Geri Johnson, SVP of Innovation at the PR agency SSPR: The first thing I look for in an interview is passion

Following a long career as a technology and business solutions architect, Geri Johnson moved to an entirely different industry: public relations four years ago. Though not everyone can pull off a 180-degree transformation, Johnson did with ease. Today, she’s the senior vice president of innovation at the agency, SSPR, which is owned by her longtime friend, Heather Kelly. As Johnson explained, her pal knew she would be a key asset with a strong background in change management and technology. Her main goal is to ensure digital efforts and innovations remain a top priority. 

Here, Johnson took time out of her schedule to discuss her work-life balance, managing large projects with ease, and now all executives can be more supportive of people of color, the LGBTQ community alike:

 

What are the trends you see within your industry currently?

The way we consume information constantly changes, but I still see and read print everywhere. While digital is first and foremost, print news still has a place in local and regional publications and can be hugely impactful for specific brands and businesses.

 

How would you describe your company culture?

In a word, welcoming. We work hard to ensure every one of our offices is safe and welcoming, and each employee feels like they belong.

 

What can a job applicant do to catch your attention? What stands out the most to you?

The first thing I look for in an interview is passion. Rather than reading about their previous experience, I want to hear the commitment and passion for their accomplishments come through in a conversation. I also want to hear personal stories about teamwork and how collaboration is a part of their daily routine. Being able to collaborate effectively is critical for SSPR’s success; teamwork is most important to me.

 

What’s the most challenging part of being a leader/manager? What’s the best part?

I love watching employees grow over time. Many of our employees join SSPR as interns or entry-level associates, and seeing them evolve both personally and professionally is incredibly rewarding.

The toughest part is that there is never enough time in the day. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a leader is that my day-to-day action items are never as important as the people. My highest priority meetings are those one-on-one conversations to ensure our people are equipped for success.

 

What’s your advice for tackling big projects at a company-wide level?

Don’t forget about the people side of change! At the end of the day, 80 percent of projects fail because they don’t incorporate change management. To tackle company-wide change, you need to consider every individual at your company. It can seem daunting, but you need to get everyone on board for the transition to be successful.

 

How do you keep your staff motivated? How do you motivate yourself?

My biggest motivator is seeing everyone else motivated. I reenergize by taking my dog for walks, playing golf, riding my Peloton bike and meditating so I can be my best self at work. At SSPR, I drive our team to be motivated with competitions and raffles that push them to grow and be their best continuously. Individual feedback is also incredibly valuable in our agency. Our mantra is to stay continuously curious, and we never stop learning. We also send postcards and stickers to check-in and just say “hi,” because taking care of each other outside the office helps us do better in the office.

 

How do you find a balance between work and life demands?

I find balance through self-awareness. I used to be resentful about meetings and unexpected calls that popped up and made me push back my work but realized throughout my career that my number-one job is to help employees and our collective agency be successful. By understanding it’s impossible to check off your entire to-do list completely, you can find some peace of mind and achieve real balance.

 

What are some of the challenges you have faced as a POC in this industry?

We all want to feel like we belong. In the first seconds of entering a room, we scan for belonging. Nobody wants to be the only one…the only black person, the only woman, the only LGBTQ+ in the room. However, someone has to be first, and I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been first. 

For example, people have told me I must be in the wrong line when I fly business class because they aren’t used to seeing a black woman getting on the plane ahead of the white businessmen. It’s challenging to feel welcomed when your demographic is missing. It’s an additional challenge when I get questioned for being there. I’m often told I don’t look like an SVP, and I have an automatic response, ‘what does an SVP look like?’

In the tech industry, depending on who I’m presenting to, the way I speak may change, and my behaviors may shift. For example, when presenting to a conference room of all men, I still, after 20+ years as an expert in the industry, feel like I have to prove that I know as much or more than the men in the room.

 

How do you feel about the current climate in America right now regarding race? Is it changing your work culture?

I’ve never seen Americans more committed to learning, educating and re-learning our country’s history. I believe that’s why we’re seeing this movement have such an impact right now. Personally, I’ve always had to consider my surroundings, whether or not I have my ID on me (I always do) and how any situation might play out. 

Of all the recent events in the last few weeks surrounding BLM, the one that resonated most was the incident involving birdwatcher Chris Cooper in Central Park. Cooper was peacefully birdwatching when a white woman walking her dog called the police on him for being a ‘disturbance’ after he calmly asked her to leash her dog. In that one moment, his life could have ended. Thankfully, it didn’t, but now what was once a peaceful place for him will forever remind him of this interaction. I, too, have several locations that always remind me of a negative experience that resulted from simply being a black woman.

SSPR has always welcomed deep discussions around diversity and inclusion. Recently, we’ve decided to increase our efforts to have these conversations to build a welcoming, inclusive workspace for all employees.