‘I’ve always felt a bit of imposter syndrome throughout my career’
Building a company is a difficult task. Whether starting their own or growing an established business, these leaders have made a name for themselves as some of the best of the best. So, what makes business leaders tick and what are they aiming to achieve when all is said and done? We spoke to Sarah Lawson Johnston, CRO and Board Member of Covatic, about her journey in business.
What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in your career and how have you overcome them?
Adtech is an incredibly complex ecosystem with experts sitting in very specific areas and when I started, I assumed that everyone around me understood the whole thing. I felt like I needed to know every inch of the adtech industry to be respected in my role but quickly found that was not the case.
Once I realised that very few people understood the industry as a whole, I started gravitating towards those who were able to translate all the acronyms and intricacies into plain English. That’s what helped me navigate the maze of ad tech and conclude that there is a way to make sense of it all.
Is there anything you wish you knew before you first started out?
I’ve always felt a bit of imposter syndrome throughout my career, especially having not come from a tech background, but opening up to my peers helped me realise I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. Simply having the label ‘imposter syndrome’ — which wasn’t a term I heard often at the start of my career — really helps me to make sense of what I’m feeling and work through it when those feelings crop up.
In my first few years in the industry, I put myself under extreme pressure to meet the high expectations I thought others had for me. Once I took a step back and knocked down the wall between me and my colleagues, there was a moment of realisation: we’re all navigating these feelings, and being able to label them and talk about them together made the journey so much easier moving forward.
Did you always want to be a business leader or did the desire develop over time?
I didn’t set out to be a business leader in the early days of my career. Nowadays, it’s interesting to speak to friends from university and hear them say they’ve always envisioned me in a similar role to what I have today. I used to think of myself as a hard worker, but not necessarily as a leader.
Ten years into my career, I took the opportunity to build a team and lead it. Nurturing it, bringing personalities and ideas together, and instilling a sense of unity and hard work into young professionals made me realise my purpose. Seeing these professionals grow to become leaders themselves is one of the most fulfilling parts of my job.
What is your top tip for other business leaders?
Lead people in your organisation the same way you want to be led. I’ve seen leaders forget that they too were once led by others and how different leadership styles impacted them. It all comes down to respect for people, whatever level they are, and whatever skill set they have. Leaders will find that those who feel respected always put something extra into their work. So in my experience, treating people how I would want to be treated has only ever yielded positive results.
What are your plans for the future?
To continue growing a team I’m proud of. To help it evolve, become inspirational in its own right, and have a genuinely positive impact on the business.
I am incredibly passionate about the work Covatic is doing and the way we’re changing the industry for the better, but my plans extend beyond the work we produce to include how we work with each other. The world had some tough years with Covid-19 and the cost-of-living crisis, and many young professionals haven’t had the chance to experience the workplace before those things. I want to be the sanity check that keeps them grounded while pushing them further than they thought they could go. Igniting that passion in others is what ultimately brings value to the business.
What would you like your legacy to be?
Equality. Reaching a point where it’s ‘person in tech’ and not ‘women in tech’. Unfortunately, female professionals are still underrepresented in the industry and in leadership roles. The distinction helps to even the odds of building a female presence in tech, but I still get the same questions today as 20 years ago. Namely, how do I balance work with my personal life and having kids?
Speaking to male counterparts, it’s clear they don’t experience the same and never have. People continue to assume that only the woman has a home-life responsibility and must juggle her career with mum duties. So my ideal legacy would be to make that a thing of the past and not be seen as any different to my male colleagues.
What makes a great business leader?
Empathy and focus. Empathy for your team, for your clients, and for the industry you work in. That’s what makes us human and relatable; it’s how we make connections and communicate better. Focus on what you’re doing, set clear objectives, and don’t be side-tracked by superfluous things that aren’t adding value to your mission.
One of the lessons I learned early on was to focus on the people who are delivering. Leaders often spend about 80% of their time on underperformers and 20% on the top workers when it should be the other way around. It’s those who are adding value and pushing you forward that you should invest time in nurturing.