Future 50
A New Generation of Leaders Has Arrived

For helping deliver justice to all

Charlyn Johnson spent seven years working to become a lawyer. And then she discovered a different way to influence the U.K. legal system: by delivering change via projects. 

The career epiphany came to her while at The Legal Aid Agency, where she first got involved with a project management office (PMO), working on crime change and legal aid transformation programs.

“It’s where I learned my biggest lessons and—being new to the project world—made some of my greatest mistakes,” Johnson says. “But it showed me a way to use all my skills, past experiences and legal training effectively. The experience toughened me and made me ready for the journey.”

She joined the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), where she was part of the ministry-wide transformation program in 2016. Two years later, she’d become a force for change. She helped create and implement a new system that overhauled long-standing procedures, ensuring teams have the right people, skills, tools and support. She also took the lead on further developing an MoJ program to develop project leaders and spearheaded efforts to improve planning, risk management and attention to scope. 

Now Johnson is a head of a MoJ PMO. She says she has no regrets about giving up a career as a lawyer. She does credit her legal experience with providing a valuable skill: the ability to translate complex changes into language all stakeholders can embrace. 

“Having a legal background has really helped in terms of speaking to people dealing with policy,” Johnson says. “It just makes the conversation go a bit smoother.”

In the end, the two roles aren’t all that different, she explains: “You can’t go to court unprepared, and the same is true for projects.”

“[The Legal Aid Agency is] where I learned my biggest lessons and—being new to the project world—made some of my greatest mistakes. But it showed me a way to use all my skills, past experiences and legal training effectively.”

Q&A: Charlyn Johnson on change, teamwork and a royal garden party

What’s the one must-have skill to succeed in The Project Economy?

People need people, and if you want to be successful in the project environment, it’s important to work on your people skills. They will be valuable for influencing, negotiating, motivating and much more.

To keep up with the projects of tomorrow, project leaders need to expand on our skills. It’s one thing to be able to change others—it’s another thing to be able to change yourself. Given the various changes to technology, especially now with COVID-19, it is important to be technologically savvy so you can communicate effectively.

What professional accomplishment are you most proud of?

Aside from getting through my legal studies and degrees, I am most proud of being nominated by my colleagues and team to attend the Queen's Garden Party, which honors public service. It was such an unexpected honor. I attended with my mom, a few days after her 60th year. It was a proud moment to be able to share my work with my mom.

What’s your mantra for leading projects?

Teamwork makes the dream work. In all the projects I’ve worked on, it’s the teamwork that has always stood out to me. The closure meeting always feels like a graduation ceremony where you look around and you know that at times it’s been hard but if it wasn’t for these great people we would not have got through this and delivered what we delivered. 

What’s one way managing projects will have changed by 2030?

Keep an eye on AI. By 2030, I’d like to be the person advising how AI will improve my project, as opposed to being the project lead replaced due to AI.

What famous person would you want on your project team?

Denzel Washington. I admire him as an actor and as a person, too. He once gave a speech that was so motivational and optimistic. It held an understanding that we can learn from our mistakes, so don’t be afraid to make them.