Lori Johnston, SVP of HR at Celanese, explains that propagating massive challenges for the department can forge company solidarity.
Lori Johnston, Senior Vice President (SVP) of Human Resources (HR) at Celanese, had a strong background in legal, finance and product development before moving into HR. Celanese is a global technology and specialty materials company with 7,500 employees in 17 countries. Prior to joining the group, Johnston worked for more than a decade with the global biotechnology company Amgen, serving as Vice President of International HR and leader of the company’s global talent function.
She also spent 10-plus years with Dell in the midst of the company’s high-growth years, during which time she developed a plethora of skills and an appreciation for the way a company functioned. “It also taught me how to approach business, how to approach projects and how to approach a partnership with the general manager,” she explained. “It allowed me to focus in on how to drive value for a business.”
Integration Through Mentorship
Through her work in multiple areas of business, Johnston had developed a keen professional mindset. Transitioning to HR meant a different department with a different set of objectives. She was able to tackle HR from a unique perspective.
“What I found in my early days is that sometimes HR perspectives would get a bit lost in the craft and in the profession,” Johnston said. “And having been a leader and a manager myself, I would try to simplify things and ensure what we were bringing to the table really did add value. You could cut the fluff out.”
Still, HR was a notable shift in position for her. She credits her swift acclimation to good mentorship. “I needed a lot of mentorship when I first started out in HR,” Johnston admitted. She was not afraid about asking for help or for direction. “My peers were really great about showing me the way,” she added. “I became very, very good at asking questions. I was not shy at all.”
Johnston also surrounded herself with experts, such as those in the fields of compensation and benefits, staff relations, learning and development, and metrics and analysis. “People like that were instrumental in helping me be able to put the pieces together and understand what I needed to do in order to be successful.”
Challenges Create Cohesiveness
When Johnston arrived at Celanese, she found that, as in many companies, the HR Department was lacking solidarity. “The pieces of HR tended to operate in silos,” she said. Business executives outside of the department often don’t “see the lines of HR,” differentiate amongst sub-departments or focus on compartmentalizing. Rather, they simply want to “solve the human capital needs of the organization,” Johnston noted.
As such, Johnston set out to create the cohesiveness the company needed in order to meet its objectives. “I found I really needed to become an expert at erasing all those lines and working across the white space.”
Fortunately, she brought her problem-solving abilities to the table. She shared the key to fostering cohesiveness in the organization: challenge.
“The only way I’ve found to do it is to take a big, major project, and kind of force it to happen,” Johnston said. “It doesn’t happen by just speaking about it. It doesn’t happen by just talking about it. The only way to do it is to rally around real work.”
To illustrate the power of using a challenge to create intra-department cohesiveness, Johnston pointed to Celanese’s shift from a defined benefit to defined contribution pension plan. Given the company’s large retiree base, the project was a huge undertaking that required substantial skill, effort and care. All sub-departments were forced to come together to make it happen, irrespective of their label or job description. And it worked. The lines blurred, and the project was handled successfully.
“You can take that and really break down the walls or silos of HR, and you can really push through it,” Johnston said.
Dolphin Approach to Leadership
Johnston uses the unique analogy of dolphins to describe her management style. She attempts to manage the altitudes of leadership much like a dolphin gracefully navigates her domain. Rather than staying at the surface or being a bottom feeder, Johnston believes that seamlessly diving between the strategic and the tactical is essential to leadership excellence. The challenge, she explained, is developing the intuition and knowledge that it takes to scan the environment and be able to ascertain when it’s time to stay at the surface and when it’s time to dive deep.
“Dolphins do this in order to survive. [As leaders,] we do as well,” Johnston said. “In order to be an effective leader, we have to do both and navigate both of those elevations.”
Johnston takes a noble approach to her work in HR. She views it as an opportunity to create true sustainability, a task akin to microfinancing. She is an avid proponent of microfinancing, and subscribes to its principle of helping others create sustainability. She takes this approach in her work life as well.
“I think of [my work] like microfinancing,” Johnston said. Just as microloans help recipients create a sustainable future, she hopes that by empowering others, she will have a greater impact on the company.
“What motivates me about the role that I play is in everything I am doing, I’m trying to create sustainability for the future. I’m trying to create in people, organizations and leaders the sustainability to be more powerful, to impact others or to drive value in the company beyond where we are today.” ♦
A Daily Dose of Failure
Johnston doesn’t eschew failure. In fact, she said she has “a little bit of failure every day.” Failures simply provide insight into areas in need of improvement. She has learned there to be three culprits that lay at the root of most of her mistakes:
- Not listening to her gut instinct.
- Not doing her homework and/or seeking feedback.
- Not communicating well with others.
Given that failure is a natural part of progression, Johnston has decided to learn from mistakes and quickly move on. She allows herself and others to make mistakes, assess the situation and glean whatever lesson lies within the failure to move ahead.
Professional profiles, photojournalism, and legal writing are Sunny's specialties; her personal, creative, edgy approach makes her stand apart in the industry. Her clientele has included over three dozen law firms around the country; international businesses such as LiveStrong and Howcast; American favorites like Family Fun and Natural News; and regional publications such as Rutherford Woman and Conch Color.
As a mom of six, fitness enthusiast, and self-employed business woman, she stays busy in her island home with her middle school sweetheart and husband Michael, and makes time to travel regularly. If she's not jogging on down the islands, shooting an event, or writing up a storm, you can find her at Sunfire Creatives or on Facebook.
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