Taking a Leap

Susan Johnson, SunTrust’s CMO, initially stumbled into the field—and is now a respected and innovative corporate marketing guru

By Sheryl Nance-Nash

Sometimes you don’t have to look beyond your own backyard for inspiration. That was certainly the case for Susan Johnson. Her mother, who emigrated from Jamaica to New York, worked full-time and went to college while raising Johnson. Her mother was the first African American woman to graduate from Fordham Law School. In their household, education was everything.

“I was inspired by my mother,” Johnson says. “She was such an example. She set the bar high.”

It’s not surprising, then, that she would get her bachelor of science degree from Harvard University and her MBA from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. A self-professed math geek since high school, Johnson thought engineering would be her path, as her father was a mechanical engineer. But her first job out of college, at Westinghouse, would be a path changer. She sat beside a man who had been working on the same circuit for 15 years. She knew she couldn’t do one thing for that long. So Johnson went to business school, even though she didn’t know what she would do. She figured it would give her options. It did.

She would hold a series of jobs of increasing responsibility at Fujitsu, Apple, Nuance Communications, Nokia, and NCR. Over the course of her career, Johnson has built a reputation for repositioning iconic brands, streaming go-to-market approaches, and capturing new revenue opportunities with customer engagement and data analytics. Since 2014, she has served as chief marketing officer at SunTrust Banks.

Diversity Woman: You got your MBA not knowing how you would use it. How did you get into marketing?
Susan Johnson: I was happy in the world of math, but a manager saw something in me that I didn’t know I had. He said I should consider marketing. I had never had a marketing class. It was risky, and daunting, to move from engineering to marketing. But I tried it and liked it, and the rest is history.

DW: What was your strategy for advancing to become CMO of SunTrust?
SJ: I have always tried to continuously take on more responsibility. I’m a planner, looking for growth opportunities. You may not be able to predict what your role will be in five years, but if you grow skills in the areas that interest you, you’ll get the skills you need for the job that suits you. Now I’m looking to get deeper into marketing analytics and digital marketing.

DW: You manage all the marketing for SunTrust Banks. What excites you most about what you do?
SJ: Every day is different. We are a purpose-driven organization. It’s exciting to see the results of the onUp program. Five years ago, we started this program, which aims to move people from financial stress to confidence. We are helping people become financially competent through workshops, seminars, and tools on our website. Some 3.5 million people are participating in the movement. We have to change the stat that 76 percent of Americans live paycheck to paycheck. If there’s anything keeping me up at night, it is wondering how we can improve those numbers faster.

DW: What has helped you the most in your career?
SJ: The biggest turn in my career came from someone seeing something in me that I didn’t see in myself. Surround yourself with people who have faith in you.

DW: What have been some of the challenges throughout your career?
SJ: Unconscious bias exists. Some people don’t even get that they are biased. When I worked for Nokia in Helsinki, often I was on a team where I was not only the only black, but the only woman and the only American. There were people from New Delhi, all over. I led the global customer marketing organization across 130 countries and was able to identify and capture new market opportunities by creating local teams in India, the UK, France, Germany, South Africa, and elsewhere, to partner with telecom partners, optimize joint resources, and drive consumer demand of Nokia solutions. Over time, you share experiences and learn you have a lot in common.

DW: What is one of the biggest challenges currently facing women in the workplace?
SJ: It’s more difficult to build relationship capital when you are the first, the only. It takes time to build relationships. Do what you can to reach out to people who are different from you. Relationships are key. When your confidence waivers—and it will—you’ll have someone there.

DW: When it comes to navigating the corporate world, what wisdom can you share with other women?
SJ: Go for roles that interest and excite you. Apply for roles where you can learn and contribute. Do stretch yourself. Women tend not to pursue a role if they don’t have 100 percent of the qualifications, but a man will go after a position if he only has 50 percent of the qualifications. Build your relationship capital. Every relationship is different. Have as many as possible, at all levels, inside and outside your company. Build relationships with people you admire.

DW: How does SunTrust help women advance?
SJ: We have many initiatives that nurture, develop, recruit, promote, and retain women, primarily through our women’s network, which is throughout all our US offices. There are special events and workshops. Diversity in hiring is viewed as essential, and our leaders, both men and women, are astute in mentoring.

DW: What is one of your career accomplishments that makes you most proud?
SJ: The Big Give, a volunteer program we had at NCR. We got more than 130 countries involved in volunteering. Some 830 volunteer activities were performed in one year. The program continues today.

DW: What advice do you give to aspiring leaders?
SJ: The business environment of today is driven by change and disruption. Effective leaders must be collaborative—tap into the cumulative wisdom of their team to create the vision, then empower and inspire them to lead. It fosters an inclusive environment, sparks creativity, and accelerates problem solving.

DW: You have tremendous responsibility. What keeps you grounded, and what’s your strategy for managing stress?
SJ: I’m strict about three things. Exercise—movement is a must, even if it’s just walking the dog. I am into martial arts. I have a black belt in karate and am a karate instructor. I also do yoga, swim, and play tennis. Time with family and friends and making time to learn are two things that are also not optional. I have a seven-day-a-week job. Even if I can only do a half hour, I make sure to consistently do these three things, even if I have to force the time. DW

Sheryl Nance-Nash is a freelance writer specializing in personal finance, small business, and travel and lifestyle topics.

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