps. My day begins between 4:30 and 5:00 a.m., with emails from the night before. Around 6:30 a.m., the phone calls begin and run all day until 6 or 7 p.m. If I am flying, I spend that time working uninterrupted. Quiet time.

Chicago Booth: Tell me about a time when you were able to apply something you learned at Booth in your worka situation when you found yourself better equipped to meet a challenge because of your experience at Booth. 

Johnson: For years at my company, this is how things worked: Marketing would come up with an idea for a new program or product and create the messaging, brochures, and so forth, without consulting the sales team. Then, they would pass it on to the sales team to sell. Invariably, the program or product failed and the sales team got blamed for not executing. CMI taught me that that’s not the way to do things.

I used the leadership skills I learned to challenge the marketing team to work with the sales team to come up with a message that worked for the sales team and that resonated with the customer. Sales have improved 20 percent since we introduced the practice, and it is being implemented company-wide.

Chicago Booth: I want to talk a little about leadership. Every leader learns from others. What are some leadership strategies you learned at Booth, either from your colleagues in the program or from the professors?

Johnson: As I stated earlier, Linda Ginzel’s sessions had a tremendous influence on me. Two Harvard Business Review articles in particular that Linda had us read and analyze, “Pygmalion in Management” and “The Set-Up-to-Fail Syndrome,” shaped my leadership style.

Linda taught me to constantly challenge my assumptions and attitudes about my direct reports and to resist the temptation to categorize employees in simplistic terms. She taught me to use data and facts to monitor my own reasoning and conclusions.

Chicago Booth: Of all the faculty members whose classes you took, whom did you learn the most from, and what did he or she teach you?

Johnson: I learned the most from Jim Schrager and Linda Ginzel. Jim taught me how to really look at business beyond the numbers—to see the strategy and to make a judgment about whether the business will be successful or not. Linda taught me about people and leadership. As I said, her course was the most surprising. I use what she taught me every day in every aspect of my life.

Chicago Booth: Why should others consider enrolling in the Chicago Management Institute at Booth? 

Johnson: Apart from the fact that you will be taught by some of the best business professors in the world, you will meet some of the most talented and interesting people in your classes. CMI will boost your confidence; make you believe anything is possible; challenge your beliefs; and make you a better leader, businessperson, and human being.

Every time I run into a jam at work, I refer back to the material from CMI to clear my head and give me focus. Whether it’s a marketing, finance, strategy, or people issue, I can always find an answer by consulting my notes from CMI or reaching out to one of my classmates. I am not very religious, but meeting every other Friday was like going to church. It was very calming.