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Transformational Leader Bringing All Voices to the Table

By Katie Conboy

“Leaders don’t create more followers; they create more leaders.” -Tom Peters

As Group Director, Business Development Retail at Catalina, Phyllis Johnson is responsible for leading a team that manages the needs of retail clients by demonstrating Catalina’s value in the marketplace. She also participates in advancing Catalina’s Diversity Equity & Inclusion (DE&I) initiatives. However, leadership positions and recognition within her career are not what drive Phyllis. Instead, Phyllis measures her success as a leader in terms of how she is helping others. Helping others is her primary purpose in her workplace and personal life, so much so that when she wakes up in the morning, her first thought is, “Who can I help today?” Phyllis delights in giving advice, pushing others forward and seeing her colleagues thrive. Joy for her is found in developing the future generation and making a positive difference in the world. And what a difference Phyllis is making!

Near and Dear

Phyllis has been positively impacting the retail industry for over thirty years, beginning her career journey as a young adult working for an own brand (store brand) company in Texas. During this time, own brands became near and dear to her heart – and, as her knowledge and experience have grown, so has her passion for helping retailers enable the success of their own brands. “It’s in my blood. Not a day goes by that I don’t think about own brands.” She takes pride in the evolution of own brands over the last several decades - and in playing a small part in that evolution. Phyllis recalls at the beginning of her career how own brand options were limited and quality was questionable at best. Products were plain and simple, with a single goal of being the least expensive item on the shelf to help shoppers stretch their dollars and feed their families. Own brands have progressed into something far more innovative and unique. Retailers now create high-quality products that drive consumer loyalty. It was her own brands know-how that eventually led her to Catalina, where she has been a leader in another transformation.

Catalina’s DEI Movement

In 2019, Phyllis joined the Retail Team at Catalina, bringing not only her subject matter expertise, but her passion for making a difference, specifically in the area of diversity and inclusion. When Phyllis started in the retail industry, DEI was generally not a topic discussed in the workplace. From her experience, employers only recognized basic DEI actions that focused on protected classes as a legal requirement. As the rights of underrepresented groups moved to the forefront within organizations, Phyllis recalls that a lot of companies “missed the mark,” because it was more about what was put on paper versus serious actions to drive change. The hard conversations weren’t happening, and Catalina employees decided to change that.

In 2020, as the world grappled with senseless violence and tragedy, one of Catalina’s executive leaders initiated what she calls “hard and heart conversations.” His single attempt to reach out to employees and provide a safe space for conversation has evolved into a weekly Thursday DEI lunch group focused on learning more about the needs of employees, partnering with others in the community to advance DEI, and encouraging action at multiple levels in the organization. The conversations during these virtual lunch groups are open, honest, and emotional. Topics such as suicide, religion, economics, politics, and inequality are discussed in a safe environment in such a way that employees can share feelings and learn from each other. The Thursday Lunch Group has also hosted numerous guest speakers who have imparted wisdom and challenged the group to drive for more equitable change within Catalina and their communities.

Additionally, Catalina offers three employee resource groups (ERGs) that hold monthly meetings for connection, conversation, and insights from guest speakers. These groups are PRIDE (LGBTQ+), Lifting Her (Women’s Employee Resource Group), and BEN (Black Employee Network). As an advisor to BEN, Phyllis is proud of the grassroots nature of these groups, led by Catalina employees who volunteer their time to drive DE&I initiatives at the company. As an organization, Catalina is serious about inclusion and the efforts it takes to be intentional about DEI. The time and commitment Phyllis and others have put into the transformation of DEI within Catalina is admirable.

All at the Table

Staying true to her passion for developing others, Phyllis serves as the mentor for the WISE Junior Board of Directors. In 2020, she was recognized by WISE (Women Impacting Storebrand Excellence) and received an award as one of the Top Women in Store Brands. That led to her being asked to join WISE ( as a Board Member. WISE’s mission is to “cultivate diverse collaboration through programs and provide leadership to empower the industry’s continued success.”

The Junior Board was started in 2021 with the goal of including the next generation of the store brand industry in the mission to increase diversity and inclusion. This diverse representation of individuals provides the opportunity to truly have all voices and experiences brought to the table. Phyllis views one of WISE’s greatest successes is the inclusion of a male on the Junior Board, in an organization primarily made up of women. While founded by women, WISE has always encouraged men to participate as either Board members or Committee volunteers. Phyllis says, “This lets the industry see we really are about diversity and inclusion, and we are willing to demonstrate our vision and mission through action.” One of Phyllis’ goals is to ensure Junior Board members are given the chance “to get their hands dirty” by being empowered to get involved. At the annual meeting last year, two Junior Board members closed out the meeting, which provided the Board of Directors’ member partners and the industry at large an opportunity to see up-and-coming next generation leaders participating on one of the largest industry platforms. Generation Z is the most diverse generation yet, and just like WISE is doing, organizations must be ready to embrace that diversity by doing the necessary work now. As companies recognize and address what this means, Phyllis is always looking for new Junior Board members to mentor and help move into roles where they can have significant impact.

Never Done

When asked about her goals for DEI at Catalina and WISE, Phyllis wants to establish greater accountability in terms of measuring progress and ensuring leaders define what that means for the organizations. She desires to reach the voices that are not yet being heard and find out how to get those people involved. Despite all her success in DEI, Phyllis points out, “Inclusion is always challenging. The work is never done.” There will always be an issue that needs to be addressed in the DEI space. Being a leader means fighting the temptation to avoid difficult and uncomfortable conversations, and instead, finding the courage to discover our own biases, and then challenge ourselves, our teams, and our leaders to act. Phyllis is a true example of this type of transformational leader. Through her dedication at Catalina and WISE, she is helping develop innovative and dynamic future leaders to drive DEI efforts in the industry.


WISE-Women Impacting Store Brand Excellence:

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