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How to Lead in Difficult Times

by Marguerite Darlington Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Michael Johnson, president and CEO of the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County, understands what it means to lead during difficult times, and, in fact, his passion is helping individuals work their way out of difficult situations into prosperity.

“When you think about leadership, what kind of leader will you be?” Johnson asked a room of more than 100 Wisconsin MBA students, alumni, faculty, and staff at the Wisconsin School of Business. “You lead by not delegating to people and telling them what to do. You support them, you inspire them, and those people will go to bat for you. They will work hard for you and for your company.”

Johnson offered the following advice on how to become a transformational leader:  

michael johnson evening mba executive mba wisconsin school of business

Michael Johnson, President and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Dane County

1. If there’s no margin, there’s no mission—Johnson feels passionately that all organizations—even those classified as “not for profit”—must succeed financially to achieve their stated goals. When Johnson joined the Boys and Girls Club in Madison, the nonprofit was struggling. They were plagued with deficits every year, low employee morale, and a lack of understanding of how to tell the stories of the children whom they help.

In the six years since he was named CEO, Johnson engineered an outstanding turnaround:

  • Delivered incredible student outcomes with 90 percent of at-risk kids served by the Boys and Girls Club graduating from college for six years in a row
  • Raised operating income by 285 percent in less than five years
  • Grew from 33 to more than 200 employees in six years

Johnson led this turnaround by focusing on education and developing a strategic plan on how to improve kids' lives.

“My first priority when I joined the Boys and Girls Club was to make sure that our organization’s fiscal health was in order,” he says. “If you can’t create margin, you can’t sustain programs that impact kids’ lives.”

2. Be bold, take risks—Johnson’s commitment to service and dedication to success have helped him work through difficult situations. In March 2015, a 19-year-old African-American teenager was shot by a police officer in Madison, Wis., in the heart of Dane county.

Because this incident had a profound effect on many of the at-risk youths he works with on a day-to-day basis, he took a risk and stepped into the spotlight.

“There are people who are afraid to lead because people take shots at you,” Johnson says. “I didn’t want Madison to become like Ferguson where people were looting and burning down buildings. We helped the family, and we met with the police department. Then we heard from people, including some donors, who didn’t agree with what we were saying.”

Despite all of the controversy and the loss of a couple of donors, Johnson ended 2015 as his strongest year yet. The organization grew its budget 10 percent, added 20 staff members, graduated 113 kids from college, retained more than 200 students in college, built a community fitness center, created a STEM lab, and raised nearly $200,000 for college scholarships.

“I take risks all the time,” he says. “Some I’ve been successful with, some I’ve failed. It’s okay to fail. You can’t fail too many times, especially if you’ve got a board to report to, but if you don’t take the risks, you’ll spend your whole life wondering what could have happened if you had.”

3. Surround yourself with a diverse staff and colleagues—Although people are more likely to hire individuals who look like them, Johnson recommends surrounding yourself with staff and colleagues who come from a wide variety of backgrounds.

“One of the reasons that disparities exist all over this country is that we tend to hire people who are like us, who are from the same culture as us,” says Johnson. “You’re only as strong as the people you have around you.”

Johnson believes that one of the best solutions to difficult conversations about race that can divide a community is to surround yourself with as much diversity as possible.

“I have a diverse board,” he says. “You see black, white, women, old, young, Muslim, and Christian. Because I surround myself with people from every background, I can walk into any situation with confidence, knowing that I have the perspective that I need.”

4. Do something that you love—Johnson's commitment to service and his passion for what he does have helped him work through difficult situations, and he offered insights on how to persevere during a crisis.

“As you pursue this degree, are you going through the motions, or are you transforming your work?” Johnson asked the MBA students. “Think about what you’re doing and ask yourself, ‘are you happy?’ If you’re not, figure out a way to move on and do something that you’re excited about.”

He is adamant that your work needs to be infused with passion.

“If you’re passionate about your work, everything else will happen,” says Johnson. “If you apply yourself to your work, if you are bold and not afraid to make decisions, opportunities will come your way.”

Johnson shared his unique leadership insights with students and alumni in the Wisconsin Evening and Executive MBA Programs as featured speaker at the Evening MBA Program Winter Weikel speaker event. 

Learn more about the Wisconsin Evening and Executive MBA Programs at the Wisconsin School of Business.