Succeeding and leading in the digital era means having a degree of technology awareness, but just as importantly, a willingness to change and grow beyond one’s original career path. Here at Forbes and other leading publications, we urge aspiring professionals and executives to get comfortable with technology. The reverse is true as well — technology professionals need to consider more business-focused career paths as well. Susan Somersille Johnson, chief marketing officer for Prudential Financial, is an example of a technology professional who is thriving in a business leadership role, and shares her career experiences, describing what it takes to succeed in the digital 2020s.

What kind of training or education do you see as necessary to advance up the corporate ladder, or to even lead one’s own venture? 

Johnson: Don’t sleep on the chance to do something wildly different, even if those opportunities are unexpected. I started my career as an engineer at Apple. If you asked me if I’d ever be a marketer, it didn’t cross my mind.

One day my leader suggested I take the leap. Being open-minded to new developments changed the course of my career. From my background as an engineer, I have strong analytical skills that I use to approach marketing from a very different point of view. I leaned into an opportunity that was outside my comfort zone at first, and that’s been the greatest journey – and it’s far from over. Being successful doesn’t have to be dictated by the number of degrees or the type of training you have, but rather a constant willingness to rise to the next challenge. 

What are the best qualities today’s leaders should have?

Johnson: To be a great leader, you need a strong foundation that starts with knowing your purpose and a desire to translate that purpose into your work. Set ambitious goals – so everyone is moving forward. With smart, inclusive teamwork, everyone around us gets better. Learning how to inspire others supports not only the growth of your business, but also the growth of your colleagues. 

What qualities are required in the 2020s that were not as essential in previous decades? 

Johnson: Digital agility is an incredible business superpower. All of us have to be mini data scientists. By combining creativity with data, you don’t have to guess—you can measure, and target customer behavior changes with predictive analytics. Doing this takes discipline and relentless focus on the customer experience.

What worked one month ago may not work today. Knowing how to positively use technology to engage target audiences and drive business is critical as more consumers, particularly Gen Z and Millennials, demand brands be purposeful and connected forces in their lives. 

What qualities are tried-and-true timeless, regardless of decade? 

Johnson: Successful leaders aren’t afraid to change. Creativity and curiosity are tried-and-true timeless skills that serve leaders well, no matter what industry. But it also takes a certain level of intuition to connect the dots and anticipate trends in order to drive real change.

The pandemic taught us that innovation and resilience are driving factors in almost all aspects of companies that win and do the most good – especially during challenging times. Find inspiration tied to current social and economic experiences, and harness that energy into purpose-driven solutions. Having that people-centric lens, and entrepreneurial spirit at heart, will allow you to continue to grow and succeed. 

Also, humility is high on my list. No matter which meeting I walk into, I stay open to new ideas and ways of thinking, which you can only do if you are humble enough to know there’s still so much more to learn. This awareness goes hand-in-hand with true inclusion. Be authentically willing to show up for yourself and others – and it’ll multiply the value you bring to any project.

Please provide advice for women and minorities seeking leadership opportunities in today’s enterprise.

Johnson: Own your voice early in your career and sell your successes. Share the ways you’re winning and contributing—and take care to credit others along the way. If you set the right tone for yourself, other prominent voices in the company will take notice and listen – that’s good news for you and creates an important dialogue for leaders to better understand what’s working well in their organizations. 

For many women, particularly women of color, it’s hard to do. I didn’t always feel comfortable talking about my experiences as a Black woman at work. But the events of the past year and half have inspired me. I’m louder and bolder, because I want to set an example and inspire others to do the same. Know that you’ve got this, and you’ve also got to back it up with action.



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