Being Prepared to Pivot When Opportunity Knocks
Lydia Payne-Johnson has an extensive background in both the private and public sectors as an executive with experience in compliance, cybersecurity risk, data governance and consumer marketing. In this Q&A, Payne-Johnson, who is currently the director of IT security, identity management and risk for The George Washington University, shares her strategies for being prepared and staying on track in career and life.
Sometimes it’s being in the right place at the right time. I had just graduated from law school and I was working in advertising. Lo and behold, there was this thing called privacy compliance that financial institutions suddenly had to adhere to. It was 1999, and no one knew anything about it. I was approached by the firm’s associate general counsel. He said, “We have to send out this privacy notice and give our clients an opportunity to see how we collect their information and who we share it with. We also have to give them the opportunity to opt out. Given your years heading up the firm’s ad campaigns, you know how we communicate with our clients. We also need someone with a legal background to help understand these new privacy requirements. You have both. So you’re the new chief privacy officer.” That was the conversation.
Q: That’s quite a shift. How did you manage that transition?
There wasn’t a road map for a chief privacy officer. This was a brand new role, and firms thought of this more as a marketing issue and less as a legal or compliance issue. Over the past 20 years, it has morphed into something very different. For women who are looking to make a shift, I would say the ability to pivot in your career comes from that willingness to learn something new, make a leap of faith and take that risk. If you are a good problem solver, you don’t necessarily have to be a subject matter expert. It’s about determining how you can leverage what you’re already bringing to the table to help create this new role or to help spur you on to that next level.
Q: What skills did you leverage as you expanded your portfolio?
One skill I leveraged is the ability to really read regulations and interpret them. I also leveraged my business relationships within Dean Witter and other companies. That was critical. I think women can do a really good job at relationship building and getting buy-in. It’s not a sales job, but rather how can you help distill what needs to be done, show that you also understand what the business needs, and then help strike that balance and negotiate that. For me, it was also going to a lot of privacy conferences, meeting people in the security space and getting certified in the security space. It was also talking to the IT people in the company because they are very important to the equation — whether it’s privacy, compliance or cyber risk. It’s about reaching out and making those contacts. They’ll teach you if you ask them. It’s a proactive approach of gathering all that information — reading articles, signing up for organizations that put out materials, and getting buy-in from your company to pay for you to take courses and get certified. It’s a win-win for them and for you.
Q: What career advice do you give other women?
First of all, I always tell them to do their homework. As women, we always have to come to the table with just a little bit more in terms of what we know. Then, find your voice. That’s not easy for a lot of women. You don’t have to find your voice in a large conference room. Find a senior person you can latch on to — someone you can talk with, share your skills and plans with, or even go to for input and practice on presentations.
Along the same lines, don’t be afraid to just be you, to show up as your authentic self. I also advise women to get their own “board of directors.” These are people from different walks of life who you trust to give you good advice. You might have people who help you in terms of how you dress, project or speak. You may have someone who advises you when you run into an issue at work. Nobody else needs to know who these individuals are, but strategically, that’s what you need to do if you want to get ahead.
Q: As a single mother who has had these high-pressure positions, what advice would you give women as they try to fulfill commitments in their home life but also move forward in their careers?
The first thing is don’t get caught up in the idea of work-life balance. You’re already doing it. Find outlets to relieve stress and turn off the noise. You have to always pull back to yourself. As women it’s so easy to lose ourselves because we’re going in so many different directions. A lot of pressure has fallen on us to be caregivers, career women, mothers and more. As a single mother, I made sure that I spent time with my son and that we had fun together. But then I also found things for me — like playing the piano — and I made sure that I took time to do that.
The other big challenge is advancing your career. Don’t be deterred by the fact that we’re doing virtual meetings. Nothing has really changed. You still have to deliver on time and connect with your manager. You still have to educate yourself, know what your personal value proposition is and identify your goals. It’s a great time to write an inventory of what you’re bringing to the table. It will help you determine your next move, whether you can do it and whose help you need.
Q: What is your proudest accomplishment?
I would say it is going to law school at night and working during the day. I was head of advertising at the time, and it wasn’t easy. I always say you’re allowed one moment of insanity in your lifetime, and that was my moment. It was literally 18-hour days for four years straight. But I got through it, and it served as a springboard to my career. It has more than paid off for me because I’ve been able to apply it in so many things, particularly in the cybersecurity space.