From a young age, Kate Johnson had a remarkable talent for visualizing what she needed to do to succeed. When her family moved from California to Portland, Oregon, she began journaling about how she was going to make the move to Portland work, despite the teenager’s pain of having to leave her friends and former life behind. The new city didn’t seem so bad after she and her father stopped at a Portland rowing club to see what the sport was all about, and she fell hard for the sport. Within two weeks, she journaled once again, writing, in big, block letters, “I will go to the Olympics one day.”
As Johnson recently told the Corporate Competitor Podcast, dreaming big and then visualizing her big dreams in bold letters are the keys to what Johnson calls “trying to live into what you want to become.” They carried her on to a distinguished college career helping the University of Michigan turn its new women’s rowing program into a Big 10 powerhouse, a place on a medal-winning U.S. rowing team and a successful business career as a marketing executive at Visa and Google.
In 2004, Johnson was competing for a spot in the U.S. Olympic Women’s Eight, when her coach asked her whether she saw herself making the team. She took a deep breath, answered yes and then asked the coach’s opinion. “It doesn’t matter what I think,” he replied, “Only what you think.” So, she took some paper and made signs saying, “I am in the 2004 Olympic Women’s Eight” and “Relentless” and plastered them all over her bedroom, “so they’d be the first and last things I saw every day.”
She spent the following months visualizing herself as a member of the team, which included acting the part of a leader who was totally committed to her team’s success. “I made the team and in the Olympics, my coach went down to the boat and shook everyone’s hand before he launched us off,” recalled Johnson, “ When he got to me, he shook my hand and said, ‘Kate, you’ve earned every square inch of the seat you’re sitting on. You were absolutely relentless this year!’ He used my word ‘relentless’ without ever knowing that was something I had put on my wall all year!”
Johnson’s boat went on to win a silver medal, and after retiring from competitive crew, Johnson applied her mental toughness and style of personal brand building to an elite business career that has included the vice presidency of global marketing at Visa and, currently, the directorship of Google’s global marketing for sports, media, and entertainment.
As a leader, Johnson’s particular talent involves sharing her visualizations to motivate and unify her teams. Here is what she focuses on.
1. Be in the present: In addition to teaching her about sacrifice and shared values, rowing taught Johnson about “being present,” a powerful leadership quality that applies equally to a boat crew and business team. “In rowing, you have to be perfectly in sync to get the optimal speed out of the boat,” noted Johnson. “This means all eight rowers have to put their blades into the water at the exact same time, and the blades have to exit the water at the exact same time. The rowers also have to put pressure on the blade at the exact same time, in order to create optimal speed. In the business community, it’s no different. You can’t have somebody kind of just rowing to their own in tune; otherwise, you’re not going to go anywhere.”
2. Make those around you better: Michigan coach Mark Rothstein paid Johnson the highest compliment by saying, “Kate made those around her better. She had extremely high standards for herself and her teammates, and she helped to drive our team success during her four years.” In crew, every seat has a specific role, technique and personality type, Johnson explains. “The primary goal of the ‘stroke seat’ is to set a pace that gets the best out of everyone behind you,” said Johnson. “That’s a good definition of what leadership is right there.” Johnson occupied the “bow seat,” which maintains the balance and direction of the boat — critical responsibilities for the entire crew’s success.
3. Action accompanies visualization: The practice is common among athletes and can involve something as basic as swinging a bat, sinking a foul shot or winning an Olympic medal or getting a promotion at work. The key to successful visualization, says Johnson, is to apply the techniques to live your day in the service of the person you want to become. “If you want to be CEO, then start figuring out the habits they have,” noted Johnson. “For example, how does the CEO go about her day, not just in the business practice, but in her life practice? What is her practice in the morning? Does she practice meditation? Does she get a workout in before going into the office?”
4. Share your vision: Johnson says her first year at Google was tantamount to reliving her freshman year at Michigan. “At Michigan, I helped us change the mindset from making the NCAA to winning the NCAA,” said Johnson. “At Google, I am really trying to bring a new capacity to our Google marketing organization. And it does take relentlessness, it takes like having a vision and believing that this is the right path for us to follow.”
“The most important thing,” added Johnson, quoting the great English writer Charles Dickens, “is to be ready at any moment to sacrifice what you are for what you could become.”
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