Chris Johnson didn’t plan to be a lawyer. In fact, the son of a career army officer, Johnson thought he would follow in his father’s footsteps. But little did he know that his college career at the United States Military Academy at West Point—his childhood aspiration—would lead him to become the success that he is today.
Appointed Vice President and General Counsel at General Motors North America in October 2001, Johnson manages the delivery of legal services for the North American region, as well as hundreds of attorneys and support staff. Not bad for a man who was working as a legal headhunter when General Motors asked him to assist with its minority recruiting efforts! According to Johnson, once he arrived in Detroit, he knew he wanted to work for General Motors.
“I met Harry Pearce, then general counsel, and I knew I’d found the ideal job. At the same time, unknown to me, General Motors decided that they wanted to recruit me. At the end of two days of meetings and interviews, they offered me a position. I accepted and moved my family to Detroit.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Johnson graduated from West Point in 1973 as cadet captain, the highest level of rank attainable. But after serving five years in the United States Army, attaining the rank of captain and receiving the Army’s Commendation Medal for Meritorious Service, Johnson wanted to do something different. And he knew that if he were to leave the military, he would have to obtain an advanced degree.
At West Point, Johnson did well in law classes, and served as vice chairman of the Honors Committee, where either he or the chairman would preside over hearings of cadets charged with violating the Honors Code. With his keen interest in law and related legal experience, law school was a natural choice. In 1981, he graduated from New York Law School with honors, receiving an American Jurisprudence Award for Constitutional Law.
Now a 13-year GM veteran, Johnson describes his management style as demanding, but not unreasonable. Respectful, and straightforward in his expectations, he leads by example, challenging his staff and empowering them to make their own decisions. “Leadership is about getting the most out of your people while maintaining mutual respect,” he says.
Johnson attributes his success to hard work, advice he received from both his father and Charles Fairfax, his first mentor at GM. He also took what he calls prudent risks, not to mention being in the right place at the right time. A dedicated family man, he credits his late wife Sheryl for helping him make several important career decisions, including leaving the military for law school, then leaving the law practice to recruit while he looked for the right position. As for changes he would have made on his journey to the top, he says there are none. “Sure, there were twists and turns along the way, but I rolled with the punches and everything worked out well,” he states. “I’ve been truly blessed with a great career.”
To young attorneys, Johnson offers this advice: “Develop diligent work habits, distinguish yourself from the pack, find a mentor and don’t be afraid to take prudent risks. It will pay off.”
From the March 2002 issue of Diversity & The Bar®