MCW INTERVIEW WITH
THOMAS (TOM) JOHNSON is our Modern Career Warrior for March 2020. This article is part of a series of mid-career retrospective interviews featuring inspiring and innovative professionals at AnneMarieSegal.com.
My interview with Tom spans his “two careers” at The Clorox Company, his current semi-retirement as a yoga instructor in Fairfield County, Connecticut and his ideas for the future.
In Tom’s early career days, he was constantly on guard about his identity and knew that he missed a lot of opportunities as a result. Upon being offered a plum ex-pat assignment in London, he finally decided it was time to tell his boss he was not a single guy (as many at the company assumed) but in a long-term, committed relationship with his partner, Bruce.
That was in 1995. There were no policies, playbooks or packages for same-sex couples, so Tom was treading new ground. Yet Clorox believed in him and came through for him. Tom stayed at the company another 22 years and became one of the leaders in the movement across Corporate America for greater diversity and acceptance of LGBTQ employees. This is his story.
AMS: When I met you, you had just started teaching my Sunday morning yoga class, taking us through warrior poses, downward-facing dogs and the like. I had no idea that you were a veteran corporate executive, let alone one with such a robust career. Although I must admit a certain intensity was evident at our first meeting, even in that setting.
TDJ: I am definitely driven, and that’s probably something I will never retire from. My husband says I am working just as hard as I ever worked [as an executive] at Clorox. Although my work today is not as stressful. I am driven by internal intensity, not external demands.
AMS: I could be biased by my own love of yoga, but should we use it as a lens to view your career? We could start with your perspective 25 years ago, when you took (rather than taught) your first yoga class.
TDJ: Yoga is definitely a key part of my daily life. It has helped me make some courageous choices and keeps me centered, which in turn fueled my professional development.
AMS: And you have already shared with me some of the highlights and challenges of your personal story, as it was featured in Out and Equal at Work: From the Closet to the Corner Office. Did yoga help you come to a better place in your life and career, where you could live more authentically?
TDJ: Well, I didn’t take my first yoga class until after I got to London, so I was already on the path to the life I have today. Yoga helped keep me on the path.
AMS: So where should we start to unpack your story?
TDJ: Well, the guiding narrative of my early career began well before I took my very first job and stems from my childhood in Rochester, Michigan.
AMS: You mean themes such as these from your early life, as you told them in the book?
“I was the sixth of seven children raised in a working-class family of devout Catholics…”
“[M]y father ruled the house without debate, discussion or exception.”
“Growing up, our family never had conversations about sexual orientation. However, I understood at an early age that anyone who did not fit a conventional gender profile was not acceptable in my family or my community.”
“[I] felt like I was the only gay person in the whole state of Michigan.”
TDJ: Yes. Life was very different back then, as some of us still remember and (thankfully) much of the current generation cannot even begin to imagine. It wasn’t until I moved to Boston after college that I finally began the process of accepting who I am.
AMS: How did that change come about?
TDJ: The major shift in my life started when I met Bruce, who became my partner and later my husband.
AMS: What did that change look like?
TDJ: Coming out of the closet?
AMS: Yes, if that’s the best term to use.
TDJ: Well, we still don’t seem to have a better one. Bruce helped me tremendously. He saw the real me, and I finally felt loved and accepted. It was incredibly liberating.
AMS: And then you started telling other people?
TDJ: The whole coming out process happens in stages. It’s not a “one and done” conversation.
AMS: So what happened next?
TDJ: Shortly after we met, I was offered a role in San Francisco, and Bruce decided to join me. We had only intended to be there a few years before returning to the Northeast, but we both found our initial footing in our careers and, well, it was sunny California.
AMS: What were your own career plans at that point?
TDJ: I didn’t have an overarching plan. When I was in my early days at Clorox, I remember thinking, “If I just make it to manager, that would be awesome.” I never imagined that one day I would become a Vice President and considered as a potential candidate for CFO.
AMS: But we are getting ahead of ourselves.
TDJ: [Smiles.] Yes, we are.
AMS: Let’s talk about London.
TDJ: Right. I had been offered other expat roles that I didn’t take, but this time I was chosen for a key assignment and asked to move to London. This was one I really wanted.
AMS: What was the role?
TDJ: The title was Finance Manager, and I would be co-leading business development in Central Europe and the Middle East. Working in Hungary, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia… all out of London.
TDJ: It was exciting especially for someone who had, at that point, traveled very little outside of the U.S. But it also created a dilemma. I wasn’t going to go to London without Bruce. And my boss didn’t know I was in a relationship.
AMS: You hadn’t told them yet.
TDJ: This was 1995. There was absolutely no indication that coming out would be good for my career. There were no policies protecting LGBTQ employees, no resources available and no LGBTQ employees in leadership roles. If I wanted to advance in my career, it seemed like the safest option was to stay in the closet.
AMS: But the London opportunity was too good to pass up.
TDJ: Yep. They were very keen on me going, but they thought they were sending a single guy. I decided it was finally time to tell my boss about my partner, Bruce.
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Technology, the “gig economy” and globalization have irrevocably altered the modern career. Launched in January 2020, MODERN CAREER WARRIORS is a series on AnneMarieSegal.com that explores the lives of professionals leading robust, resilient and multi-dimensional careers.
DEPTH, COURAGE AND INTENSITY radiate from these Modern Career Warriors, who defy the odds and define their own paths. While they may, like the rest of us, feel side-lined or even defeated at times, their inner drive keeps driving them to their own personal best and inspires others to do the same.
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Anne Marie Segal, founder of Segal Coaching LLC, is an executive coach, resume writer and author of two well-received books on interviewing and career development. She served as a corporate attorney for 15 years, including roles at White & Case LLP and a prominent hedge and private equity fund manager, before launching her coaching practice.
Based in Connecticut not far from New York City, Anne Marie partners with clients internationally on executive presence, impactful communications, graceful transitions and other aspects of professional and personal development.
Article © 2020 Anne Marie Segal. All rights reserved.
Article images: © 2010-2020 Tom Johnson unless otherwise noted. All rights reserved.
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