“5 things I wish someone told me before I became a VP” with Wendy Johansson, GVP at Publicis Sapient

An Interview with Phil La Duke

Phil La Duke
Nov 20 · 11 min read

Make sure you are empowered to build the team you choose, rather the team you inherit. When I took over an existing team at my startup, I thought it was a unique challenge since I had built great teams, but never “fixed” a team into greatness. I inherited many people, but they lacked the skills to succeed at scale. It was finally when I hired people with key skills I identified over time, that we saw rapid success.

a part of my series about powerful women leaders I had the pleasure of interviewing Wney Johansson GVP of Publicis Sapient. Wendy built her 25-year career on leading UX teams as an early employee at successful early-stage startups. She was the first designer at Loopt, Sam Altman’s YC-funded startup that later sold for $43 million. As the UX manager at Ooyala, she helped build the marketing, videography, and UX teams before the company were sold to Telstra for $400M. Wendy also led the global UX team at AppNexus, sold to AT&T for $1.6B, before joining Wizeline. Wendy studied Cognitive Science with a specialization in Human-Computer Interaction at UC San Diego. She has also received executive education in product management at U.C. Berkeley. During her time at UCSD, she led the Society of Women Engineers chapter and Society of Automotive Engineers. She is the winner of the regional .NET challenge in 2004. In 2019, Wendy was invited to become an investment committee member of CompuSoluciones’ Corporate Venture Capital fund. She hopes to use her new position to mentor women entrepreneurs and identify overlooked startups in Mexico that have the potential to disrupt industries. Wendy is passionate about felines and females in technology –in no particular order. She volunteers at the San Francisco SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) in her spare time. As part of the Society of Women Engineers, she mentors young women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and speaks at SWE’s regional events.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I gained my tenure at several early-stage Silicon Valley startups leading User Experience Design teams. I’ve built digital products for Fortune 500 companies that have reached millions of daily users. In 2013 I co-founded Wizeline, a product consultancy, where we focused on building our design and tech teams in emerging tech markets like Mexico, Vietnam, and Thailand. For six years, I worked 24/7 and wore many hats — from design & product management to sales to being the steward of the company culture. I found my passion in Wizeline Academy: educating, mentoring, and inspiring women and other underrepresented people in technology. From there, I decided to join Publicis Sapient as GVP Experience Transformation Lead on a mission to create a light, ethical, accessible and “dataful” digital experiences for global consumers.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

In my first few weeks at Publicis Sapient, I traveled to several of our global offices in North America, Europe, and the Nordics to get to know the people and the business better. I’ve worked at global companies before, but the global perspective was usually limited to learning local work cultures and how to collaborate with them. In my new role, I’ve learned a lot about the cultural impact on the maturity of “ethical” and “accessible” factors in design. For example, the Nordics are so advanced in their concepts of ethical, sustainable and accessible experiences, and we can learn a lot from them in North America to further our digital experiences.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

We have a concept called “boomerangs” at Publicis Sapient — people who have left and returned the company at least once during their career. When a boomerang returns to the company, their email becomes first.last2. I’ve recently met first.last4, someone who left and came back 4 times! When I first spoke to a boomerang, I thought the “2” in their name meant they had the same name as someone else. So I was saying that I had heard about #1 and all the great impact they had, how they left a gap when they joined an opposing company… This person thanked me for the compliments and I embarrassingly realized #1 and #2 were the same people. Lesson learned: don’t make assumptions about IT decisions.

What is it about the position of the executive that most attracted you to it?

When I left the startup I co-founded, many women shared touching stories of how I had impacted their careers and aspirations. From seeing a woman in a leadership position at a tech conference to seeing me be a different, dissenting voice in the company as one of the few women in leadership. These women told me that I set the tone and served as a model for their future endeavors. I firmly believe that if I have the skill, luck, and network to continue working as an executive, I need to take the opportunity to be a role model for these women. I want to show that the glass ceiling isn’t just surmountable only by men or women of a certain mold, but that even those of us who are slightly different than the norm can succeed.

But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?

An executive needs to live up to company values from every angle — internally to the employees, externally for the company’s reputation, and in their daily ethics for their own personal reputation. Other leaders have more narrow responsibilities as people leaders or subject matter experts: shined upon by only one spotlight of measure.

What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?

At Publicis Sapient, I’ve learned more from the diverse knowledge of the people in our team in five weeks than I learned in the last year! Being an executive means you have the comfort of not needing to be the smartest person in every room. Your skill is in connecting people, execution and vision, and turning disparate input into an actionable strategy that your team can follow. Being able to step back and learn from your expert team is an amazing space of privilege.

What are the downsides of being an executive?

Constantly working in the face of change, which isn’t a problem for me, but often a problem for my teams. I’d like to think that I spend most of my time working towards the next shifting milestone, but I actually spend a lot of time dealing with people’s anxiety about ambiguity. It’s like having a job as a people manager and taking on a new role as an executive at once.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?

From my perspective as a female executive, the scrutiny that exists for a woman by every measure is so much higher than for male executives. Am I speaking too much (bossy)? Am I speaking enough (passive)? Do I sound too confident, not confident enough? Am I too dressed up or made up (untrustworthy)? Do I look too young/old? Did I sound too blunt or too friendly? Does this colleague/client/industry person want to meet for dinner/drinks to talk about work or am I getting set up for an awkward situation? There are so many perspectives I need to consider with extra scrutiny as a woman, that it can be exhausting and easy to get lost in it.

What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?

That executives can handle it all — life and work. I can’t. I compartmentalize. When work has been especially taxing and difficult as it was during the last year of my startup, I blocked out all my personal issues. Someone I loved very much passed away and instead of dealing with the grief, I threw myself into work and traveled constantly between Bangkok and San Francisco. Nearly a year later, at my new job, I thought I was over the grief. During a work trip, I was reminded of memories of this person and the grief came flooding back. Many people like to think that executives have some magical power to deal with all aspects of life and hardship, but now I see more clearly: we don’t. We merely avoid it by throwing ourselves into work and coming back to revisit and process when we finally have the capacity.

What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Coming from a startup to a big company like Publicis Sapient, which is part of an even bigger conglomerate, the Publicis Groupe, I had expected to have taken more action by now. Instead, I’ve spent a lot of time listening and learning before making a move. There are so many complex pieces of the puzzle, the legacy — this is all very different than the “fail fast and often” life I came from in Silicon Valley.

In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive?

The traits I aspire to have as an executive are a blend of self-confidence and empathy. Self-confidence helps you lead and assert your vision, while empathy allows you to embrace all ideas, personalities, and learnings.

If you aspire to be an empathetic executive and care for your people, you need to take time to really understand your business objectives, as the only way to truly succeed is by linking people goals to measurable metrics for the business.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

Women help other women succeed. This sounds cliché, but when you’re the only woman on the leadership team, you need to look outside your peer group for partners, mentors, and mentees. Even if you don’t see yourself as a female leader, women of all levels inside and outside your team are looking at you and mimicking your camaraderie, or lack thereof. Help your team thrive by being a role model of support for other women above and below you.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My older sister greatly inspired my path. Although we aren’t very alike in our careers — she’s an electrical engineer for satellite communications systems, I’m in digital tech — she’s made me aware of the potential of women in STEM since I was in elementary school. She won the junior high science fair and became involved with Society of Women Engineers at a young age, which was something I got to learn about trailing three years behind her. When we were in university, she encouraged me to join SWE and eventually become president of UC San Diego’s SWE chapter, which gave me my first taste of leadership and the impact I could have on others. Her perseverance in working with SWE to inspire other young women into STEM majors and growing in her own career has been a model and inspiration for diving into what I wanted to achieve and giving back outside of my role as an executive.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

At my startup, I started a free academy program called Wizeline Academy, which taught highly sought out tech skills to professionals in emerging markets for free. By empowering people with the skills to grow or shift their careers, we make an impact on their life journey. I don’t think I could have created this program without the measured successes of my other work at my startup.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Make sure you are empowered to build the team you choose, rather the team you inherit. When I took over an existing team at my startup, I thought it was a unique challenge since I had built great teams, but never “fixed” a team into greatness. I inherited many people, but they lacked the skills to succeed at scale. It was finally when I hired people with key skills I identified over time, that we saw rapid success.
  2. Stride with confidence, because other people don’t know what they’re doing either. I’ve spoken to many executives who also confide that they’re unsure if their grand vision will work, but we must step forward with confidence to inspire our teams.
  3. Know and promote your narrative. You never know when an opportunity might pop up. That’s how I got connected to my current role — I wrote a blog piece about Wizeline Academy in 2016 for John Maeda, who is the Chief Experience Officer for Publicis Sapient. When I was looking for my next journey, we connected since we had similar paths and visions.
  4. Sexism is alive and thriving, but don’t let that stop you. I hadn’t experienced much obvious sexism towards me earlier in my career. When I became a director and had to speak to Silicon Valley venture capitalists was the era in my career that I suddenly became acutely aware of how sexism shaped the way I was perceived. I decided it wasn’t in my influence to change their behaviors and there were bigger battles to win, so I continued on heads-down into my startup.
  5. Be yourself. Letting your authentic self come through in your leadership is the best way to blend your personal and professional personas. During my early years as an executive, I was trying out new ways of speaking and dressing for executive meetings. Ultimately, I found a nice balance of what made me comfortable and what was accepted in the boardroom, allows me to be authentic and authoritative.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be?

You never know what your idea can trigger. Make dinner at home every night. You’ll be more conscious of what you’re putting in your body and how it makes you feel. Cooking is also a nice way to wind down after work.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Don’t be afraid to ask. The worst you’ll get is a no, which is where you started — without it.” I heard this from a Society of Women Engineers speaker during my time at UC San Diego. It’s stuck with me because I tend to be cautious in life, but it’s a reminder that risks can be taken because at worst, I’ll end up where I started.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?

Ada Lovelace, who in the 1800s was the first computer programmer. Her belief in “poetical science” questioned how individuals and society relate to technology as a collaborative tool — much like the work I do today in designing the connection between people and technology.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

About the Author

Phil La Duke is a popular speaker & writer with more than 400 works in print. He has contributed to Entrepreneur, Monster, Thrive Global and is published on all inhabited continents. His most recent book is Lone Gunman: Rewriting the Handbook On Workplace Violence Prevention listed as #16 on Pretty Progressive magazine’s list of 49 books that powerful women study in detail. Follow Phil on Twitter @philladuke or read his weekly blog www.philladuke.wordpress.com

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

Phil La Duke

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Author of “I Know My Shoes Are Untied. Mind Your Own Business” and “Lone Gunman. Rewriting the Handbook on Workplace Violence Prevention

Authority Magazine

Leadership Lessons from Authorities in Business, Film, Sports and Tech. Authority Mag is devoted primarily to sharing interesting feature interviews of people who are authorities in their industry. We use interviews to draw out stories that are both empowering and actionable.

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