'‘Walk the Talk’: Q&A with New Group President Denise Johnson

April 8, 2016

Denise Johnson has been named group president of Resource Industries effective April 1, 2016. Resource Industries is made up of four divisions including the Advanced Components & Systems, Surface Mining & Technology, Material Handling & Underground and Product Development & Global Technology Divisions.

Tell us about yourself personally.

I grew up in a small farming town in Michigan surrounded by a lot of family. Every Sunday, my parents and brothers and sister would get together with my grandparents for dinner and share our stories from the week. Looking back, those simple times together are some of my fondest memories, and why I try to spend as much time with my family as I can. I married my high-school sweetheart, Jerry, more than 30 years ago. We are both engineers and he recently retired from a manufacturing leadership role with a metal stamping supplier. We have three grown daughters: Jessica (30), Sarah (27) and Katie (24). The Johnson family continues to grow, as I now also have three grandbabies as well! Family get-togethers are always a lot of fun.

You spent more than 20 years at GM before coming to Caterpillar in 2011. What drew you to the company and how has that external experience helped you succeed?

Growing up in Michigan, many family members and friends had connections with the automotive industry, so it was a natural fit for me. While in college, I worked as a GM engineering intern during summers at the local Product Development Center. After graduating, I hired in full time and held positions in engineering, operations and other leadership roles. We lived in several different parts of the country including Boston, Massachusetts, while I worked on my masters at MIT; Ontario, Canada; and also in Sao Paulo, Brazil. I really enjoyed the work and especially the interaction with employees, suppliers and customers.

Moving mid-career to Caterpillar was a difficult decision, but a great move for me and my family. I liked the values of Caterpillar and the business of “building the world’s infrastructure” with the global reach of our products and services. The people I met with while interviewing – like Ed Rapp – quickly made me feel at home … and I knew Caterpillar was for me.

The mining industry has faced some challenges over the last few years. How do you inspire yourself and your team despite obstacles and setbacks?

“Facing challenges” is an understatement. I think the last few years have been some of the toughest we’ve ever seen in mining, and with all the transformative work we’ve been doing, I hope the most difficult days are now behind us.  Our customers, dealers and suppliers are frustrated as well.  They are all very cautious with their next steps because no one is sure when the industry will come back.

I strengthen and encourage our leaders and employees by working with them to focus on what we can control – what can we continuously improve? Our strategy is clearly articulated and prioritized through our OPACC Improvement Agendas. These agendas are holistic – focused on growing our share of market OPACC, so that we can reinvest in our business. The agendas include initiatives around lean cost structure, integrating our value chain, implementing new NPI programs with state-of-the-art technology and features that provide value for customers. Our teams are also very engaged with improving their quality of work, and that engagement builds pride.

I also encourage all leaders to be out in front of employees communicating very transparently and openly. Although we don’t always have good news to share, we make the commitment to been open and honest with our teams.

What’s the best leadership advice you’ve received?

This year MH&U held seven, global leadership summits to strengthen our pride, deep dive our Making Great Leaders (MGL) results and further drive inclusion and collaboration. I shared a leadership quote at every summit that I think is simple, but very effective in getting across the importance of being a leader.

“A leaders is one who knows the way, shows the way and goes the way.” – John C. Maxwell

As leaders we have to communicate a vision and set goals to push our team beyond “what they’ve always done.”  We have to build confidence in our team and let them know they can achieve excellence. And finally we have to go along with the team – we have to “walk the talk” and model the behavior we expect from everyone else.

You were recently named the executive sponsor of Women in Leadership. Can you tell us about this initiative?

As a company, we are focused on delivering results – and studies consistently show that diverse teams who operate in an inclusive environment consistently deliver higher results. While gender balance has always been a priority for Caterpillar, now more than ever we need the right talent, in the right place, at the right time. Caterpillar has recently launched a dedicated initiative to proactively address diversity challenges in our workplace. To start this journey, our focus will be Women in Leadership and in three key areas:


We will drive action across all levels of the enterprise to generate commitment and set us up for long-standing change. We will elevate our employment brand to meet the strength of our product brands. We will implement a transparent and intentional communication strategy highlighting our progress.


We will take a look inside and outside of Caterpillar for solutions in leadership and pipeline development, creating innovative sourcing and attraction initiatives.


We will disrupt our thinking around current internal policies and procedures. Multiple divisions within Caterpillar are experimenting and acting fast to see what works. These divisions are piloting new policies and practices as they relate to flexibility and values-based leadership.

There will be a lot more communications regarding WIL over the next few months. If there is one thing I want you to take away from this project, it is that working on gender equality is good for everyone. When we have a more inclusive environment, we will listen to all ideas and be able to excel much faster in our business than ever before.

What are your personal and professional goals for 2016?

No doubt, 2016 is going to be another tough year. One of the things I stress as a leader is that we must achieve our commitments to our customers and to ourselves. In Mining we have put aggressive targets and goals in place to transform our products and processes to be ready for the upturn. This is hard work and the team has done a phenomenal job – especially in such a tough and depressed market. One thing I have learned over the past five years is that if the people of Caterpillar set their minds to a goal, we achieve results!

On a personal note, I’d like to continue to stay active and spend as much time with my family as possible. If I can find a place to run or swim, it transforms my entire outlook. Although we all have so many demands pulling us every day, I try to slow down – even if it’s for a few moments – to put life back into perspective and really focus on what is important. Finding balance is tough, but worth the hard work!