Drawn to big challenges, from GM to Caterpillar

As president of Caterpillar’s Resource Industries Group, Denise Johnson SM ’17 leads the mining and materials hauling business of the world’s largest heavy equipment maker.

Even in the best of times, it’s a demanding job, requiring equal measures of manufacturing and management acumen. A recent market downturn has made it even tougher. Since Johnson took the helm of the group in 2016, lower commodity prices have squeezed mining firms’ profits and reduced their demand for equipment. 

Johnson has ably steered Resource Industries through these lean times, aligning its cost structure with emerging market realities and “right-sizing” the business to match production to both customer and dealer demand. Even as she focuses on what her customers need now, Johnson keeps an eye on the horizon, anticipating opportunities presented by promising new technologies and applications for Caterpillar’s iconic machines.

It’s exactly the kind of challenge that she has been drawn to — and preparing for — ever since she arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1995 as a new student in the MIT Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program.

Johnson describes attending LGO (known at the time as Leaders for Manufacturing) as one of her most important career decisions. “Those classes and experiences really changed me as an individual, and my trajectory,” she says.

Today, MIT LGO students earn an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management and a master’s degree from the School of Engineering. In addition to the core curriculum for those two degrees, LGO students take tailored courses in leadership, go on “plant treks” to operations around the country, and participate in an immersive, six-month research fellowship with one of LGO’s 25 partner companies, such as Caterpillar, Amazon, Boston Scientific, Verizon, and Raytheon.

“The design of the program, having those industry partners and having them involved along the way, makes it really unique,” says Johnson. “It’s not an academic exercise, and it’s not just a science project.”

That kind of deep engagement with complex, real-world problems proved to be a transformative element of Johnson’ own experience.

“You’re always being challenged with relevant problems, and then asking, ‘How do you lead through that?’” she says. “A ‘continuous improvement’ mindset permeates the program.”

She has brought that mindset to a wide range of engineering, product development, operations, and manufacturing roles over the course of her 22-year tenure at General Motors, and her subsequent meteoric rise through the leadership ranks of Caterpillar since 2011.

GM felt like a natural fit: Johnson grew up in a small town in Michigan, with friends and family who worked in the automotive industry. She interned at GM during summers while she earned her mechanical engineering degree from Michigan State University, and then joined the automaker full time after graduating.

After six years of working in product development, she was eager to pursue graduate studies. She was admitted to several top programs, but a visit to MIT’s campus and meetings with LGO professors made her choice easy, she says. The dual structure of the program appealed to her: “It was the perfect mix of technical rigor and business.”

“But the element that was most powerful was leadership,” she says. “I had a pretty technical background, so I wanted a program that could give me a breadth of experience. Throughout the curriculum, we had a lot of discussion on what it means to be a leader.”

When she arrived in Cambridge, Johnson knew she wanted to explore new opportunities and gain wider exposure to manufacturing and operations processes, but she didn’t have a specific goal in mind.

“Before MIT, I had minimal exposure to manufacturing,” she says. “It was limited to opportunities to go into the factory just when we launched new products.”

Her time at LGO sparked a revelation. “Leaving the program, I knew I wanted to move into a leadership track. What I really wanted to do was lead people.”

The power of “continuous improvement”

Soon, Johnson was back at GM (which had sponsored her LGO enrollment) leading manufacturing teams.

“I thought that would give me first-hand experience, to lead people in a challenging environment,” she says.

It wasn’t long before she found herself preparing for her first negotiation with a local…

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