Sometimes, life has other plans. If there’s anyone who understands this, it’s Kaidi Johnson, vice president of legal and environmental, social, and governance (ESG) at Motorola Solutions, where she has the honor of leading beyond traditional functions. She didn’t start her journey aspiring to serve in that kind of role but landed it due to a philosophy that’s helped her thrive at every twist and turn in her career: embrace the pivot.
“There’s a lot that we think about or aspire to do, especially as we get ready to graduate college,” she says. “But it’s important to be open to different opportunities that come your way. Sometimes the niche finds you, instead of you finding it. Be open to new ways you can leverage your skills that are above and beyond what we’ve been socialized to expect.”
Johnson initially had her sights set on going to medical school, but realized it wasn’t for her after a difficult organic chemistry class. Remembering the court TV shows she watched growing up in the 1980s, she knew that a legal path was the next logical choice. She pursued it and excelled, making her way to University of Baltimore School of Law, where she specialized in business law and advocacy.
About nine months before graduation, she was hit with a heavy curveball—the death of her father. Unfortunately for Johnson, that devastating blow was the first of many.
“When my father died, there was so much going on, so I ended up taking a year off between finishing law school and studying for the bar,” she says. “When I did go on to take the bar, 9/11 occurred as I awaited the exam results, so I struggled for a while to find a job since there was a huge hiring freeze across all sorts of disciplines. There was such uncertainty and turmoil in the economy.”
Despite these challenges, Johnson never wavered. She eventually got an opportunity to work on real estate closings and serve in various contracts manager roles at the likes of Northrop Grumman, VT Griffin Services, and Pfizer. Those experiences gave her exposure to support legal teams and sales organizations in compliance functions across several industries. But as she grew more senior in her career and in those roles, she felt a need to be more strategic in shaping her career.
“I had a lot of experience in federal contracting, but every time our teams ran into issues, they would always defer to the attorney who didn’t have a single day of experience with the subject matter,” she remembers. “That frustrated me. I told myself, ‘I’ve been doing this long enough. Before the title didn’t bother me, but clearly it’s an issue.’ So, I looked for other opportunities and that’s when I found Motorola.”
Johnson has been thriving ever since. In her role, she’s been able to expand on her legal expertise by supporting various functions, including supply chain, procurement, diversity, equity, and inclusion, and more.
“I’m fortunate that they’ve recognized my different talents and that I offer more than just arguing about words on paper,” she says. “They appreciate my leadership, my ability to develop talent and build strong teams, my empathy, and my relatability. I think that’s why I’ve been given such a chance to take on leadership roles outside of the traditional legal roles you’d expect.”
Johnson is particularly proud to be a thought leader in ESG and sustainability, spaces that often lack representation from people of color, particularly Black women.
“I’m super proud of being a representative in that space and offer perspective,” she says. “A lot of people will talk about sustainability and environmental issues and not appreciate some of the challenges facing underrepresented communities. We can say, ‘Stop using single use plastics,’ but if you’re in certain parts of the world, where you’re having trouble getting clean or drinkable water at all, it’s a luxury to say, ‘I’m not going to drink out of this water bottle.’”
Young attorneys looking to learn from Johnson’s career should not only embrace the pivot but stay true to themselves.
“If you’re asked to represent a client or support ideologies that aren’t consistent with the law or your passions, you need to realize that the opportunity in front of you won’t be the only one you have,” Johnson advises. “The skills you have are marketable and there’s no need to compromise your integrity or deviate from your true self. A more rewarding opportunity is not too far away.”