In honor of its 20th annual Wharton Women’s Summit this past September, Wharton Women in Business turned to some powerhouse alumnae as keynote speakers for the event—including SunTrust Bank CMO Susan Somersille Johnson WG91. We caught up with Johnson recently to follow up on her conversation at the summit and dive deeper into the twists and turns of her career, the future of marketing, helping people improve their understanding of finance, and closing the “confidence gap” for women in the workplace.
Wharton Magazine: How did you end up pivoting from engineering and technology to finance and marketing?
Susan Somersille Johnson: My first big move happened at Apple, shortly after completing my MBA from The Wharton School. I had spent most of my undergrad at Harvard studying math and science, then worked as a design engineer for a while before returning to school at Wharton to broaden my perspective and develop more business skills. I started at Apple as an engineer in the ’90s. It was a dream job at a pivotal time for the industry. One of the leaders approached me and asked me to consider moving to marketing. I had never considered marketing because I didn’t think I had the skills, but he saw potential in me that I never saw in myself. I had never considered marketing before, but I gave it careful thought and ultimately decided to make the move.
The second move, from the technology industry to the finance industry, happened more recently. I met Bill Rogers, the CEO of SunTrust Bank, in 2014. He was on a mission to lead differently and to let purpose—building people’s financial confidence—drive the business. I’ve always been drawn to work at purpose-driven companies, so I started investigating. I talked to people throughout the organization and even visited branches, and I couldn’t find one person who wasn’t genuinely committed to helping people build financial confidence. Financial stress is an epidemic in our country, and I decided I wanted to be a part of the solution.
WM: What advice would you give someone who’s considering a fairly radical career change?
SSJ: Talk to other people and get their input. An outside perspective is so helpful. My move from engineering to marketing originated in the suggestion of a mentor, someone who recognized something I hadn’t yet. Talk with people who know you well and people in the field you’d be switching to. You may be intimidated, and that’s okay. Instead, ask yourself if you’re excited in spite of your fears or uncertainty. If you’re excited about the possibility, then it’s worth really thinking about it. A team is strongest when it’s full of diverse perspectives. You will become an invaluable asset and a better leader if you take advantage of opportunities to gain different experiences.
WM: You’ve said that your engineering background made you a better marketer. How so?
SSJ: When I became a marketer, I never would have guessed I would rely so heavily on my technology skills. Much of modern marketing is about integrating data, analytics and emerging digital technologies into more traditional marketing tactics. My experience in engineering is a great asset. I have a unique perspective and understanding when it comes to using data and new technology to better communicate and build brand affinity with current and prospective customers. Wharton taught me to focus all of that on driving business growth.
All marketers need to make technology their friend. We have to switch continually between the right and left sides of our brain, and my background has made it easier for me to do that. When I’m sitting with our analytics team, I ask the “why, why, why.” Asking “why” three times helps you really burrow down and get the insights you need for the creative side of the work.
WM: How would you say the CMO role has evolved over the years? Any thoughts on what that job might look like in another 10 years?
SSJ: The future of marketing will continue to evolve around technology. The ultimate goal in marketing is to spur growth and build affinity for your brand, and that hasn’t changed. The real evolution is around the tools at our disposal to achieve that goal. There is a beautiful synergy between creativity and technology that enhances the connection between people and brands. There are so many emerging digital technologies, and today’s CMO has to understand and embrace those tools and analytics.
Across the industry, the need to create change and to stand for something is more present than ever, and that’s only going to grow over the next decade.
WM: What inspired the “onUp” initiative you launched at SunTrust and what’s the goal of the program? How successful has it been?
SSJ: The onUp Movement is a national effort to help people move from financial stress to confidence so they can focus on what’s really important in life. The inspiration for it came from the data we uncovered about financial insecurity in America. More than 80 percent of Americans said that financial stress keeps them up at night. Forty percent didn’t have $2,000 saved for an emergency; that jumped to 60 percent for millennials. One third of Americans didn’t have anything saved for retirement. When we learned that, we knew we had to claim our role in improving Americans’ financial confidence.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive. We launched the onUp Movement in a 2016 Super Bowl commercial. Today there are more than 3.9 million onUp participants—people who have taken a step, onward and upward, toward financial confidence. The impact has carried over into growth in traditional metrics of business success, too—deposits, loans, sentiment, loyalty, consideration, etc.
WM: Much has been written about the “confidence gap” that leaves women feeling less self-assured than men. How can we close that gap—and what role should both men and women play?
SSJ: The gap is real, and it is another example of how confidence makes a difference in our ability to grow and succeed. A Hewlett Packard internal report famously discovered men will apply for a job when they meet only 60 percent of the qualifications, but women apply only if they meet 100 percent of the qualifications.
The good news is that you can develop your confidence. At SunTrust, we’ve done extensive research on financial confidence and how people move from insecurity to confidence; we discovered a consistent, three-part formula. Even though that research looked specifically at finances, it works as a roadmap to all areas of life where we need confidence.
Step one is to know what matters most. When your priorities are clear, your confidence doesn’t waver. Take the time to deeply consider what you value most, and you’ll find that clarity helps motivate you to go after the opportunities that will move you closer to that goal.
Step two is to get educated and use the tools that are out there. There are countless books about leadership, confidence and every facet of business. One of my recent favorites is Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg, the author of New York Times bestseller The Power of Habit. When I first met Charles, I immediately understood why professionals relate to his books. The vast research he has done to understand why we do what we do is gripping. [For more on Duhigg, see Professor Katy Milkman’s course on better decision making.]
Step three is to lean on a friend. Connecting with one another and sharing what we’ve learned is a huge part of building confidence collectively. Circumstances come and go, and confidence fluctuates, too. Surround yourself with friends and mentors you can trust and rely upon. Both men and women have been major players encouraging me when I came to the big confidence moments in my life and career.