By: Elizabeth McGuire
Leadership Austin’s incoming board chair, Debbie Johnson, wasn’t born in Texas, but as the popular bumper sticker says, she got here as fast as she could. Turns out it was a quick 20 years. When the native Nebraskan first met her husband they made plans to eventually move to Austin (and even bought some land), but their careers took them to the Midwest instead. Johnson launched her career in Cincinnati, where she rose through the sales and marketing ranks of AT&T and Lucent.
The stars began aligning after Johnson left the corporate world to start her own consulting firm. Then her husband’s retirement and an opportunity for him at The University of Texas left the perfect opening to make the move they had been planning for decades. Once she arrived in Austin, Johnson jumped into the community with gusto. Eight years later she is thoroughly entrenched in the city’s business and nonprofit communities.
She wouldn’t have it any other way. And now Austin is lucky to call her one of its own.
Tell us about your work life now…
I still have my original consulting business, which is sales, marketing and strategic planning, but Successful Giving is my current business with a business partner. At Successful Giving, we help businesses be more meaningful with their philanthropy.
I met my partner, Sam Woollard, five or six years ago. We both did strategic planning for nonprofits so we had some shared interests, but we discovered that we both loved business philanthropy.
We thought there was a hole in helping the business side be most effective with their philanthropy. With her background in nonprofits and mine in business, we thought we had a very complimentary skill set. So we did our due diligence and decided to form our business. We are more focused on businesses, not foundations. Nobody in Austin is doing exactly what we’re doing.
What I have found is that most consultants who give up really hate the sales part. Having grown up in the sales part, that is really easy for me. I’m very comfortable with clients, and talking about new business, and being able to face disappointment when I don’t get the business. It’s the whole resiliency that sales work brings you. That foundation was actually really great for my own consulting business.
Some firms know they want to give back and know they aren’t as organized or deliberate as they want to be. Other businesses are nurtured along until they are ready to engage a consultant. We’re trying not to take a lot of resources out of the community. We have a business model that leads them through the process…it’s a shortcut to get organized really fast.
What typically motivates a business to give?
We categorize six main reasons to give, in three categories:
- Building the company brand
- Increasing revenue & market share
- Improve the community
- It’s the right thing to do
Motivation for giving back is all over the map. Each company has a different rationale and in many cases it is multiple. We help clients think through the motivation, because motivation and drive helps inform the model and the process. Clients will tell you that even if their motivation is in one category, they still see benefits from the other categories.
What is the most rewarding part of your work?
I love seeing the lightbulbs go off. And then at the end of the day when clients call back and say, “Oh my gosh, we feel so good about this! This is really working.” So there’s no question about guiding clients to improve.
What drew you to Leadership Austin?
First I was a part of Leadership Cincinnati and I affiliated once I moved here in 2007. I absolutely loved the program. Just like everybody says, “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.” Part of that is the leadership learning and the skill building, but the biggest part for me was the relationships. I developed so many interesting friendships.
In our Cincinnati class we had a jazz singer, a priest, the Police Chief, the CEO of the Chamber and the CEO of the community foundation. I never would have met them and we are still friends with today.
The issues piece was the icing on the cake. I really like to understand the issues of the city I’m living in and to know how I can help. When we moved to Austin, I immediately called Lee Thompson, who was Leadership Austin’s CEO at the time. I got engaged in committees here and that progressed to being on the board. It was basically me reaching out and saying, “Put me in, Coach!”
What has stuck with you during your Leadership Austin work?
I found that Leadership Austin folks were very genuine, very engaging, and very welcoming. That experience fueled my fire to want to be more involved. Also, we do really good work here and you always want to be part of an organization that is meaningful. I believe the Engage Breakfast Series, for example, are really helping the community advance.
How would you describe your leadership style?
Collaborative. I have had all types of bosses, especially at AT&T back in the early days. I had some incredibly authoritative bosses. I learned a lot, but I really hated working for someone who only tells you what to do. I love to have people weigh in, and then when it comes time to make a decision, I do think it’s important to be decisive. Some people collaborate so long that they never make a decision.
My style is not super confrontational. I’m good at diffusing situations. When people get really upset, I get really calm. That’s an innate reaction. I’m able to listen very carefully and I try to reflect back what I’m hearing. “I’m hearing you say…” or “Help me understand…” both help diffuse situations.
Any advice for leaders?
Sometimes I see people who are so ego-driven that they can’t let go of an idea even when someone else’s is better. It’s important to be able to set aside your ego. We can accomplish the moon if we don’t care who gets the credit.
It’s also important to have the ability to see the bigger picture…to be able to advocate for your position but also have the ability to go with the greater good.
Like several people have said, I don’t want Austin to lose what makes it a cool city. We need boldness. We are never going to please everybody…bold leaders know that and aren’t afraid to move forward.
We also need to focus on getting to the root cause of problems versus finding bandaids for them. Part of that for me is “Best Practices.” Stealing a really good idea is a really good idea. Other cities have cracked the code on certain things we are wrestling with. We should learn from them to creatively solve our problems.
What issue are you especially passionate about?
Health and the whole notion of getting healthy before we need healthcare. I’m passionate about healthy leaders and teaching people how to be healthy so we don’t have to rely on hospitals as much.
What leaders do you admire?
Nelson Mandela and Mahatma Gandhi…both leaders who led from humbleness. One of the most valuable skills is leading through influence not through authority. Leading so people are inspired to follow versus commanded to follow.