Mary Johnson

Profiles in GRIT: Michelle Lewis on the Golden Rule, brutally honest employees and life after DNOW

Blog Post created by Mary Johnson on May 13, 2018

Michelle Lewis DNOWThis week in Profiles in GRIT we meet Michelle Lewis, who was until very recently the chief strategy officer, SVP of corporate development and investor relations for DNOW, a publicly traded supply chain solution company with annual revenues of approximately $3 billion.


We say “until recently” because Michelle has just embarked on a new chapter in life. She has accepted a position with a private equity firm in Houston and we are anxiously awaiting the details.


We were thrilled to honor Michelle at the first-ever GRIT Awards back in March, and now we’re thrilled to share some of her story with you.


PINK PETRO: What’s one mistake you made and what did you learn from it?


ML: Violating the Golden Rule and not treating others how I want to be treated. This was most evident early in my career as new management.  I wanted to prove myself quickly as a "get things done" leader. Without giving it much thought, I channeled a mix of Hollywood movies and a handful of bad bosses into a caricature of the "tough" manager.  Turns out that that was not the way to get things done. Aggressively pushing from behind created resentful, under-performing employees. 


I was lucky enough to have an honest, forthright employee who literally came to tell me one day, “You are a bad manager. Horrible in fact.” It just so happens, it was my husband. (Yes, this was before that wasn’t allowed by HR.) But, understandably so, no one else on my team would have given me the wakeup call I so greatly needed. It was one of the best things that could have happened to me.


PP: Who’s been a “gritty” role model for you and why?


ML: Sappy but true; my mom. 


Why? She blazed her own path despite having little support from the family in which she grew up. Growing up in Yankton, South Dakota, she was the youngest of nine, and as a child, she was responsible for helping raise the children of her older sisters. Despite a modest start, she had high expectations of herself. She left home for Texas at 18 and never returned. She wanted to be a world traveler, to be a professional, to have a higher standing in her community and to always help others. She has accomplished all four in addition to raising two similarly motivated daughters. She became an emergency room nurse and worked at Parkland hospital when JFK was shot and worked her way to Ben Taub County Hospital in Houston. Still today she will tell you that if she ever gets stabbed that’s where she wants to be taken because they have the most experience dealing with trauma victims. (Yes, we have some interesting dinner conversations.) She has never stopped learning, has exercised every day of her life and continues to be active, travel around the globe and contribute to her community at 81. She just came back from Myanmar last week. She decided to go just because she had never been.   


PP: What’s the biggest challenge you have faced, and how did you overcome it?


ML: I live it every day.


The combination of the most challenging down cycle in my career with the bias against not having been born and raised in the industry. For me, it is three steps forward and two steps back every day. It is challenging to not take the external and internal scrutiny personally. But, every time I see or hear a change in perspective from one of my colleagues, then I know I am helping move the needle.


PP: What’s been the most rewarding part of your career?


ML: I have been to a lot of interesting places, worked with some incredibly smart people, closed $7 billion worth of deals from Texas to Kazakhstan, helped set up two companies from scratch, and IPO’d one. But the most rewarding has been the last few years, when I have been more focused on developing others rather than myself. Whether it’s a friend who is starting her own cosmetics line or a young woman who is trying to get more exposure with the leadership team, I am really enjoying helping others move through the challenges in front of them and offering another perspective on how they can see things and eventually address them. 


PP: What’s next for you, and what inspired you to switch gears at this stage of your career?


ML: I’m a builder. I always have been. If I’m not building a company, or a team, or a revenue channel, then I feel like I am standing still, and if you spend time with me, you’ll know that I am generally only still when I am meditating. I have literally been called out for running in the office too much — in heels.


I have loved DNOW and all of the opportunities from NOV to now. No pun intended. We acquired a company of equal size, spun off from NOV and went public, implemented SAP and allocated capital to 12 more companies. That was all a lot of fun. Then came the downcycle. We worked hard to increase the efficiencies of the business and preserve the core while integrating all of the acquisitions we made. And we not only survived, but I heartily believe we are all stronger for it. A little bruised, maybe, a little humbler, but the company and all of the people in it are smarter, more focused and ready to win more than ever before. It’s been a great run and I’ve learned a tremendous amount, and I am appreciative for that, but now it is time for me to move on; to lean-in with another organization to see what I can do to help facilitate their move to the next level. I guess I’m kind of like Nanny McPhee in that way.


PP: What excites you about your next chapter?


ML: The thrill of the unknown excites me. I can’t wait to dive into a new industry and new end markets. I love the honeymoon period where you just can’t get enough of learning and figuring something out, asking questions with a fresh eyes approach and taking all of that in so that you can contribute to the team and be a part of their next stage of development.