Harvard in Tech
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Harvard in Tech

Harvard in Tech Spotlight: Susan Somersille Johnson, Chief Marketing Officer at Prudential Financial

Susan Somersille Johnson, Chief Marketing Officer at Prudential Financial

I spoke with Susan Somersille Johnson, Chief Marketing Officer at Prudential Financial. Prior to Prudential, Susan served as Chief Marketing Officer of Truist and SunTrust, was Vice President of Global Marketing at NCR Corporation, and Global Head of Customer Marketing at Nokia. Susan studied engineering at Harvard, received her MBA from Wharton, and started her career at Apple.

Susan shared her advice for marketing, leadership, and achieving balance.

Work with leaders who see more in you than you see in yourself. Coming from a technical background, Susan started at Apple in engineering oriented roles. But one of the leaders noticed her interdisciplinary potential and asked if she would be interested in a product manager role. She was initially hesitant but quickly found that she loved all that marketing represented: engineers create and build incredible products but marketers carry the megaphone and have the power to impact people’s decisions and behaviors.

Develop both sides of your brain. Susan highlights the importance of analytical thinking in marketing, especially as marketing has evolved to be more data driven. Successful marketers need to be both left and right brained. As a more technical person, Susan used product management as an intermediate step to develop her marketing oriented creativity after an initial career in engineering.

Encourage healthy debate. As a leader, it is crucial to keep a constant pulse on your team and external stakeholders. No one wants to bring or share bad news, but constructive criticism and problem areas are critical to discuss and resolve. To create a space where people feel comfortable sharing the good and the bad, Susan always explicitly encourages healthy debate.

Give visibility to failures. Failure and the learnings that come with it are crucial to ultimate success, but of course no one likes to fail, so many people tend to stay risk averse and avoid thoughtful experimentation. To encourage healthy risk taking, Susan lets her team know it’s okay to make mistakes as long as you learn from the process. Instead of rewarding people solely for outcomes, she incentives people to optimize for learning.

Optimize for the team, not the individual. As you build your team, optimize for the whole. Instead of gathering a group of high performing people, cultivate an environment that creates a high performing collective entity.

Be humble. At Harvard, Susan learned humility and to be at peace with her strengths and weaknesses, doubling down on the former and improving the latter. She learned to be open minded and learn from everyone around her with the understanding that each person has hidden talents that they can contribute.

Go with the flow. Our tendency is often to control and try to move upstream. Instead, understand and embrace and work with the flow. Distinguish between healthy and unhealthy striving. Perfectionism is a shield that you lug around to protect yourself from criticism (a quote from Brene Brown). Instead of doing things to solicit positive feedback, do things because you genuinely enjoy them, regardless of societal constructs.

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Harvard in Tech is Harvard University’s official alumni organization for technology

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Jess Li

Jess Li

Chief of Staff at Beacons | Harvard alum | https://beacons.ai/jessicali

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