Learning to lead: the lasting power of great coaches
AB Newsroom sat down with Johanna Faries to talk about her recent award, and a host of other topics.
Being coachable is a key factor in one’s ability to perform at their highest levels, no matter the goal. To be guided and trained by a wide range of experts and counselors helps expand horizons, shift perspectives, and enables one to understand the true meaning of discipline and teamwork under pressure.
Johanna Faries grew up as a multi-sport athlete. She played basketball and soccer, ran track and field, dabbled in softball, and received her black belt in martial arts early in her teen years. Beyond sports, she was heavily involved in the arts, playing the violin through high school and immersing herself in the performing arts as a vocalist in college. Growing up, Johanna was exposed to coaches and trainers who imparted a great many skills, while also teaching her about exploring her passions, being accountable, embracing change, leaning into learning, being open to different perspectives, building kinship and community, and fueling her resilience bank. It’s no wonder then, that she credits these teachers for shaping her perspectives that define how she shows up today.
AB Newsroom sat down with Johanna Faries , after she received the Executive of the Year Award from the LA Business Journal. Johanna is the first gaming executive to receive this award in its 15-year history. We covered a host of topics in which team, community, coaching, mentorship, and community service represented essential threads in our conversation.
AB Newsroom: Congrats on the LA Business Journal’s Executive of the Year Award, Johanna. What does this accolade mean to you?
Johanna Faries: Thank you! Well, the award means so many significant things to me. First and foremost, it is a reflection of the amazing village around me. As I've said to many of my team members on the Activision Blizzard, and in particular, to the team within the Call of Duty franchise, this should feel like a shared honor, because it takes an enormous amount of great people around me to be able to do the work that I do. I feel enormously blessed to be able to work with the best and the brightest in that way. I think of the award in that vein.
The village also extends to my personal support system, and that includes my incredible husband who's been so supportive each and every day, my children, my extended family, my former colleagues, friends, and mentors. In essence, what this means is that I have a very strong and wide-ranging, high-impact network of people, who have guided me all the way through and have taught me how to be the best potential leader I can be, and I'm very grateful for that. This honor is a testament to the countless special people whom I admire and cherish.
AB Newsroom: Tell us about the early influences in your life that you feel have shaped who you are today.
Johanna Faries: There are so many, it's hard to pick and choose to be honest. I think growing up as a multi-sport athlete, and in particular, playing a lot of team sports has had an enormous impact on me as a leader. The coaches that I have trained under throughout the early part of my life, have left an indelible mark on my ability to bring my best self, to consider team dynamics and how to perform under pressure, to embrace the power in team by making sure that everybody understands their role toward the main objectives at hand, and so on. There is so much that I think I've gleaned from the coaches, teachers, and trainers who’ve really helped me think about how to lead and deliver on sports fields and in corporate arenas.
It is something I draw from even now, and it's something that I think is a hallmark of great leaders. Oftentimes, you find that they draw from earlier experiences in sports or music or the arts or other pursuits, where they’ve had to really learn how to perform, how to be disciplined and bring rigor to whatever craft it is that they’re committing to. Moreover, they also learn to unlock the best in terms of collaboration - how to work as a team member and how to lead accordingly. So, I would say the coaches of my early days have always had a huge influence on me.
AB Newsroom: Was there a pivotal moment or an epiphany you can point to in your life that gave you clarity about your purpose?
Johanna Faries: My experiences living abroad made lasting impressions on me. When I lived in the Dominican Republic to do community service work, I was embedded in a very underprivileged part of Santo Domingo. While there, I was able to fully immerse myself in the local community that lived there, and that was a very eye-opening experience for me alongside the other American teens with whom I was living, none of whom I had ever met before the trip. Everything was sort of new in that regard, but it opened my eyes to different cultures, different ways in which people relate to one another and it got me to reflect deeply on essential concepts, like “What does true joy look like?”, “What does true wealth and poverty look like?”, and so on. New answers emerged despite what we had been taught to perceive through a particular American lens, and a pretty privileged one at that. And so, it was really life-changing to be able to get out of my cultural comfort zone at a young age and immerse myself in a completely new culture, country, language, community, and socio-economic realm of life. It also enriched my sense of what making a real impact in people’s lives can look like, and underlined for me that by-and-large, all human beings are more similar than they are different.
I had the same type of experience living abroad some years later in the Middle East, in a totally different culture, with totally different socio-political dynamics. Every time I've been able to live abroad, or travel abroad, it expands me, it humbles me, it grounds me, and it's fed into my hunger to have a global perspective in life.
AB Newsroom: Do you have a credo, an ethos, a favorite quote, or a value system that defines how you live your life and show up every day?
Johanna Faries: I do. I've said it in other instances. I have a favorite quote by a well renowned rabbi, who was a leading light in the American civil rights movement, and was also one of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,’s best friends and collaborators at that time.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “When I was young, I admired those who were clever. Now that I am old, I admire those who are kind”. It's a very simple, yet powerful quote about the power of kindness and how in many ways, kindness is a driving force. Perhaps it matters more than anything else that you bring to the table. And it's easy for us, especially when we're younger or we're perhaps more ambitious and less wise about things, we tend to get caught up in someone's cleverness or their particular abilities in a more tactical sense. But at the end of the day, it really is about how one treats others - how empathetic you are as a leader, as a teammate, as a family member, as a person - and the level of care you bring to your interactions. It’s really been a guiding force for me for decades and a quote that I try to live by.
AB Newsroom: What’s the story behind how those words came to resonate so deeply within your core?
Johanna Faries: I actually discovered it while writing my senior thesis in college. I was a Comparative Religion Major and Afro-American Studies Minor at Harvard, and wrote about Dr. King's unique leadership style in the thesis. I was arguing for why he was singularly successful and impactful as compared to other peers and civil rights movement leaders. In particular, my work began to uncover the interreligious and intercultural approach King took in shaping his moral compass for American society at that time. Pulling predominantly from Gandhi’s non-violent impact as found in Hinduism, but also Rabbi Heschel’s way of advocating for civil rights within a Judaic context, it was fascinating to peel back the layers of all these other non-Christian leaders that Dr. King was working so closely with or pulling so deeply from. It’s why I titled the thesis “Bridges to Freedom”, because in many ways King had woven an intercultural tapestry to move the world into moral action at unprecedented scale. It was also a good reflection of Heschel’s great quote and the powerful relationship they had during that time of unrest.
AB Newsroom: What would you say was an important challenge or obstacle in your life and how did you master it?
Johanna Faries: Ooh, that's such a good one. I mean, I have so many! I’d say an important one for me was making the leap to Activision Blizzard. Prior to making the jump, I was really well established in my former role at the National Football League (NFL), and it was a very psychological challenge for me to decide to change course. So, to make that jump actually was risky in many ways, at least I felt that way and jumping into very unfamiliar territory when it likely would've been much safer, so to speak, to stay in the roles that I’d had back on the East Coast, in traditional sports.
Honestly, there isn't a day that goes by that I'm not grateful for having mustered up the courage to fly out of the nest and try something new. For me, so much of the reasoning for why I was ultimately able to make that leap, aside from just the company being so visionary about where it wanted to take Call of Duty, and Call of Duty esports at the time, was the people.
The people whom I met along the way at Activision Blizzard, who were so intriguing and inspiring and impressive to me, that was really the driving factor. I reconciled with myself that even if the jump didn’t pan out the way I'd like it to, it'll probably be worth it because I really, really admire the people. I knew that I was going to learn a ton from working with them and leading with them. So that was a big hurdle that I had to work out for myself, and I'm so glad I did.
AB Newsroom: Every year is a big year for the Call of Duty franchise. However, the anticipation of Modern Warfare II feels especially intense, and you have referred to it as ‘bold, badass, and big time’. What are you most excited about in the months ahead?
Johanna Faries: I am so excited for everything that the Call of Duty franchise is about to unleash into the world. It is so ambitious and broad-ranging in terms of the innovations that every single one of our studios are putting forward for our community. It's such a special time to me, to be working with this franchise team because all of us are committed to building an even more expansive vision for years to come. That bold ambition starts with the launch of Modern Warfare II on October 28th, but that’s just the start in many ways. From a new Warzone experience, to our expanded mobile strategy, to better connecting our tech infrastructure and creating much more unified experiences for all Call of Duty players, and so much more in store. We can’t wait to share it with the world.
AB Newsroom: 'The ultimate weapon is team', the tagline for Modern Warfare II is an important truth. What does that mean to you in context of your role, and the talent you work with every day?
Johanna Faries: Everything to me is about ‘team’. When I first took on the role of General Manager, within the first few weeks of introducing myself to the Call of Duty team, I shared how my ultimate goal is to build, develop, and support the best team of leaders in the entire gaming industry. I know if that is true, and if I can help create an infrastructure of top talent doing their best work, who can also lead in best-in-class ways and engender that same type of empowerment within their own teams, we will be off and running. We will be this well-oiled machine capable of delivering on the bold ambitions that we have for the franchise.
So I’m very focused on what the ultimate team looks like. To ensure that everyone feels they have the resources and also the safe spaces to have healthy debates, to let the best ideas win, to ask for help, to celebrate one another, and to work cross-functionally to make the most of any opportunity. It's a low-ego, high-yield type of team, and I'm so glad that this is the type of culture that we've begun to set.
Transparency has also been a big theme for us. It means creating more open dialogue to support one another in solving complex problems and knowing that the best ideas are going to come when we're collaborating in optimal ways, connecting on a human level, and supporting each other in work and beyond.
This aspect of increased transparency has come through in our communications with the Call of Duty player community as well. We provide players more frequent access to what we're working on and have exhibited more vulnerability in spots; admitting where we can do better as a franchise at times, to deliver the best possible gaming experience. I think that has really helped us turn the tide on community sentiment over the last year - to think like a player, speak like a player, be honest like a player. That shift in body language has borne great fruit for us and I love seeing it.
AB Newsroom: To lift as one is climbing, is an important trait for leaders. Tell us about the importance of mentorship and how it has enriched your life both as a mentor and as a mentee.
Johanna Faries: I am so obsessed with mentorship, almost to a fault. I light up at the prospect of either being mentored or being able to mentor somebody. I have learned as much from great mentors as I have from hard skills training throughout my career, so I'm a huge proponent of that being time well spent. In particular, I try to hold myself accountable to your point that it's not enough for me to thrive personally; the bigger impact I’m going to have is on who else I am able to support along the way. The hope is that many can one day testify to me having had a direct or indirect impact on their own ascension, their growth, their advancement, their ability to develop new skills. So, I embrace those opportunities as much as possible. I probably have too many mentees to count at this point [laughs], but it's hard for me to say no, to be honest.
I'm actively engaged with formal mentees as part of our Activision Blizzard King Mentorship Program. I think I maxed out on that, so I had to cap myself, but even when I haven't been able to do more, I try and still get time with folks who are looking for that guidance. And again, it's because I think it's incumbent on leaders to also be bringing others along with them, and because I personally have grown so much from similar experiences. I wouldn't be where I am today without having had great mentors. For me, it's important that I pay that forward.