Jennie Johnson

Her passion for South Carolina is reflected in the success of Liberty Fellowship program

What was your first job?

Oh, my first job. Coming out of college, I really wanted to be a spy, but my dad didn’t think that was an appropriate job for a 21-year-old. I had taken all the tests to go to DSA the NSA. That didn’t quite work out. So I ended up at the Library of Congress. I was cataloging art.

Oh wow. So you go from being a spy to working at the Library of Congress as a librarian. You’ve had some incredibly interesting career changes. What was the most unusual job? And explain the positions that you’ve had.

They’ve all been fun. They’ve all been different. I started off with the federal government obviously with the Library of Congress, and then, from there, I went into the nonprofit field and I worked for a health planning council. Then, the United Way, and that was fascinating. One of the advantages of working for the United Way is that you know all the CEOs in town. So I went around and talked to the CEOs, and I said, “What should I do next? Should I go back to business school or what would be good opportunities?” And one of them said, “Come work for us in planning, because that’s what I’d done at the United Way. So I went into the business field. Our company was acquired by Ashland Oil. So I ended up being the planning liaison for the insurance group to the senior management at Ashland Oil. That was fascinating.

Strategy — that was kind of your niche?

Strategy, merger and acquisitions, strategic planning. All of that.

And you entered into the Liberty world at what age?

Actually, Hayne Hipp recruited me to work for Liberty Corporation when I was 37.

And you became president and CEO of a division?

Of a company, yeah. I actually did that for two companies. I start off in strategic planning, and then they had a company they didn’t know quite what to do with. So they put me over there to run it, and I ran it, but I didn’t think it was a good fit for us. So we found a strategic buyer. We sold it, and then I moved over and did a start-up and brought it up from the ground, and then we sold that to the Royal Bank of Canada.

Of all of the posts, and you’ve had some pretty diverse and very successful positions. What was the one that you most enjoyed?

What I’m doing now.

Really?

Liberty Fellowship. By far it’s the hardest, and it’s also the most challenging because that’s what I thrive on. But now we’re in a succession plan. Part of any good organization is to make sure that the organization survives and that you have the right people there to do that.

Talk to us now about Liberty Fellowship because many of the people that are either “listening in” or reading this don’t have knowledge of the Liberty Fellowship Program. Can you provide an “elevator ride” description of the Liberty Fellowship Program?

I think we’re learning there isn’t really a good elevator pitch. At least we haven’t found it yet. But the essence of the program and why it got started was that South Carolina, while we’re a small state, we’re a complex state, and even within the fellowship, our 250 fellows, don’t all know each other. So the goal was to nourish enlightened leaders so that they could work together for the positive good of South Carolina and, for us, diversity was key. We had to have people from different political parties. We had to take into consideration gender, ethnic, race, geography, all those different things, but, in the end, it came down to the best people. I can remember one person said to me, “Well, I think you’re going to probably have to take a class,” which is what we do. We take a class every year of 20 individuals out of a pool of about 500. So it’s incredibly competitive, and they go through a two-year training program, and then they’re part of a network that works in South Carolina. It’s a very informal network. But it’s a deep network in the sense of the fellows all trust each other. So someone said, “Well, I don’t think you’re going to have enough talent in South Carolina to be able to take 20 people every year.” Well, the good news is we are not coming even close to running out of talent in South Carolina. There is plenty of talent here.

A gathering of Liberty Fellowship members at a multi-class reunion.

And these fellows study together as a group, and what kind of things would they study?

Well, you would know being in one of our classes. Everything. It’s very eclectic. Everything from Aristotle, all the classics, and current-day events. But each reading, because our fellows discuss readings that are sent out ahead, has something to do with an issue in leadership, and fellows will come in thinking they understand the reading one way, but once they get talking to the other fellows, what they find is there’s such a wonderful diversity of perspectives. And hearing that diversity of perspectives, fellows change their minds about how they feel about issues. We do evaluations so we know where we stand with the fellows and with the community, and one of the most interesting comments we’ve heard from fellows — and this has come from roughly half the fellows — is that the person I learned the most from and I’m closest to in my class is the person least like me because that person gave me the opportunity to see the world through an entirely different lens, and that has been a big part of my growth.

And, in many classes, there are people of both political persuasions, all ethnicities, gender, and is that done purposefully?

Yes, I think you don’t get, as Bernie Dunlap, who’s one of our cofounders and senior moderators, said, you can’t have a great symphony if you only have violinists. So it’s that wonderful mix of voices that creates the symphony, and what we found is the more diverse the class, the tighter they bond, and that’s so counterintuitive. But I think we would find that more in the business world. As we all work together, that diversity adds an incredible richness to life that you just don’t find when you get in a silo, and we all live in silos. We live in silos of our friends. We live in silos of our co-workers. Having the opportunity to be with people who think so differently is just an incredible gift, and that’s the gift that Hayne and Anna Kate give to the fellows and give to South Carolina.

Is there an example of a significant change that happened at the behest of Liberty Fellows coming together?

That’s a, that’s a tough one because Liberty Fellows work together, but they also work within the community. So it’s — I guess the best way to describe it would be our goal is that, when you look at anything that’s terribly positive that’s happening in South Carolina, if you were to peel back the onion, you would find Liberty Fellows working on it.

Tell us what the “mosaic” is.

The mosaic is sort of an amorphous term, but, in essence, it is the reflection of that diversity of perspectives. It’s a way of looking at how you build a class and how you get the right mix of people so they’re not alike. But the key is they’re people who have a willingness to hear other perspectives and to think about what others might be feeling and thinking and to take that into consideration when they make decisions because South Carolina is not — we’re not all alike, but we all have to work together. That’s the only way we’re going to succeed.

Can you tell us about Globalization?

Yes. Globalization. Liberty Fellowship is affiliated with the Aspen Institute, and we’re one of 15 other fellowship programs around the world. We’re the only state-based program. All the other programs are national or international in scope, or they’re specifically centered on education or health. But one of the great advantages of being affiliated with Aspen is that our fellows, as one of their seminars, take a program called Globalization, and they go to different cities around the world. So one fellow might go to South Africa. Another might go to China, India, the Middle East, South America, and they’re with fellows from those leadership programs around the world. So not only now have they gotten the diversity within South Carolina, but they get a magnificent diversity from around the world, and they come back saying, of all the seminars, that one was probably the most enriching.

What is your favorite vacation spot?

My favorite city in the whole world, if I couldn’t live in South Carolina, would be Paris because I lived there as a teenager. So I have such wonderful memories of it. It’s an easy city. It’s a lovely city to be in. There’s just everything you could ever imagine. So, of course, the tragedy lately hangs so heavily. But it would never stop me from going back to Paris.

What fills you up? What replenishes you? What nourishes your soul?

Well, the fellowship because I’ve put such a big part of my life into that, and it’s so important. I also love working in the community, and I love animals. So I guess those things and my garden and walking. Every day is different, and I’ve thrived on that my whole life.

Can you have a very successful business career and still balance the traditional lifestyle that we all, you and I in particular, were raised with? Traditional in the sense of, you know, two kids, a car and a house. Is that possible?

I don’t think it’s possible in the traditional sense. But I like the way that the poet David Whyte talks about it when he talks in his book about the three marriages. He talks about the marriage to another, which is the typical term for marriage we use, the marriage to your career, and then the marriage to yourself. We use that reading actually in Liberty Fellowship now with great success because what our fellows discover is that they’re really good at the marriage to the career. They struggle with the marriage to the family because they always feel like they don’t spend enough time with the family. The part of their lives that is the most left out is the marriage to the self, and that’s just sad. So what he talks about is not balancing the work life balance. He talks about integration, and I think what he means there is that you’re not always in balance. This may be a horrible week at work. Work takes over, a horrible year at work, or you may be on vacation, and you spend all your time with your family. Or you may take a little mini vacation for yourself, but you’ve got to keep those three integrated, but not necessarily balanced, and that’s a very hard thing to do.

Do you think that that’s something that happens with maturity or enlightenment or both?

I’ll go back to a quote. I think it is Abraham Lincoln. People are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be. I think you’re about as integrated as you decide you’re going to be. You have to work at it. It’s not something that naturally happens because we all get distracted by the current thing.

So when you look at your life’s greatest accomplishment or your eternal significance, what is it?

You know, I’ve never thought about life that way. That’s just not an equation that I’ve ever considered. I’ve always focused on what it is I’m doing right now, and the older I get, the more I think about living in the present. Being a strategic planner, when I was much younger, I looked at the future, and I found that, by living in the future, you make great plans, but you can’t guarantee they’ll come true. Living in the past, which I’m worried that I’ll do when I get to the nursing-home stage, isn’t very fruitful either because that past is over. But you do control the present, and that’s where all the excitement comes. So I’ve never looked at the legacy or any of that. I’ve just never considered that.

So based on that, if you could have seen or witnessed one thing, of everything imaginary and real, what would that be?

Oh, I have no idea. I have no idea. I feel like living right now, we’ve had an opportunity because I look back to my early years, and I look forward to the next 10 years, and I think this is the most exciting time in history, that there is. There would not have been another time in history I would have liked to have lived through.

Who do you go to for advice?

It depends on what the subject is. I’m fortunate. There are a lot of people in my life, like you, that I feel I can pick up the phone and call and say here’s an issue or here’s the problem, and they’ll help me. And one of my goals is to always be available to people who want the same. I think that’s a quid pro quo. If you’re going to ask people for help, you need to be willing to give help when it is asked of you.

Do you have a lesson that you learned, either through life or by making a mistake, that you would want to tell people? Just one lesson that perhaps they wouldn’t have to go through themselves.

One thing does come to mind. This was early in my career back when it was the fashion to send all young aspiring executives through the psychological assessment program. You know, I took all the little tests, and I met with the psychologist who was going to debrief me, and he said, “Well you did really well on this test.” You were in the top whatever percent. I was like, “Wow,” and thought to myself, “You know I’ve got it made.” He then said, “Your competition is not the people who scored lower than you did. Your competition is the people who scored higher than you did. Don’t ever forget that.” And that just stunned me. I had never looked at competition or life that way, and I went, “Whoa. In that case, I better get on it because they’re a whole lot of other smart people out there, and a lot smarter than I am, and I’m going to have to compete with them.” That was really good advice because I hadn’t ever thought about competition in the corporate world like that, and it is like that.

What is your next strategic challenge or goal?

If you print this, this will get rid of all my friends. I would like to see my generation get out of the way. I think we’re holding too many positions in elected office, too many positions on nonprofit boards, too many positions, high positions, in businesses, and I don’t believe in mandatory retirement, but I do believe in helping the next generation move forward.

If you could have one wish granted, what would that wish be?

Well, my wish would be that every person on earth gets to reach their maximum potential.

And for the next generation that is coming up and that you believe should be given the opportunity to rise, what would you tell them?

Don’t ever give up. I think resiliency is one of the most important characteristics people can have because nobody gets their way all the time. Set high expectations for yourself because you’re more likely to do better than you would have had you set low expectations and met them, and take care of others because what goes around comes around.

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