Leadership is as much of a personal journey as it is a professional. Just as the world continues to evolve, leaders need to be change agents who, along with their evolution of growth into who they are, can move people along. In this episode, Alicia Couri is joined by Ed Johnson, the CEO and founder of Johnson Global Ventures, to talk about leadership and how one can come into that situation and role to lead and encourage people who are in a low economic state. Ed discusses the importance of confidence, sustainability, humility, and adaptability. Follow Ed in this conversation to gain so much wisdom that will propel you to become a change agent and better leader.
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The Change Agent With Ed Johnson
I have Ed Johnson. I’m thrilled that he took the time to join us. We are taking the time to share this with you because this is good stuff. Ed Johnson is the CEO and Founder of Johnson Global Ventures, real estate, sustainable materials, healthcare ventures, and global economics. That is a mouthful because I do a lot of things, but I can’t wrap my brain around those big things that you’re doing. Tell us a little bit more, Ed.
I appreciate you having me on, Alicia. It’s wonderful. Everything that I’m involved in probably was an evolution. I didn’t seek out to say, “I’m going to be involved in sustainability. I’m going to be involved in real estate. I’ll be involved in all these things.” Some of those things were intentional. The foundation for which my life has been built on a professional basis has been 2 or 3 pillars. One of those pillars is communications. It took me many years, maybe until I was in my 40s that I realized that one of the gifts that I had was communications. Other people realized that before I did.
The 40s and 50s are great. There are many wonderful things about yourself that you were too afraid to acknowledge when you were younger.
No doubt. We get to know ourselves at that point, which is interesting. When I look back at my life from high school into college, I realized that I had the gift to write and the gift to speak. I eventually did host two radio programs on business and leadership and things like that, which your gifts seem to follow you in life. I followed my gifts, which I discovered later on. I get involved in Johnson Global Ventures in college. I’ll never forget, I was a senior in college at Florida State. I was getting my first business degree and a friend of mine was getting her master’s in accounting. She looked at me and I looked at her and said, “What are you going to do when you graduate?” She said she wanted to be a CPA in a small firm. She’s done that for a couple of decades. She said, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I have the bug to do international business.” When you’re 22 years old, you have no idea what’s ahead of you in life. You think you know, but you don’t know.
I would say to everyone out there, success in life and leadership is sometimes an evolution of growth in who you are as a person, the things that you go through, and the people that you learn from. I’m grateful to God for my parents, and also having people in my life from teachers to bosses and mentors, friends that weren’t even bosses that took me under their wings in the business world and taught me about business. It’s the stuff you don’t learn in the textbooks. It boils down to how to treat people. It boils down to how to anticipate, how to project, to understand the metrics of business, as well as the metrics of people. That balance is always important. If we think of leadership, we think of leaders, we think of politics. If we think of business, we think of the richest people in the world. We don’t always think of the person leading a Girl Scout troop. We don’t think of the person that’s leading an HOA. We don’t look at the person that has given up their time to make things better. For me, I feel grateful that I’ve had some good teachers to model the way for me.
Teachers and mentors are huge.
I found out who I am. The reason I brought up the whole thing about international is that I coined Johnson Global Ventures within the last couple of years because at the advice of a few of my friends, my CPA, and things like that. I was doing a lot of international travel. A lot of my work back then and now, almost seven days a week, I’m on WeChat and WhatsApp with people around the world doing business. It’s who I am. It’s what I do. How does sustainability fit in? Years ago, when I live in Chicago, I was introduced to renewable energy. Technology has always fascinated me. I started learning about solar and wind technologies back in the early days before we even had the term sustainability.
We’re talking about renewable energy and things like that, but I don’t think we had a term that we coined sustainability when it came down to renewable materials or energy. I learned as much as I could from people that knew more than I did about solar energy and wind. I had a friend that was a mentor for me and that was an executive with Florida Power & Light. He and I talked a lot about energy. They weren’t quite ready to bring in solar energy because there were a lot of question marks. From there, I learned a lot about wind energy. I started doing some consulting with a company out of California that was manufacturing vertical wind turbines, which I thought was fascinating versus the big bladed wind turbines that we see on commercials. Those blades are huge if you have ever seen one up front and in person. Unfortunately, they’re noisy and they kill birds.
There was a designer that came up with a vertical wind turbine that twirls upward vertically. It’s quiet. It doesn’t kill the birds. There are some advantages to that. I got fascinated by that. I got the bug for, “What else could we do that’s renewable? What else could we do that sustainable that works? Can we have a biodegradable bottles or plates?” All these different things. I was fascinated with this. I started learning from other people and doing research online, calling people, getting them to teach me things about sustainable technologies. I got headhunted to be the CEO of an operation in the Mississippi Delta during 2008, 2009 during the crash. It was rough. The job was running economic development in the Mississippi Delta, which was the poorest part or the poorest state in the nation.
Was that the one that has the oil leak too?
You’re correct. One of the companies that were in the Delta at the time created a sustainable product that would eat up the oil spills. At that time, I was headhunted to run that operation. When you have the poorest state in the nation and then you go to the Delta, which is the poorest part of the poorest state, it was something.When you're 22 years old, you have no idea what's ahead of you in life. You think you know, but you don't know. Click To Tweet
You’re hired as the CEO, because this is about leadership and confidence. Coming into that situation, how do you then understand what your role is and be confident in what you’re doing and lead people that are depressed? I don’t mean mentally. I mean they’re in a low economic state. To encourage them, where do you find that and how do you go about leading them?
That was probably if not the most important issue or at least the second most important issue before I got there or during the time I got there and still now. I remember the interview that I had with the executive board. In the interview was the mayor of the major city. I had five mayors on my board. This lady was a lawyer. She was the mayor of the town. Her father was a lawyer. He was in the room along with all the power brokers in the area. I looked at her and I said, “The people need hope, don’t they?” She said, “That’s exactly what we need. We need hope.”
I knew that we could get there. The issue was, when you’re in that state, you can’t see yourself out of that situation. You do need a change agent to come in. In the newspaper, they did a bunch of articles. I was on TV a lot. I had my radio programs before. They were calling me the Black Moses. I said, “I can’t believe they’re doing this.” They said, “Here’s this guy coming down from Chicago to lead the people.” We laugh about it.
In America, there are some people that I didn’t work with and I would call them friends. They wrote a book on leadership. What they say in the first chapter is, “At America, we worship at the altar of data. It’s all about data and metrics. It runs business. We need to know what the metrics are. We talk about Wall Street.” I look at the numbers on Wall Street. I looked at the unemployment numbers, it dropped. We got some great unemployment numbers. I look at numbers every day. What drives Wall Street? Sentiment. Sentiment drives metrics. What you find is that your metrics can be great. We can have the greatest economy in the world. If the University of Michigan Sentiment Index think it’s not good, those numbers drop.
When you see fear, you see the market plunge. There’s uncertainty in fear, no confidence in the market.
People start to invest in commodities and currencies that they think are the safest currencies. That’s a big deal. I realized, when I got down there, “How do you go in where the average reading level of adults in that area was a level one?” To explain to our readers what that means, a five-year-old has to know a certain number of words. That’s between 500 to 1,000 words. That’s reading at level one. The average eighteen-year-old in that era read at a level one. They couldn’t read the instructions in the ballot box. They could not operate cash registers. We had a national brand retailer coming to town and the guy called me up because his candidates couldn’t read. When he came into town from headquarters, the manager that managed the store, he called me up in distress. He said, “My manager can’t read.”
How do you lead people that are not at the level of education that you need them to be in order to function in the job? What is your leadership philosophy?
It’s similar to Kouzes and Posner’s book, The Leadership Challenge. They have five principles of what they think. They’re my favorite authors. I happen to use the book as my textbook when I taught leadership graduate class. Also, John Maxwell’s book, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader. Those are probably two of my favorite books on leadership because it’s close to my personal philosophy. The first thing is inspire a shared vision. You have to inspire. It’s not just my board members that I had. There were ultra-wealthy individuals. They’re successful in their businesses as lawyers or business owners. It’s also the populace. The people that read at a level one. The people that were lawyers. The people that were doctors in the community. The CEO of the hospital was on my board. I had to inspire a shared vision.
You were like NASA, like the president.
You have to say, “Where are we trying to go as a community?” All they wanted was prosperity. All they wanted was to get out of the financial funk they were in. You and I live in metropolitan areas where the roads are paved. I went there and when my family came there, they were in shock. The roads were not paved. They didn’t have the money to pave roads. Because of the position I had, I had to interview people that when we brought in a new principal for the big high school, the director of education asked me to be on the interview team. We interviewed these principals. At the same time, I met the local French teacher that was from Africa.
One day, I was there and they asked him if he liked being in the Mississippi Delta. He said, “I like it a lot.” I went, “Why do you like it?” He said, “It reminds me of being back home in Africa.” I was stunned. I had never been to Africa at that point. I have since then. In that job, I went there. When I got to Africa, I saw the similarities and I thought, “This is sad.” How can we talk about being the most prosperous nation in the world and then have areas like this in 2020 that have roads that look like a third world? The people that are living there, how do you think they feel? They feel depressed. It’s a never-ending cycle. You have to say, “As a region, where do we want to go?” We talked about the destination point. I like to back end from there.
I talk about, “How do we get there?” To me, I’m like the race without a finish line, which was the old total quality management philosophy in my first class and my MBA class. It was teach you in and how it all started. You’re always pursuing perfection. We know we’ll never get there but you never stop pursuing it. I said, “Let’s talk about where we want to go and stop looking at where you currently are, and look at where you want to go.” That was like a lightbulb to them.
It’s like a career path too. When you start a job and you’re there and you have no path for growth or where you want to go with your career. You do it day after day. You’re there and you end up feeling like you’re stuck in this rut because you didn’t have a vision for where you could be. You didn’t set that path for yourself. You had to go in there and set a path for them to move forward to feel like, “We can do that? Can we get there?”
That is a great point. You mentioned vision because there is a lot of truth to without a vision, the people perish. Another way of saying that the people perish are also the people are unrestrained. That’s how it was translated in that area. It’s not only the Mississippi Delta, but I found out that there are eleven deltas. There’s Louisiana Delta and Illinois Delta. I went to a meeting of all those deltas and that’s a topic for a different discussion. The issue was unrestrained meant that they had the worst unemployment numbers in the nation. They had the lowest education numbers in the nation. They had the highest STD rate in the nation. When you have all of those things combined, then it’s bad.
The quality of life is low.
Also, the highest violent crime rate in the nation. That’s a combination for a bad storm. You have the haves and the have-nots. I had to bridge that gap. That’s why I was called in, to be able to bridge that gap. The head hunter remembered me from much earlier in my career and he said, “You’re perfect for this position.” I was living in Chicago and I got these big consulting contracts and I thought, “I don’t know anyone in Mississippi. Why would I want to go there?” He said, “They’ve raised a lot of money to fix their problem. They knew they were in so much pain.” The beginning of getting better is acknowledging that we have a problem.
They said to me in the interview, “We brought the Republicans and the Democrats sitting at this table right now in front of you, Ed.” I had the civil rights lawyer that went to the Mississippi Delta in the ‘70s and ‘80s and started suing cities around the Delta for racism. He was still alive. We had him. We had the most conservative people at that table. They were all together and they said, “We have to put down the plot share so to speak. We know we have a problem. We need to turn this thing around.”
It’s awareness. That’s the first step. You have to be aware and acknowledge that there is a problem.
That got me excited. If I didn’t have a family, it would have been an easy decision. My kids were in the formative years at the time. It was a big move for me to decide to leave. I’m a big city guy, Miami and Chicago. I love big cities. I love fast-moving cities. Chicago is a little too slow for me. I don’t want to offend any Chicago people. I love my twelve years there. I love going back there. My best friend lives there. The Midwest is different than Miami or New York. It’s a different type of city. You appreciate what you have in those cities. For me, when I say a little slow, it doesn’t mean it’s inferior. It’s just that my pace. I have a fast pace. For me to go there was a big move. When I see the leadership had decided, “We’ve got to do what we need to do to get better,” that’s a team I could work with. It’s a long way to say how I got to sustainability.
That’s okay. This is what the show is about. It’s about unpacking some things to get people to understand how you got where you are. For you, what did it take to build this global company? It takes difficult decisions. It takes looking at situations and trying to figure out, “They think I’m the man for the job. Am I the man for the job? Yes, I am.” That step of confidence. You did not back down from that. You did not think, “This is too much for me.” You were excited at the opportunity.
You hit some key touchpoints and I can tell you that it all links into sustainability. When the change agent comes in, this happens everywhere. It doesn’t matter if it’s Miami, Chicago, New York, Paris or France. They bring the person in and later on, they try to be what that person was hired to do. In my role, I had to have enough confidence to say, “Let me do my job without saying, ‘Let me do my job.’” That’s important because all of us want to change. All of us want to be better at who you are and what we do. It’s the changing that’s the hard part. Sometimes, we need a spouse, friend, boss or neighbor to point out on a blind spot. Even though sometimes they do it in love, we know that they’re not trying to harm us, it still hurts because they touch the scab or sore. We realize, if they hadn’t done that, we would never have awakened to find out, “You’re right about that.”The first thing about leadership is to inspire a shared vision. Click To Tweet
We talk about an area like the Mississippi Delta. It’s known for farming cotton, soybeans, rice, corn. Those are the four major agricultural crops and some of the largest crops in the nation to feed the world. I was flying a lot. I was going not only out of the state, but I was also going out of the country and trying to bring investment into Mississippi Delta. I said, “The Mississippi Delta is on sale. You can get us at a reduced price. This is a great time for you to invest.” While I was on an American Airlines flight, in American Way magazine, there was an article on bamboo being the green gold. All those years of studying renewable technology and sustainable technologies in Chicago, I got excited. I’m reading this article and they featured three companies that were either manufacturing bamboo products or growing bamboo plantlets. I said, “Why don’t we do this in Mississippi? The economy is down and we got millions of acres of farmland, why don’t we use this?”
I had no idea what firestorm I was about to start. I thought, “This could help. We could do agritech. We can do technology transfer.” Lo and behold, where I was living, a few miles away was a world-class USDA research agricultural center with 100 PhDs from around the world. It’s within my own area. We have this technology center already here. We got all this farmland. I reached out to all three of the companies in that article. The one that got back to me was the company in northwest Washington that was growing the bamboo. I called the owner and she was excited. She said, “I cannot believe you called me. Ed, do you know there are two places in the world that the researchers found that are optimal to grow and bamboo as a crop? In southern China and the Mississippi Delta.”
The climate, the texture, the soil, everything probably is the same as in China because they use the rice paddies. As you were talking about bamboo, I’m like, “Bamboo probably would go well down there.”
She said exactly what you said.
I’m not a PhD. That’s exciting.
Before I went out to visit her and before she came to visit me, I talked to some of my board members about it. You could only imagine the responses. Here it is, I had the largest road crop farmer in the nation on my board. Some of the people wanted to know if I was crazy. I said, “Let’s talk about this. You can’t sell your crops. They’re rotting.” They couldn’t sell their crops. The government would write them a check.
They were in a comfort zone.
They were in a comfort zone to the extent where they knew how much per dollar they were going to get per acre for their soybeans, rice, corn or whatever if it didn’t sell. What’s interesting about this is I asked them to take a leap of faith with me. My vice chairman said, “I know a guy. He owns a lot of farmland in the area. When he’s in town, let’s set up a meeting.” He set a meeting up and we went to dinner. This man owned 20,000 acres of rice. He owned a lot of farmland. He got excited about it because he was an innovator.
That’s the one you got to find. The one who’s not afraid to take a risk. We call them kickstarters.
We all flew out to Washington and took a tour of this facility. I met the lady that I’ve met in the articles and she got all excited. I planned a North American bamboo supply chain summit. I pulled people that were from around North America and Central America that made bamboo apparel. They made bamboo flooring and all these bamboo products. I got the researchers. We did it at the research center. I got professors from Mississippi State and all over. I brought the supply chain together. I got the farmers there. I got law firms there. One of my assistants put this up on the internet. All of a sudden, there’s this guy and we did this two-day summit. The farmer was saying, “If we grow it, who’s going to buy it?”
They’re in fear. You’re asking them to change what they’re been doing for centuries. You’re asking them to do something different. They’re in fear of that. On the other hand, you have people that are ready to innovate and say, “We need this.” That’s brilliant. You brought them together.
The people that you mentioned that made the products, some of them were buying from China and reselling but some were making. They said, “Where are we going to get the bamboo?” I said, “I’m going to bring you guys together.” We have the researchers, which are also important. I also was heavily involved in bamboo fuels and bamboo oil. The bamboo energy sector is a big deal. I brought all those people together and we did the summit. I learned a lot about bamboo. It makes over 10,000 products.
It’s like a peanut.
It’s like George Washington Carver with the peanuts.
You’re the new George Washington Carver of bamboo.
I’ve been called a lot of things with bamboo. What’s funny is in one of my trips to Europe, I was in Belgium which is known to being a research bellwether for bamboo. There is this world-renowned bamboo research center. This is comical. I’m sitting down with this guy. This guy has probably got eight PhDs or something. I’m talking to him and he said, “There is some guy in North America in this bamboo summit.” I said, “That was me.” He said, “What?” He mentioned the agriculture. He said, “I don’t know the town you’re in, but we know about this research.” I said, “It’s in the town that I’m in.”
We go back to the hope part. When I got back and I did some interviews, I said, “You people don’t know how famous you already are.” They’re like, “What are you talking about?” I said, “I was in Belgium and they know about you.” All of a sudden, their confidence starts to rise a little bit. This is what I told the board and I would tell people in all the interviews and when news reporters want to know, “How are you going to make a difference?” I said, “We’re not going to attempt to be Atlanta overnight. What we’re going to try to do is get one victory. We get one victory and then we leverage that and we talk about it. People want to know how did you do it, and we go from there. That’s how you grow it.”
I did have a board member and he came to me one day. He was well-educated and he’s a lawyer. He said, “We want to be Atlanta. Years ago, we used to be the textile capital of North America.” I’m like, “That was years ago.” He said, “We want to be Atlanta.” I said, “Why don’t we try to be Jackson first? If we can get to be Jackson, then we can talk about being in Atlanta.” I said, “I like the appetite. I like your vision. I like your drive. I like that you’re setting goals.” Leadership has got to be able to guide and give reasonable, attainable goals, and talk about those things and how to achieve those things.
What you’re saying is interesting because individuals try to do that to themselves too. You’re talking about a city or a community that wants to be something else other than what they are without even understanding or recognizing the strengths and their own uniqueness. Let’s be who we are. Let’s elevate that instead of trying to be someone else. Atlanta is already Atlanta. Let’s be the best Jackson that we could be. I see that in people all the time where they’re trying to be somebody else because they don’t like who they are. Let’s elevate who you are and be the best you can be.
That’s insightful because cities and regions and companies are led by people. When people say, “It’s our procedure. It’s our process. You’re on hold with the bank.” I said, “Who wrote the procedures? Are we living for the procedures or are the procedures written for our good?” You’re right. If the leadership of a community or the leadership of an organization is a certain way, that’s how the company is going to go and that’s how the area is going to go.
How they are, that’s how the rest flows.
Sometimes sports are such a big analogy in our nation. I have to think about this. Sometimes we see a coach that comes into any ballclub. I’ve done a lot of coaching from five-year-olds to semi-pro basketball. I’ve coached all of it. Sometimes you see a coach come in, they turn a team around. The team goes from worst to first in one year. All they did was choose a coach. They don’t change the players. They change the coach.Without a vision, the people perish. Click To Tweet
They change the leadership.
Why? Because that person has inspired a shared vision and they get buy-in from the players and the organization and the people. Everyone gets behind the coach or coaching staff. It doesn’t matter if it’s male or female. Look at the lady that led the Tennessee basketball program. All these different programs could go on and on. I say it’s a shame, but sometimes sports give us that awakening. I remember when Jeff Bezos was selling used books. My kids have no idea. I have to remind them, I said, “I was alive when Amazon started. He’s selling used books.”
He had a vision for where he wanted to go and kept expanding that vision. He kept expanding that vision as he grew. That’s the model. We can’t just sit back and say, “I’ve arrived. Look at this.” Warren Buffett was like, “I’m going to do this until I die.” He’s not looking to retire. He’s like, “There’s more to do. Let’s keep growing and doing.” That’s wonderful. It takes confidence. It does take a knowing of yourself and where you want to go and where you want to be. You have to be a little audacious and bold and step into that instead of pulling back away from it.
The audaciousness of leadership and confidence is important. I think about all the coaching that I’ve done. I think about the coaches that I’ve had as an athlete. What coach wants to put a kid or a player in the game if they don’t have confidence?
“I need you to shoot the basket.”
If you know that kid doesn’t have the confidence, you’re not going to put him in the game. With leadership, confidence is not arrogance. Confidence is, “I can do this.” Why? Because I practiced it. I’ve listened. I’ve watched. I’ve learned from my mistakes. I know what works and what doesn’t work. That’s how we are in business. If you’ve led an organization, you’ve honed your expertise and you say, “This is where I think it can work.” For me to be that change agent to come in there and have the audaciousness to go in, it’s almost like a drop zone. I was dropped down into the Delta and it’s a war zone. It’s like, “God, I don’t want anything more difficult because that was not easy.” I realized that it was going to take a lot of out of the box thinking to be able to move the needle in that area. The person in that position before we had been there sat there for 32 years. They said that he wasn’t going to change anything and he was happy. I liked the guy. We got along great. He stayed in the town when I got there. He had it on remote control.
Which is like the farmers too. They were just in their own coma of complacency. We know it sucks, but this is what we got.
They realized they needed someone to take it up a bit. When I went overseas, they were like, “What?” I said, “You have to understand, we have to go where the money is.” In 2008 and 2009, foreign investment into the US for businesses was at an all-time high. It’s probably the highest it had ever been or the highest in 34 years. This is probably the highest ever at that point. I said, “We have to take advantage of that.” There were Europeans and Asians and people all over the world that were looking to invest.
The bubble burst and there was a lot of opportunity.
That’s why I traveled a lot at that time. I thought back to what I wanted to do as a senior in college and I thought, “I cannot believe I’m doing exactly what I thought I was going to do.”
What was your biggest mistake as a leader or something that you wondered, “How did I do this? How do I recover from this?” Do you have any of those moments?
Unfortunately, probably more than I’d like to admit. I’m probably moving a little too fast at times.
You see the vision and you’re going after it. Sometimes people can’t catch up as fast as you’re moving.
I’ll be honest with you. When I started Bambootility, I started other businesses. I had a lawyer tell me I was ten years ahead of my time. He said, “You’re ten years ahead.”
Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk probably dealt with that. Anybody who is a visionary and a leader like that, people look at them and say, “You’re crazy.”
The reason that visionaries move fast, and I know you understand this, is that we see what it can be and we understand how to get there. We have to realize that this team that is around us, everyone is not going to see the same. You might have a small minority, one person, if you’re fortunate, that might catch a glimpse of it.
Moses, he’s a visionary. Let’s go back to Moses, “God told me to do this.”
I can’t say it was the Delta because when I lived in Chicago, it was the same thing. Think about all the great companies that we have and have had in the Midwest. In Minneapolis, you got 3M and Target. We look at Chicago, we think of Quaker Oats and Baxter and all these companies. The Midwest, even they try to be, they’re not like the Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley is risk-taking. Boston, Northeast, New York, Southeast Miami, Atlanta, a lot of risk-taking and that kind of thing. In the Midwest, it’s stable.
You have to understand as a leader where you’re planted and who’s around you. I needed Chicago but I realized I was also a little fast. For them, they were like the show me state, “Let’s see if it works over here first.” They will then build a multibillion-dollar conglomerate around that. In Silicon Valley, they’re going to say, “We’ll throw a $1 billion at it now. We don’t care if it works. We think it’s a great idea. Go for it anyway.”
As far as speed goes, I’ve had to learn over the years who my audience is on my leadership team, investor pool that are close friends, or that I’m pitching sometimes or they come to me. I got a call to help an investor. They called me to find things for them and what they want to do. They’re from Asia, specifically China. They’re trying to get their business going here and they were saying, “We need your insight to do X.” While I have confidence, I’m also afraid because I don’t want to make a mistake for this guy and his company. He and his business partner are trusting me to make the right decision.
It’s the same thing while I was in Mississippi Delta or wherever I was. The people who brought me in were trusting me to make good decisions for the area to help grow the economy. We were fortunate. I brought in 4 or 5 companies in 2 or 3 years, which had never been done before, which is difficult. One of them took rice husks and made silica from the rice husks. We brought them over. I said, “We’ve gone overseas. We’ve gone around the nation. Let’s look regionally within a 200-mile radius of where we’re living, Atlanta to Arkansas. Let’s see what works and we’ll come in closer.” I said, “First, you go broad and then you can narrow in.”
That silica company was from Arkansas, which is right next to Mississippi. We were in the perfect location for them because we had Uncle Ben’s Rice at the time. They changed the name because of what’s happened. At the time, the Mars corporation that owns Uncle Ben’s manufactured every box of that rice in that town where I was. I had the Mars executive on my board as well. Because there’s a lot of rice in the area that was grown because of the Delta, this company that was a silica company wanted to be close to their supply chain to lower their costs so that they could produce silica to send it around the world. They were going to produce renewable energy out of the silica. That was right within what I have been training for.The audaciousness of leadership and confidence is important. Click To Tweet
That’s how sustainability ties into what I do in a big way. I mentioned the Bambootility. I mentioned all the other things when it comes to energy. We still haven’t tapped the renewable energy space. We hear a lot about Tesla. We hear a lot about battery and technology. A lot of people don’t know that there’s still a lot to be desired in that area. I do know confidentially about some other technologies and the battery technology that will surpass anything we’ve ever seen before.
We’ll keep an eye on you, Ed. This is fascinating. I love that you went deep into this story because it shows how bold and audacious leadership looks like. Sometimes it’s not easy. It’s not fun. Especially if you’re turning something around. It is hard work. It requires risk. It requires the buy-in from everybody at every level, even at the lowest level. You also had to raise the education level of people, which we’re not going to go into. We’re not going to talk about it. You have to bring people up to a certain level in order to get them to do what you need them to do. You have three children. I want to ask you, what is your advice to your children about leadership?
I would say to learn as much as you can from people that have been there before you. Understand that humility is the way to growth. We have to be lifelong learners or we’ll never arrive. Don’t ever get to a place where you think that you’re at the top of your game. Even when you’re at the top of your game, you’re never at the top of your game. I would tell them to listen and learn as much as you can and understand that you should never stop learning and you never stop having that hunger to learn.
I remember you have three girls. We did have that conversation before way back. As far as building confidence in who you are and what you do, what are some key elements that you believe someone needs to develop to get that?
Start with successes. There are two books that I love. First, Break All the Rules by Dr. Marcus Buckingham and he follows that book up with Now, Discover Your Strengths. It’s groundbreaking and you may know them as groundbreaking in a sense that he said, “American management is broken and we need to throw out all the rules and start over.” After you read this great book, he goes into Now, Discover Your Strengths. That’s when the Gallup Organization developed the StrengthsFinder. The thesis of the book is, don’t focus on your weaknesses as typical American management. HR is focused on your performance and appraisals. You sit there and they start going over all you, “You didn’t do well here. You’re below.”
When you’re a leader and a manager, that’s a whole another topic. Management versus leadership. Let’s say you’re managing someone or you’re leading a team. He’s saying, “You need to focus on the strengths and not the weaknesses.” I will say this individually. For someone to gain confidence is to not focus on your weaknesses because we all have them. Understand the weaknesses that we have and learn from them. Look at strength, even if it’s one thing, one strength that you’ve got and you take that and count that as a victory and say, “How can I develop that one strength? If I communicate well, how can I communicate even better?”
I promise you, even though I’m a good communicator, I’m sure that I’m leaving a lot of things on the table. I’m sure if someone came in that was a better communicator than me, they would say, “This is where you’re falling short.” I have to be open like that book I read on leadership communications. When I read that book, it was almost like I was a first-grader. After college, I thought I was a good writer and then my boss came in and he saw my letter that I was about to send out. He said, “Give me that letter. Print that off.” He came back five minutes later and he had a red pen.
Every sentence had red in it. I love that you’re saying, “Understand your strengths.” I do Kolbe. We had that conversation too. That’s all strength base. The real interesting thing to it too is that some things that have been attributed as weaknesses to us in society can be a strength, but you have not learned how to appropriate it as a strength. I can give an example of that. With Kolbe, if you are a 2 in follow through, that’s one of the action modes that we talked about, people will think that you’re always disorganized. You don’t know where things are. They’re always telling you to clean up your desk. You’re not organized. That is a weakness that they see.
The way your mind works is that you are adaptable. You look at the shortcuts in a process to get to the same result. Instead of going through every single step, you’re able to circumvent some steps. It’s about using your skill and that innate talent to break the system to see what is working and what isn’t working, but you haven’t learned how to take that. They say, “You’re disorganized. You’re this and you’re that. You’ve bought into that as a weakness.” Instead of saying, “My adaptability is a strength and I can go into any situation and turn things around because I am adaptable or I can fit into any environment and make it work.” It’s not just about learning your strengths but understanding how to use those strengths most effectively.
What’s interesting is that if the COVID pandemic taught us one thing globally, it’s adaptability. Before COVID, there were organizations, policies, procedures and bosses that were rigid. They would never want anyone to work from home because they didn’t trust people. Guess what? You have to trust them now. You have no choice. That’s why Marcus Buckingham wrote the book, First, Break All the Rules. He was a visionary. That was written many years ago. He was way ahead of his time. He said, “We need to break all the rules.” I’d love to see him now and say, “Marcus, you’re 30 years ahead of your time. You are right on.” That’s what we have to do.
Even the CEO of Pfizer was talking about collapsing time. He said, “A vaccine would take us years to develop. We got to do it in months. We don’t have the luxury of waiting all these years to develop a vaccine for this. We have to turn it out in months.” They have to throw out all procedures, all policies and rewrite the book.
That’s interesting because I follow that closely professionally. Before, I was in economic development as a state official, then I left that and got into pharmaceutical sales back in the day with Big Pharma. I did that. I’ve gotten out of pharma 2 or 3 times and thrown back in. A few years ago, I was in China. While I was over there, I met these two Korean guys. I got an email on LinkedIn from one of them and he said, “Mr. Johnson, we met in Wu Han China.” I forgotten that I’ve been in Wu Han at the time. He goes, “We are launching the most accurate COVID-19 test kit in the world and it gets results in twenty minutes.” This was a few months ago.
I was watching the news like all of us and people are taking 2 or 3 weeks to get the results. I didn’t believe him. I’m thinking “First of all, how does that work? The results in twenty minutes. There’s no way that could happen and it’s the most accurate. I used to work for Big Pharma. I don’t believe it.” He said, “Can you help us launch it in North America?” I’m going, “No, I’m good.” He emailed me again a week later and said, “Would you reconsider?” I said, “You’ve got to explain to me how this works. I don’t believe it.” He did. I said, “Let me check.” I talked to a friend of mine that was an infectious disease specialist for our government. He said, “If it’s what he says it is, it’s a game-changer.” He said, “Let me introduce you to a doctor.” She looked at it. She said, “That’s a game-changer.”
I thought, “In my other businesses, my real estate is going great. Why am I doing? Bambootility is going well.” Lo and behold, I have a team around me that’s involved in manufacturing not only in Korea. We’re manufacturing in Boston with USA made. That’s when I launched. We’ve got maybe twelve people in North America and Nepal. Some are selling in Europe. I’m involved in the COVID crisis in a way that I thought I’d never be involved in because I do have a background in healthcare. If you talk about leadership, I would have had no idea. Sometimes when you’re dishing your skills, people will recognize them when you don’t. This guy not only he remembered me, he read up my bio on LinkedIn and he thought, “Maybe Ed can help me.” I didn’t think I could help him.
He was persistent. That’s another part of leadership, you got to be persistent and confident. You know what you have. You know what you got and you got to be persistent.
All of those things are under the umbrella of Johnson Global Ventures. I evolved into these things. I certainly developed and created Bambootillity.
You didn’t say, “I’m going to start this company.” It evolved. It became a necessity. It’s like, “I have to get involved in this because this is going to change the world.”
One of my values is making a difference. I have a friend in Chicago, one of my dear friends, Melissa Giovagnoli. She’s written 30, 40 books. She wrote this book called Networlding. The premise is that you network with people with shared values and for some people it’s family, for some people it’s making a difference, for some people it could be profit or economics. You might have multiple values and you group yourself with people that share the same values. I can say that when it comes down to these issues. Did I want to be that person that made a difference years ago? Probably, but I didn’t recognize it. I like to make a difference. I know if you make a real difference, it’s good business. I do want people to win.
You’re changing lives.
That’s what we’re on earth to do. You have to be strong and confident in what you’re doing and who you are. Thankfully, I have a lot of people around me or maybe a few that I can confide in and that can be the people that can see any blind spots or give input and vice versa.
You have to be open to people’s critique. It’s not easy to hear it but you have to be open to hearing because that brings self-awareness. That’s great. I have thoroughly enjoyed this interview. Thank you so much. Is there anything else you want to share? I know people are probably hanging and trying to find out what happened with the Mississippi Delta. They’re like, “You didn’t let him finish the story.”
I would net it out quickly. I stayed there for almost three years and realized that it was time to move on for a few reasons. Number one, I had put a plan in place that people behind me came and built upon. When I started seeing people call me up and read my business plan to me and they didn’t I’d written it, I realized that, “Time is up.” One guy called me from California and he goes, “I want to know if you could help me out and be my partner on this bamboo business.” He started telling me all these things and he’s starting to read stuff. I said, “Where did you get?” He goes, “This guy over in so and so gave it to me, from New York.” I said, “Do you know I wrote that.” He goes, “What?” I said, “You’re reading my business plan.”Understand that humility is the way to growth. Click To Tweet
I realized that at this point, I’m starting to be duplicated and replicated. My dad was getting sick down in Florida. I realized that for my kids to get to know their grandparents who lived in Florida, it was time for a move. My kids didn’t like it there. It was a personal family move. For them, they were set in stone in the Chicago suburbs. They had their friends. They had their school. They were a lot younger, but I still remember that. It was difficult for them. It was a great time for me to do it. I’m glad to come back. I’m glad I did it because my dad got sick a month after we moved. He wound up staying with us for the next six years before he passed away. That was a great thing for me to do what I did when I did it. Having no other siblings, that was important. There’s nobody else for him.
For me, it was a family move to go back to Florida. I was gone for fourteen years from the state and everything had changed. I did not know how to get around Orlando. I didn’t know the streets. It’s unbelievable what had happened. What happened in Mississippi is that we did make a big difference. They’re still using the playbook. I had a staff member and she came to me six months into the job and she walked into my office one day. She said, “You’re doing it.” I said, “What are you talking about?” I gave my staff a playbook and I said, “Here’s our little playbook that the executive board and I agreed to do and some things I wrote out. We’re going to follow this plan. The six-month mark will be here. The twelve-month mark, we should be here. In each month this is what we’re going to try to do.” I believe a lot in management by objectives. I said, “This is how we’re going to go about.”
I’ve been back to Florida now for years. They’re still using the playbook. I feel good that I left a foundation for whoever came in behind me. They’re on the second person since I left. I formed a new organization there. I seem to have this knack for starting new organizations. Either I start them on my own or people call me to start them. I’ll build it up and I’ll exit when I need to or I’ll continue it. I’ve been doing Bambootility for a long time. There are going to be some news on that and I’ll have to tell you privately.
You set the foundation, that’s wonderful. I love that. With that said, this has been an exciting journey that we’ve been on this show with Ed Johnson. I hope you check out Bambootility. Check out renewable and sustainable resources. I’ll bring him back on again when he has more news about what he’s accomplishing next. I believe that when you’re talking about leadership with someone who is that impactful, they’re always going to have something new to share. Thank you so much, Ed, for sharing your wisdom with us. We’ll see you next time.
Thank you very much.
- Ed Johnson – LinkedIn
- The Leadership Challenge
- The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader
- First, Break All the Rules
- Now, Discover Your Strengths
About Ed Johnson
Ed is an international executive providing strategic operations, leadership & management, communications, international economic analysis, real estate, sales, sales training, marketing, and Forex. Ed’s global experiences include the UAE, Europe, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Ed brings expertise to domestic and global investment clients. Marketing expertise includes digital marketing, metrics, analytics and managing agency vendor relations.