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October - 2008 - issue > Woman Achiever
Pause to Smell the Roses Before Taking on
Sujata Rajpal
Wednesday, October 1, 2008
Marilyn Johnson is Vice President, Market Development, for IBM based in Armonk, New York. In this capacity, she leads an organization responsible for developing IBM’s strategy for and marketing to businesses owned or operated by Asians, Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and women in the Americas. Her mission includes women-owned and women-led businesses in selected markets around the globe. Marilyn is a member of the Executive Boards of the Asian Pacific Islander American Scholarship Foundation and the Council for Better Bureaus. On behalf of IBM Market Development she accepted the Center for Women's Business Research 'Leading By Example Award' and the 'Corporate Visionary Award' from the Count Me In – Women's Business Growth Forum and was named one of 'The Top 25 Influential Black Women' by The Network Journal Magazine. She represented IBM and accepted the '2007 Corporate Supporter of Women Entrepreneurs Award' in Beijing, China. She spoke to Sujata Rajpal on her debut visit to India recently. Read the excerpts of this interview.

In these Times of High Attrition, What has Made You Stay in IBM for 31 Years?

IBM believes in development plans, mentoring, and career shaping programs for the employees that help retain them; but I don't have absolute statistics to claim that this has helped in controlling attrition. In my case, I happened to join IBM because I could see a clear career path. When I started I had no idea that I will come this far off. I was able to succeed because my values matched with those of IBM’s. IBM believes in three principles - Dedication to client's success, irrespective of size, location, country, and ethnicity; Innovation is the other principle. We don't design because we want to do it or because we have one of the best research scientists, but because it helps our customers to get better ROI from their businesses. Trust is the other fundamental principle IBM believes in. I believe in "Where you are born or lived is not important but what you do is of value."

Which is the Common Thread that Binds All Women Together?

'Spirit' binds all women together irrespective of race, color, status, and position. Women are inclusive by nature. Caring, reaching out to include, and attracting others comes naturally to us. Women are comfortable with shared power. This characteristic of theirs manifests itself in their management and leadership style. I have only my life experiences and no statistics to support this.

Which Management Style do You Recommend for a Woman Manager?

Women are more inclusive and instructive in their management style. They need to be adaptive in their management style. At times, a woman needs to be soft but firm; at times she may need to be supportive but demonstrative. Experience teaches her what works for her. A man can get away with being more forceful, but a forceful woman is described as unpleasant so she tends to be softer in her approach. Her management style also depends on the type of industry—IT, manufacturing, and hospitality industries will need to have different management styles.

What is Your Advice to Women Leaders?

Reward yourself and balance your life. These balances are not constant and they change according to the circumstances. It is not only work-life balance but everything else in life needs to be balanced too. Take time off for yourself. Women leaders are hard workers and are focused, generous, and compassionate. When they achieve significant milestones they should stop to smell the roses before they move on and continue with new challenges. Do not be dissuaded and give in to pressures, which are negative. Also do not stay so focused that you can't enjoy the journey. Always be flexible enough to adapt to changes in life.

You had a Very Humble Beginning; Today You are VP of IBM. How has the Journey Been?

I started this journey 32 years ago as a weather girl. I was studying in graduate school, working as a news reporter, and teaching elementary education - all at the same time because I needed the money to afford a good life style. As a black American woman, my journey has been very challenging but rewarding and fulfilling. When I started on this journey, I didn't strive for rewards, awards, recognition, and success. I am just enjoying the blessings.

For a Woman, what does it take to be Successful?

She should know what she wants and what defines success for her. She needs to be deliberate and strategic. She also needs a lot of support from family, friends, the employers, and advisers. If she sticks to her strategy, has the support of her family, and is surrounded by people who tell her the truth, there is no way she can fail. She needs to understand her strengths and weaknesses to face the challenges better.
Success has a different meaning for every one; she should do something that she really wants and not what someone else is telling her to do.

What does it take to be Successful for a Minority Woman?

Difference is not always negative. It brings new ideas and varied perspectives of things. I make people feel comfortable with my differences. Their discomfort is due to ignorance and lack of knowledge. I don't pretend to ignore the differences; I only try to make people comfortable with my difference. There are far more challenges for a minority to succeed in any society. It never bothers me that I am different; I use this as my strength.

What is Your Inspiration in Life?

It sounds cliche but I am inspired by the success of others. I love to see businesses grow as a result of ideas. I am also inspired to see the courage that entrepreneurs possess, their hard work, and coordination of efforts to ensure success in a tough economy. People who care for others and help others to grow through networking and sharing inspire me to perform better professionally. On the personal front, my children and grandson inspire me to make this world a better place for future generations.

What are Your Impressions about India?

I am in love with India, its climate, beauty, history, people and food. People are very warm and hospitable. The world has benefited from India’s philosophers, leaders, fashion, and culture. Gandhi’s philosophy and leadership qualities help make the entire world peaceful and tolerant. I am sure Indians are very proud of their country.
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