Lisa Kolodny Johnson: A Career Powered by Great People + Strategic Brands

lisa kolodny johnson

Marketing and branding wizard Lisa Kolodny Johnson is about as well-diversified in her field as they come.

Her career has bridged a multitude of industries and included working for Playboy Inc. and NBC-owned iVillage, which has undoubtedly earned her a well-respected and esteemed reputation.

Currently, she is the Senior VP of Marketing and Business Development at Indagare Travel, a boutique luxury travel agency headquartered in NYC. 

On top of overseeing all aspects of her current full-time managerial marketing and communication position at Indagare Travel, she is a dedicated mother, wife, and mentor. Her badassery knows no bounds. Kolodny-Johnsons’ humility, despite having every right to brag (she has a resume that I dream about…seriously), her sincerity, and her remarkable ability to introspectively self-assess were just a few of the many qualities that I had the pleasure of hearing for myself and all contribute towards her ability to distinguish herself as the ultimate girl-boss.

I did my research and I think it is safe to say that you have had an interesting career! Over the course of your admirable career trajectory I am sure that you have witnessed a tremendous amount of personal and professional growth. What is one thing that you now know that you didn’t know, say 15 years ago? Expanding on that, what is one piece of advice you would give your younger self? 

One thing that I now know, this is something that I have actually done quite a few talks on for people around your age, is that there is no straight career path. You really have to embrace some of the ambiguity that comes with having a modern career. I have more confidence when I am not trying to brag that I can do something the best or trying to be the smartest person in the room, but rather knowing it’s about how I can forge relationships within an organization. It’s about how you can be an open, lifelong learner and be receptive to opportunities as they come to you.

If you try and only stay on one path, which is great and works for some people and what some people want, I would have closed myself off from a million opportunities if I had said that I just wanted to stay in media. There is not this ‘perfect straight and narrow path’. 

You also have to take into consideration feedback. And something that I see with people, say those who are 15 years younger than me,  is that it’s really hard to take feedback at a certain point in your career. It’s especially hard to take when you are young and maybe unsure of yourself or maybe more sure of yourself than you should be in some cases. If you can learn to take feedback in a way where you take what is useful to you and pull away what is not useful to you, you are setting yourself up well. 

You were a history major in college, how did you find the marketing world or rather how did the marketing world find you? 

When I was an intern at an investment company, there was this summer party and the man who ran marketing department was pressing me and asked the question “what is a history major going to do for you?” To which I responded, “Well for starters, it teaches me how to think and analyze trends. And no matter what I get into, I am assuming that those are two things that I am going to have to do.”

And years later I really do think that that’s what history brought to the table and has served me well. Expanding on this, history teaches you to look at the world through a lens of trend-watching in a way that helps in understanding how you put together all the information that you are receiving and come out with your hypothesis of what’s happening and how things could be different or how not to repeat certain things. 

The other piece of this that I would say that I did a rapid-6 week MBA-style program my junior year at Dartmouth where we worked on a variety of things, finance, accounting, etc, but also there was simulation where you used data to create a product that you then had to market. Of the entire course material and what we were covering, that was the most-excited that I got and I knew that marketing would then be something that I would be interested in.  

The marketing world is ever-changing in everything from the pop-cultural trends to technological advancements, what do you think is something that holds fast about marketing despite the changing world we live in? 

I think the number one thing is to stay true to your brand. If you have a strong brand strategy, and I mean really truly understanding your brand to the core, what your unique value proposition is and how you message that in a consistent way, that will never change. It’s just the ways that you message it and the platforms on which you message are the things that are changing. But if you ultimately are very clear with yourself and with the people that you employ about your unique value proposition, that will never go away. 

If you’re interested in reading on branding, there’s a woman that I have worked with a lot.  Her name’s Deb Gabor and she has written a couple books that are really interesting, but she’s also great if you can find her on podcasts. One is called Irrational Loyalty which is: once you’ve built this really strong brand, how do you now create a view of irrational loyalty to that brand? 

Can you offer any advice to someone who is a small business owner and may not know where to first begin on their brand strategy or marketing plan?

I think once you have a unique value proposition and you have what I would call your “top line messages” or key messages, next is where you have to figure out what the right channels are for you to evangelize that message.

For some people, in-person events are the best place for them to make a connection. On the other hand, perhaps for some of the B2B businesses for example, might find, LinkedIn a great place for them to be either doing some sort of advertising or doing an outreach-type strategy. 

Is it a service that you’re offering or is it a product? Those are two different things. If it’s a service, LinkedIn might make sense. Having some sales sequences where you’re able to follow up with people, but not have to have it be so manual is super important. Learning from what works and what doesn’t work and then constantly tweaking that. And I’m not saying tweak your value proposition or tweak your key messages, but tweak how you put them out and the process you take to reach certain people. It’s also super important as part of this to understand who your audience is, who your key target market is. You might know that or they might have to launch something and get a little bit of a read on who they might think that they’re developing something for. 

You have to embody that openness as a marketer to be able to pivot or shift a little bit is really, really important. I think that having a website obviously is critical for any type of business these days and understanding SEO and SEM is something that everyone should have a baseline understanding of. It’s really important to know where your limitations are. Can you find a consultant who can help you with some of that once you get to a certain level? Or is that something you could take a Pregame class on, to learn more about and start doing. 

It’s not to get you overwhelmed by all the things that are out there for marketing, but to truly understand your needs. Are you needing to drive leads to your website? Then SEO and pillar content are really important. Once you have your unique value proposition in your key messages, you’ve got to have a hypothesis about who your target marketing is and then understand where those people are going to search for a service or product like yours. And make sure that you are answering their queries with the right things, or you’re enticing them on a platform with the right type of message and creative.

Who do you think has had the biggest influence on your career and the trajectory of your career? 

That for me is easy, Jodi Kahn, a woman who is both a mentor and a friend and has had a huge impact on my life. I actually just heard this term the other day, “you need a sponsor and a mentor”. A sponsor being someone who will sort of help you rise through the ranks, so to speak and a mentor being someone who will help you make certain decisions.

Jody was the president of iVillage when I got there. It was the first time where I felt that the team had a leader who truly cared about the business, but also the people who worked there. And, Jody was able to show us how the family unit of the business is super important. Even though within NBC we were small and it was could have been really easy to get lost, she made every single person at that organization feel important.

I feel like I am a good leader because I was shown the way by someone who really cares about their people and fights for their people as well as fights for themselves. And I think that’s really, really rare. 

You’ve held either VP/ Senior VP positions or managerial positions in almost every single one of your career titles, in fact I think every one, which suggests you were in a position of authority and leadership. What do you think is the most important quality for a leader to possess whether they are a huge VP exec of a Fortune 500 or a small business owner but managing their small team?

I struggle with this word ‘authentic’ because I think it’s really overused and have been thinking a lot about what it is and what really goes into authenticity. Authenticity to me is being able to bring your true personality to work with you. It means you understand that your employees have their own lives outside of work and they need to understand that I do too. I think at work, with the way that the world is going, I need to be a strong leader and understand the right things to communicate to my team at the right times. The way I communicate to them needs to be clear. Renee Brown says “clear is kind” and I really believe in that. 

You have to be really truthful in the way that you deliver feedback, in the way that you make people understand what you’re going for. As far as I’ve seen, being truthful and clear really engenders trust which then creates that familial environment. My mission in life right now is “I like to do great work with great people.” Ultimately, the places where I’ve had the most success and the most fun is when we’re doing great work with great people. And when you have the ability to be transparent and a strong leader at the same time that’s when you create an environment where that can happen.

If I’m going to spend the majority of my time at an organization, it’s going to be a place where we’re building something together and we’re making each other feel good. No one wants to deal with people who are complaining all the time. Personally, I don’t want to make people feel like crap or make them feel like they don’t have a seat at the table or don’t have a voice. It’s really important to think about what kind of leader you want to be and what that makes you feel like as an individual. 

Pregame Magazine necessity: How do you personally define success? And expanding on that: what does it look like to you?

I think that this goes back to what I was saying before. To me, it’s doing great work with great people. I think when you’re doing that, the money comes. I’d be crazy to say that money isn’t a part of why I am working. It’s an element of success, but it is not how I completely define success. 

And lastly, my favorite question: any “Red-Light!!! Never Do This!” advice? 

There was an instance where I was being emotionally abused and was having physical reactions as a result and that is not something that I will tolerate. I let myself be in that situation because I thought the money was more important. And I will say there is no amount of money in the world that is worth sacrificing your health and your sanity for. The most important piece of it is to feel good about what I’m doing on a daily basis and that I love the people that I’m with and I’m contributing something to the world that I feel good about. It’s your life and you’re the only one who’s measuring your life. 

Don’t sacrifice your quality of life for the paycheck under any circumstances. And you will know when you’re doing it if understand your own boundaries. Listen to them. 

And recently I will say I’ve been starting to try to draw every day as a way to give myself a mental break, outside of work and family and networking. I am trying to give myself mental space to do something creative because it really helps me chill my thoughts. And especially for small business owners who are giving all of their time or a majority of their time and mental space to their careers, it’s crucial. It’s important to disconnect. 

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