Jennifer Graham-Johnson is the Chief Human Resources Officer at WestRock Company. In 1993, Jennifer joined Rock-Tenn Company, a predecessor of WestRock, in risk management and has since served in a variety of leadership roles in the company, on the path to her current high-profile position as the head of Human Resources of WestRock, responsible for all of HR, and the chief strategy officer, responsible for leading all areas of HR and safety. With all of this success, Jennifer also manages to have a family, personal interests, and volunteer responsibilities outside of work.
What interested you about the business in which you work?
While I never planned to work in the paper and packaging industry or in human resources (HR), I have found it to be very interesting and fascinating, especially because of the constant changes, many of which have resulted from the company’s growth that I’ve experienced since I began working there in 1993. Basically, there is never a “Groundhog Day”—every day brings new challenges and excitement.
What profession other than yours were you interested in?
It’s funny that you should ask because I just confessed to some peers at dinner last night that I wanted to be a TV news anchor as a child. I was also interested in being an accountant, but ultimately graduated from college with a degree in risk management.
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
While not necessarily advice, I have learned over my career that you should always be open-minded, creative, and flexible with regard to problems that arise. In other words, you should always strive to find a solution to the problem rather than just saying “no.”
What advice would you give someone else interested in your business or your success?
I would recommend that they be open to things that they never thought they were going to do and that they be open to receiving advice and leaning lessons from others on a frequent basis, new experiences, and different fields—like when I moved from risk management to HR. However, it is critical to enjoy what you do.
What has been one of your biggest successes?
My biggest business successes would definitely be my role in Rock-Tenn’s two biggest growth events to date—the acquisition of Smurfit-Stone in 2011 (in which Rock-Tenn was the smaller company) and the business combination of Rock-Tenn and MeadWestvaco Corp. in 2015. Since I joined the company in 1993, it has grown from approximately 5,500 employees to 42,000 employees and revenue has grown from approximately $650 million to $15 billion. However, my family is also something that I am very proud of—I recently celebrated 20 years of marriage and have two amazing children. Together, as a very flexible team, we have all made this two-career family, with very active children, work and work well!
What prepared you most for your career, education, experience or something else?
Growing up I never had a doubt that I would be successful. While I did not envision working in HR or the paper and packaging industry, I knew that I would be successful and this goal helped drive me to where I am today.
What person or persons have served as a role model for you, either personally or professionally?
I haven’t had one specific mentor. Instead, I have learned from everyone with whom I have worked over the years, such as the past and present CEOs, co-workers, outside consultants, and my team.
What advice do you have for young women who want to take a more active role in their job?
My advice would be that if you want to succeed, you need to let your desires and ambitions be known—you need to own your career. Don’t be shy and timid—be the one to speak up with questions or ideas. You cannot rely upon your manager to determine your career path. Instead, you must take ownership of expanding your skill set and growing within or outside the company. You can achieve this by networking with others in your company and outside of your company.
How do you like to spend what free time you have?
I enjoy traveling with my full family, just my husband, or my girlfriends. My favorite places are Italy, Alaska, and anywhere in the Caribbean. I love running—it is my physical and emotional release—and when I have the time, I cook.
What is the last movie that you watched?
I don’t remember the name, but a documentary on Russia and ice hockey that my husband and son wanted to see. It’s possible that I fell asleep. Usually, when I have spare time, I’d rather have dinner with my husband and talk / interact with each other rather than sitting next to each other staring at a screen.
What are you reading right now?
Currently, I am reading the China Section in Kiss, Bow or Shake Hands. I am preparing for my first business trip to China next month.
Based on your personal experience as a successful woman in business, is there anything else that we have not covered in this interview that you think is important for an aspiring business woman to know?
I believe that you must really like the people with whom you work because you will be spending a huge amount of your time with those people. You also must enjoy your job and be passionate about your company and your role therein. Prior to working in the paper and packaging field, I rarely noticed boxes—now, when I see one, I want to touch it and see how sturdy it is, any special features that it might have, and who made it.
Post script: WestRock Company is a leading, global packaging company with approximately 275 operating and business locations in 30 countries and spanning North America, South America, Europe, and Asia.