Power Women: Alicia Johnson On How To Successfully Navigate Work, Love and Life As A Powerful Woman

An Interview With Ming Zhao

Ming S. Zhao
Authority Magazine

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Finding hobbies or activities to recharge! I tell most of my clients “You can’t pour from an empty cup”. If you want to keep kicking butt at work, you need to rest or find joy in things outside of work. A work-life balance is crucial for ongoing success.

How does a successful, strong, and powerful woman navigate work, employee relationships, love, and life in a world that still feels uncomfortable with strong women? In this interview series, called “Power Women” we are talking to accomplished women leaders who share their stories and experiences navigating work, love and life as a powerful woman.

As a part of this series I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Alicia Johnson, LMFT.

Alicia Johnson is a licensed therapist based out of Ann Arbor, Michigan and provides online therapy to women across the states of Michigan, Oklahoma, and Florida. She specializes in helping women achieve fulfilling work-life balances by overcoming burnout, stress, anxiety, and trauma. She empowers people to take time for themselves without feeling guilty or having them sacrifice their hard work and success.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?

I grew up in Minnesota with my amazing family. I am very close with my mom and extended family who all came together to help shape me into who I am today. My family is full of incredible women who taught me important lessons when it comes to managing work and life. Their unconditional love and support is a key factor in being able to achieve what I have today!

Can you tell us the story about what led you to this particular career path?

I started out working as a therapist at some local non-profits that provided accessible services to some populations I was really passionate about. At both places, I started to see the systemic issues in mental health care and got burned out. I almost left the field but was encouraged by my supervisor to try having an online private practice where I am my own boss. Since then, my passion for mental health services has been reignited and I am able to take care of myself along the way!

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

Honestly, the thing that stands out as most interesting is how confident I became in myself. When starting my business, I had to put myself out there, take risks, and trust myself. When I worked for other agencies, I was not in environments that used my full potential and I internalized that as something was wrong with me instead of me realizing it just wasn’t a good work fit. Since starting my business, I make goofy videos online and have no shame in who sees them. I put out some groups that ended up failing and never beat myself up. There was a spark inside of me that was lit when I made the decision to start my own business.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

One thing that I have always been good at is being determined. Starting a business requires a lot of paperwork, steps to file things with different agencies, marketing, financials, etc. None of that was taught in my graduate program. So, I had to self-teach myself a lot of things. I had to research who I could reach out to for extra help on things I didn’t understand. I also took a lot of time to complete the logistics of my company, network, create marketing materials, and more. I recently invested in my business by joining a marketing class for therapists and it was so much work but I showed up each week and pushed myself to do the steps so I could see growth in my business. (Don’t worry, I also got a lot of rest and time at the pool to recharge. Remember- balance!)

Another trait that I think has been helpful in my success is being genuine. People like my material because I am real. I share the struggles of being a woman. I share stories about being tired and not being perfect. I model that it is okay to be high achieving AND need breaks and rest. People can see my personality in my marketing and materials I share and that helps me be able to connect with people who I have never met with before.

Lastly, I think my humility helps me continue to be successful in my career. I don’t have to be an expert in every mental health topic. Instead, I can learn how to find resources and people who specialize in things I have less training in. I also don’t have to know everything or do everything. I can stay in my lane and do what I do best. I can lift up voices of people who know different things than me and I get to learn along the way. Being an expert or leader doesn’t mean we have to know everything about everything. We can say I don’t know, and find the people who do.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. The premise of this series assumes that our society still feels uncomfortable with strong women. Why do you think this is so?

I am a systems thinker and there is a term in this theory called homeostasis which basically means things have a baseline or “norm” and when stuff happens to try to change that norm, the system corrects itself by going back to the baseline. I think that happens in our society too. Even good change shakes things up and the system may not know how to adjust or change so some forces want to keep it as it was because that is what was comfortable for them.

I think there is also this myth that if women are strong that somehow takes away men’s strength or it means that women can’t also be gentle. There are these polarities that society wants to put us in a single box or different boxes based on demographics and in reality; it is much more complex than that.

Without saying any names, can you share a story from your own experience that illustrates this idea?

I saw this play out when looking at leadership in my field. The mental health field is primarily women but if you look at who are often clinical directors or supervisors, it is still men. Thankfully, not all places are like this but in my early career I worked at places that hired less than qualified men to supervise a team of very qualified women counselors. It was odd because there were other female leaders in the organization but this specific role went to men 2 times in a row and ended up hurting the company.

What should a powerful woman do in a context where she feels that people are uneasy around her?

Remember, it is not our job to regulate other people’s emotions. Unless you are being abusive or a bully, you don’t have to apologize for being confident, assertive, boundaried, or strong.

What do we need to do as a society to change the unease around powerful women?

Bring their stories to life! Like this series! I think we often have stereotypes of what powerful women are like whether we saw something on TV or met one person we didn’t get along with and then our brain generalizes that to larger populations. If we see that powerful women are still great moms, great friends, great partners, great at their hobbies, etc we can start to humanize them.

I also think the media could be intentional about the language we use when describing powerful women. If a headline wants to focus on a career woman missing out on a family function, that is going to further the stereotypes we have. Also, with TV and movies, they could be intentional with how they portray powerful women to capture the complexities instead of putting them in a single box or falling into stereotypes.

In my own experience, I have observed that often women have to endure ridiculous or uncomfortable situations to achieve success that men don’t have to endure. Do you have a story like this from your own experience? Can you share it with us?

Oh, for sure. I remember applying to be an aid in a psychiatric hospital and being told several times in the interview that I wasn’t tough enough for the job. I was about to graduate with my Bachelor’s degree in Family Social Science, worked in other caretaking roles, and had crisis experience from an internship, so I was qualified to be an aid. The male interviewer just kept giving me different crisis situations as a quiz and when I would appropriately respond he would scoff and say that he just didn’t think I was tough enough.

A few years later, my boyfriend at the time, applied to a crisis mental health place and never was questioned about his “toughness” and ability to handle crisis situations.

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

The double standards and the judgement from peers. Women are still expected to only want a family and to take care of a home. If a man says he wants to focus on his career, he is rewarded with praise and advancement. If a woman says she wants to focus on her career, some women judge her choice and question the person’s womanhood or motherhood.

I think the women judging women is a hard thing that men don’t face as much. Men don’t judge each other as much on their focus to their career. They may judge their titles and salaries, but men don’t question other men’s parenting skills if they are committed to their job. Women do. It is impossible to make all these decisions that please everyone as a woman because there are so many ways of being successful and where people put their priorities.

Let’s now shift our discussion to a slightly different direction. This is a question that nearly everyone with a job has to contend with. Was it difficult to fit your personal and family life into your business and career? For the benefit of our readers, can you articulate precisely what the struggle was?

Definitely! Early in my career I was working at non-profits at my partner was in graduate school so our schedules were always opposite of each other. In the non-profits, it was expected to work late and basically give all of your time to the agency. This would leave me to get home at 8–10pm some nights and still have to eat, take a shower, maybe clean up, and try to have a personal life.

When I started to notice this imbalance, I started to set boundaries. I would limit my evening hours and try to prioritize my personal needs. This got pushback from my bosses because in their eyes, I should be available to meet with clients and best serve the community by working late.

Even now as a private practice therapist, I still fall into old traps of needing to work late and check emails all the time because I want to be of service to clients, but I know for my balance, I need those evenings to give to myself and my loved ones.

What was a tipping point that helped you achieve a greater balance or greater equilibrium between your work life and personal life? What did you do to reach this equilibrium?

When I realized that my work did not care about my needs and that I was a workhorse for them. My friend was getting married in the summer and I gave my job a two month notice to request to use my PTO, I had clients taken care of for that week, and hardly used any vacation days until that point. They refused to accept it because there MIGHT be an audit that day and even though not all staff needed to be there for the audit, they wanted me on standby. I was ready to put my notice in right there, but thankfully the audit stuff worked itself out and I was able to go to the wedding.

I was able to reach this new equilibrium by recognizing that my needs matter. I gave myself permission to be upset and looked inward to see that there were some serious value differences between what I needed for myself and what the workplace needed. It was hard, but I was able to prioritize my needs of being there for my loved ones during those special moments.

I work in the beauty tech industry, so I am very interested to hear your philosophy or perspective about beauty. In your role as a powerful woman and leader, how much of an emphasis do you place on your appearance? Do you see beauty as something that is superficial, or is it something that has inherent value for a leader in a public context? Can you explain what you mean?

I would be lying if I said zero percent. I try not to do a lot because I do believe my worth comes from outside of my appearance, however I am human and in our society looks do matter to an extent. I am a private practice clinician so if I do feel pressure to look put together so I seem professional. Once clients get started with me, they see that I show up to session without makeup, hair barely done, etc. but I do feel the initial pressure in my marketing materials, for sure.

I don’t think beauty is superficial. I think if we hold ourselves to impossible standards and think less about ourselves because we don’t hold up, that is not a fun way to live. For many of us, our style and appearance is a way to express ourselves and to gain confidence so there is value in loving oneself that is not superficial.

How is this similar or different for men?

I think our society has appearance standards for both men and women, however it seems like women have more of their worth tied to their appearance. A man can be smart and successful and people still view him as a good leader and worthy of good relationships. If a woman does not hold the standard of beauty society says, people will critique her and say she probably doesn’t try to look nice or she must not have an attractive partner.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Powerful Woman?” (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. An amazing support system. I am a successful business owner; however I could not have gotten here alone. My friends, peers, supervisors, family, etc. (most of which are powerful women) helped me figure out finances and rules as well as provided endless support and encouragement. There is no weakness in asking for help. You can be high achieving and want support.
  2. Finding hobbies or activities to recharge! I tell most of my clients “You can’t pour from an empty cup”. If you want to keep kicking butt at work, you need to rest or find joy in things outside of work. A work-life balance is crucial for ongoing success.
  3. Self-Compassion. We are going to make mistakes. We are human. Instead of beating ourselves up or feeling guilty, we can notice our feelings, remember we are not alone, and forgive and reassure ourselves.
  4. Determination. Being successful means doing hard things and running into barriers along the way. It is not an easy road so it takes someone who is able to problem solve and keep trying to overcome those barriers.
  5. Authenticity. It is exhausting trying to change yourself to please others. So just be you! People will be able to connect with that a lot easier than if you are putting on some front.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. 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? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Hands down Kristen Bell! She is such a great example of what a powerful woman can look like. She has successful TV shows and movies and yet also places an importance on her marriage, her kids, and her friends. She is also outspoken about using mental health professionals for her individual work and in her relationship. I think there is such power in being vulnerable and asking for help. Plus she is from Michigan so I would love to know the best spots to go for brunch!

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

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Ming S. Zhao
Authority Magazine

Co-founder and CEO of PROVEN Skincare. Ming is an entrepreneur, business strategist, investor and podcast host.