Get to know: Miki Johnson, Cofounder

Joined Job Portraits: April 2014 | Based in: San Francisco

Sandra: What do you do at Job Portraits?

I think of myself primarily as a relationship builder. I’m usually the first person a potential client talks to, and if we decide it’s a good fit, I help create the high-level strategy for a project. Internally, I work with our team to decide on roles and responsibilities — including my own — for an engagement. From there, I support our team with anything they need, whether that’s a gut check about an email or jumping in to lead a call or edit a story.
Because I spend so much time talking with clients, I also think a lot about Job Portraits’ offerings. I’m constantly looking for connection points between what clients are asking for, what we’re hearing from job candidates, and what our team is interested in doing more of.
The thing about roles at Job Portraits is they are constantly evolving. When it was just Jackson and me, I did most of the interviews and writing, but over the last year I’ve gratefully handed off that work to our talented team. My goal for 2018 is to step out of doing final review on creative deliverables, so I can focus on business development — and starting a family.

What were you doing before Job Portraits, and why did you start the company?

This is the second company Jackson and I have cofounded. We started the first one two months after we met. Thank goodness the relationship worked out — because the company didn’t. I think we made every mistake possible as early-stage founders. It was meant to be a venture-backable, high-growth startup, and one of the things I learned was that that business model is not a good fit for me.
When that company ended, I got a job at a boutique marketing firm. Meanwhile, Jackson was looking for work that felt as compelling as running our own business. He found the experience frustrating in a way we hear about often from job candidates. He’d find a product he was excited about, but then he couldn’t find any information about what it was actually like to work on the team. So he started contacting founders and offering to write blog posts about them if they’d grant him an interview, just to get face time with an actual human being. The companies started using his blog posts to recruit other people, and Jackson recognized he’d hit a nerve that was worth exploring.
At the time, part of me was like, “Why does this have to be so complicated? Just send a bunch of résumés like everyone else!” But that’s Jackson. He does everything his own way. And that idea turned into Job Portraits, so obviously I’m glad for it now.
At that point I was ready to leave my job, and I’d been thinking about starting another company of my own. But we knew it takes a couple years for a new business to find its footing. We could either go through that with two businesses at once, or pool our resources and hopefully move twice as fast. I saw he was getting traction, and solving a tangible problem that’s close to both of our hearts — anyone who’s looked for a job knows how demoralizing that process can be. So we started talking about working together again. Once he agreed this would be a “lifestyle” business and we wouldn’t take venture backing, I was in.

Tell us about the culture you want to build at Job Portraits.

I want the people on our team to feel invested in the future of the company, and excited about their role in creating it. I want them to do things they enjoy, at least most of the time. But more importantly, I want them to grow personally through the work we do. Jackson and I have always been interested in the human side of business, including how to be good managers. At our first company, we ultimately realized we were more excited about thinking through our values and building internal processes than building the product. Now, we get to help companies build great cultures every day.
I do a lot of reading on how to build stronger organizations. I’m a big fan of Daring Greatly by Brené Brown, and her new book, Braving The Wilderness, which is, among other things, about how to have a meaningful conversation when you disagree strongly with someone. That’s an important part of culture for me — that everyone feels comfortable voicing contrarian or unpopular views, and that disagreeing with someone is never a reason to disrespect them. I also really like the idea of deliberately developmental organizations, meaning your primary goal should be for the people on your team to learn and grow.

How do you think about leadership?

I see my role as a leader as creating the space and conditions for professional and personal growth. Sometimes that means facilitating group conversations where we can learn from and connect with one another. Sometimes it’s one-on-ones with our team members, or just acting as a mentor and a friend.
One of the things I’m working on personally is how to support our team members without micromanaging or deciding I should just do it myself. That can be a struggle for me because, especially when things are uncertain or stressful, I want to be in control. It’s my default defense mechanism. But I know if I try to be involved in everything, Job Portraits can’t grow. Plus, the amazingly talented and creative people who work for Job Portraits won’t stick around if they feel like they don’t have ownership. So it’s something I’m putting a lot of intention and care into. I want to find ways to replace that control instinct with a collaborative process that is fun and exciting, for me and everyone on the team.

What’s surprised you most since you started this company?

I think the biggest surprise was learning how recruiting actually happens, particularly in the Bay Area. We knew how startups worked, and we knew how to tell great stories, but we’d never been part of an in-house recruiting team.
One thing that continues to surprise me is that in-house recruiting teams often don’t get the respect they deserve within the company. There’s lots of reasons for that, but a big one is that opportunistic contingency recruiters have left a bitter taste in people’s mouths — especially engineers’. So you have these startups hiring for highly competitive roles at a very aggressive pace, but subconsciously they don’t trust recruiters — because of their poor personal experience — so they don’t give their own recruiting team the resources to be successful. And then the recruiters fail to meet their goals, which reinforces the rest of the team’s misperceptions. It can become a negative cycle that puts the whole business in danger, since it doesn’t matter how great a product is if you don’t have great people to build, support, and sell it.
Despite all that, we work with amazing internal recruiters who do an incredibly difficult job with very limited resources. They’re working toward greater diversity and inclusion while dealing with 12 different hiring managers whose requests are often misaligned with the market, and they still manage to make every candidate feel seen, heard, and appreciated.

Lightning Round!

What’s your morning routine?

I usually get up sometime before 6:30. I brush my teeth, drink a cup of warm water, take a cold shower, and, on a good day, do 30 minutes of yoga. After breakfast I sit down at my computer and try to avoid getting sucked into email and Slack. I’m a much more creative, focused person early in the day, so I usually block off mornings for writing, editing, or developing proposals.

What’s your superpower?

I think it’s setting the conditions that allow for meaningful conversations, and then holding everyone involved accountable so we all get what we need from the conversation.

What’s the worst advice you ever followed?

“Don’t let ’em see you cry,” though that’s more a cultural norm than actual advice someone gave me. I spent so much of my young adulthood miserable and physically sick because I tried to pretend that I was OK all the time and never needed help. I actually blogged about how learning to admit my vulnerabilities made me a better CEO. Now I’ve replaced “Don’t let ’em see you cry” with something I heard from Ana Marie Cox, who founded Wonkette and now hosts the podcast With Friends Like These. She said, “It’s okay to have thin skin. You just have to heal quickly.”

What’s your spirit animal?

I actually took part in a ceremonial journey to meet my spirit animal, and my understanding right now is it’s a turtle. That resonates with me because most turtles live both in the sea and on land — and in many indigenous cultures, the sea represents emotion, while the land represents stability, lineage, and reason. I think I have that ability to be in my emotions, but then come back to solid ground and figure out how to apply my feelings in tangible ways.

Tell us about a book that had a big impact on you.

Anything by Joan Didion. She’s the ideal version of whatever my writing style is — like, if I were superhuman, that’s how I would write. She’s brutally honest, especially with herself. What she writes is deeply personal, but it’s melded with this expansive view of society and culture. She also has a stunningly malleable, almost poetic voice and rhythm. It blows my mind whenever I read her writing.

If you could interview one person, living or dead, who would it be?

A priestess in one of the temples to Isis, in ancient Egypt. I want to know what happened around that time, when the majority of human societies moved from pantheistic beliefs, where women held great power and a connection to the divine, to our current patriarchal, largely monotheistic worldview where women have been systematically disempowered for centuries. I feel like a lot of the challenges we’re seeing now have their roots in that transition.

What unpopular opinion do you hold?

Data is not necessarily objective, and it cannot provide the right answer to every question.

What’s your next adventure?

Parenting, and the personal growth that it will no doubt bring. Just like Jackson and I want to run a business that promotes personal growth, I think we’re excited about having a kid in part because we know it will fundamentally change us and how we see the world.
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