How One Small Business CEO Went from Bully to Best-in-Class

Amber Johnson Leadership, Values-Driven Leaders

Johnson, on campus at Benedictine University where she is
a student in the doctoral program in Values-Driven Leadership.
CEO Indigo Johnson is a strategic, forward-thinking, dynamic leader. What you might not expect (but what Johnson would be quick to tell you) is that until recently she was also a bit of a bully.
Johnson runs a human resources company, Careers in Transition. And even though she advised other companies on how to manage their personnel, she struggled to maintain her own – her best talents kept walking out the door, or were shown it.
A veteran, Johnson says she learned early on that the Marine Corps tears you down in order to build you up. “You become a transformed person,” she says. “You can take the beach to take the world. And when I started my company I took the same approach. But most people don’t take a job with a company to be torn down. I’d pull people to try and get them to grow. Then they’d die.”
“There was a time that I’d just fire you,” Johnson says. “I gave you no chance to change. If you’d put it on your resume that you could do something, and then it turns out you can’t do it well, I’d just let you go.”
A year and a half ago, Johnson joined a cohort of executives in a doctoral program in values-driven leadership and as part of the first months of classwork had to take a hard look at her leadership style. She realized she was hiring the right people, but not giving them the space to make mistakes and grow. She wasn’t using their strengths; she was harping on their weaknesses.
“I had to take a look at what the literature is saying about true leadership,” says Johnson. “Then I had to look at the gap in my leadership style. I came back from the course and had to sit down with my leadership team and say I’m sorry. I haven’t given you the chance to grow. I’m committed to creating a culture that’s inclusive. And I’m going to be accountable for it.”
Inspired, Johnson made some strategic changes and began to adapt a more nurturing style of leadership. Now she helps her staff find their strengths, gives people time to grow into their jobs. When she finds someone who is a strong culture fit but lacks a needed skillset, Johnson trains them for it or brings in an outside contractor. “We spend the time up front to figure out what people need,” she says. The results speak for themselves: Careers in Transition has a three-year growth rate of 1500%, landing them on Inc.’s Top 500 list for the first time this year.
“The water here is swift and deep,” Johnson says, referring to her quickly growing company. “Now we’re trying to be transparent about that so you can make an intelligent decision if this is the right place for you.”
These days, in addition to the recent honor from Inc. magazine, Johnson can see the difference her focus on employee development has brought to the company – her staff is growing and loyal. It’s no surprise that one of Careers in Transition’s corporate values is the concept that We can always do better. Johnson says there’s room to grow, for her and her employees.
Learn more about Johnson’s PhD program. Designed for senior business leaders, the program combines the fields of corporate sustainability and responsibility with strategic leadership and organization change. Find more information at
For more details on the Center for Values-Driven Leadership, visit our web site,
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