003 | Great Leadership Stems from the Heart with Nancy Johnson

Nancy Johnson’s career in hospitality spans more than 40 years, the last 25 of which were in executive roles with Carlson that include heading up the brands Country Inn & Suites™ and Radisson Hotels International.  Nancy served as Chair of the American Hotel and Lodging Association (AHLA) in 2012, and initiated AH&LA’s Women in Lodging Council. Nancy is recognized by many as a spokesperson for the industry, she has participated in a variety of speaking engagements, panels, and leadership programs internationally.

Nancy JohnsonNancy practically grew up in the hotel industry. By the age of 21, she was married and divorced with two small children. Since her top priority was being home with her children during the day, she took a night job as a cocktail waitress at a full service hotel. She knew she could make more money as a bartender, but the owner of the hotel told her “women don’t bartend,” so she made the tough choice to leave the hotel and started bartending at an independent bar.  Within a month, the owner of the hotel realized he was losing business, so he offered her a bartending position. She was eventually promoted to front desk clerk, then Banquet Manager, and finally assistant General Manager.  This was Nancy’s first leadership experience.

[spp-tweet ““Most people say, why me, but I said, why not me?” ~Nancy Johnson”]

Nancy then worked for a construction company as a hotel specialist and stayed on through the construction of 48 new hotels. This position provided a lot of great opportunities for her, and she continued to hone her skills by taking blueprint, marketing, and real estate courses. Nancy worked for McDonalds and learned planned unit development. This lead her to become involved in local government. What Nancy loves about this industry is that there have always been many choices. However, the bottom line is always to be of SERVICE.

Resources & Links


The Carlson Era:

Nancy intentionally landed a position with Carlson and became their industry representative. She collaborated with empowered women like Marilyn Carlson Nelson and Trudy Rautio who both served as mentors to Nancy.

[spp-tweet ““Women have to promote women” ~Nancy Johnson”]

2009 was a profound year for Nancy.  She had just been diagnosed with a disease that took her out of commission for 3 months. It was rare and unknown, and when her doctors referred her to the Mayo Clinic for a clear diagnosis, Marilyn Carlson Nelson advocated on her behalf and she was admitted within days. Marilyn’s efforts and support truly made Nancy feel a part of the Carlson family. That May, AH&LA Immediate Past Chair Tom Corcoran called to ask her if she’d be willing to go on the docket to serve as the AH&LA Secretary/Treasurer, a position that would eventually succeed to Chair.  Despite her health challenges, Nancy accepted the opportunity to serve AH&LA, partly because she saw that many women were not in the spotlight and she wanted to change that. She was also instrumental in forming AH&LA’s “Women in Lodging” Council (WIL) with Joe McInerney’s support back in 2006 which became an immediate success.

Nancy claims that success came because she didn’t take herself so seriously. She was able to get over herself. She never used the conditioned limited beliefs around being a woman get in her way. Men laughed at her and she demanded to be taken seriously. Her message to women is: “Do your job, be professional and get over it.”

[spp-tweet ““The biggest reason I succeeded was I laughed at myself a lot” ~Nancy Johnson”]

Nancy is aware that there’s still a glass ceiling- that men are seen as more successful. But women are rising and there needs to be more of that to lead with great strength. Talent and character lie with the person not the gender. Leadership is everyone’s responsibility and it is imperative to be able to recognize and know all your talents. Great leaders are well aware that it’s a team that makes things happen. Everyone on the team needs to shine. A leader’s empathy is essential. Everyone on the team needs to be happy doing what they are doing because their fulfillment fulfills the company.

[spp-tweet ““Leadership has nothing to do with being male or female” ~Nancy Johnson”]

Nancy shares with us the Carlson Creto: “Wherever you go, go as a leader. Whatever you do, do with integrity. Whomever you serve, serve with caring and whenever you dream, dream with your all and never ever give up.”

Are leaders made or born?

Nancy believes there must be an innate characteristic in the person. She has seen people with harsh backgrounds make incredible leaders. It is amazing when people can persevere, learn and leave anger behind.

[spp-tweet ““Talent lies in the heart and character of the person” ~Nancy Johnson”]

After 25 years, Nancy retired from Carlson and decided to take a new direction in her career. The psychological impact of leaving a career is profound, and she admits that she panicked at first.  Nancy formed a consultancy, Nancy Johnson Hospitality Motivation, which provides leadership consulting services for top executives and association leaders in corporate hospitality. This allows her to stay engaged and active in government issues that mean a lot to the hotel industry to create change.

The Human Trafficking Issue

Nancy has become involved in many social issues as a result of her diverse background in the Hotel Industry. When the United Nations formed ECPAT (the Elimination of Child Prostitution and Trafficking), Carlson Companies was the first American hotel company to sign on to the Code – a commitment by a company to provide training to their employees on what to look for – and Carlson worked with AH&LA to offer their training materials to any hotel company that wanted it.

Human trafficking – modern day slavery – is not just a problem in developing nations; estimates show that thousands of men, women, and children are trafficked in the United States each year primarily for sexual or labor exploitation. Trafficking networks often rely on legitimate businesses to sustain their operations and infrastructure. Read through the suggested tools below. Find out more HERE.

[spp-tweet ““Employees who love what they are doing make great hotels” ~Nancy Johnson”]


Thanks for Listening!

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Until the next …