Everywhere he has gone in his career, says Coddy Johnson, mentors have been critical to his success. He found one when he joined the 2000 presidential campaign of George W. Bush, shortly after graduating from Yale. That role led him to the White House, where he worked as a political aide and later served as national field director of Bush’s successful 2004 reelection effort.
His enrollment at Stanford GSB introduced him to new influences and set him on a path toward a business career. When he landed at Activision Blizzard, a global gaming company, it was again a mentor who helped Johnson find his way. As president and COO, Johnson helped Activision build a community of 400 million players.
More recently, he’s been a strategic advisor and investor to various startups, and in July 2022 became a partner at Goodwater Capital, a venture capital firm focusing on consumer technology. And he continues to emphasize the importance of mentorship. “That mentorship will mean more in the long run than whatever other short-term tradeoffs (title, money, etc.) you may be considering, and it will likely be the most meaningful accelerant in your journey,” he says. “It has been for me.”
What early experiences and influences shaped your path in life?
I grew up in Northern Virginia, where my early escape came through athletics and the arts. I can still remember, at eight or nine years old, putting on my lacrosse helmet before going onto the field and having a deeply felt sense that I was stepping into another kind of world, of anonymity and flow. Painting and music felt much the same way.
And then, in ninth grade, at our school’s biggest lacrosse game of the year, a sudden storm arose, and one of my best friends was struck and killed by lightning. It was a tragedy. And a turning point. It opened my mind to the precariousness of this brief moment on earth I had been given, and the kind of yawning abyss that lies just beyond. I felt that maybe all that matters in the end is the depth of the experiences we have and the kindness and care we show for each other along the way. That was true at least for the close circle of us who came together after our friend’s death. Those reflections also led me to push myself to explore further: in my junior year, to spend a semester at the Mountain School in Vermont studying and working on an organic farm, and then before college, to spend a year in Australia, working on a sheep farm and playing for a regional lacrosse league.
At Yale, you studied ethics, politics, and economics, but also explored the arts.
I worked toward the equivalent of a minor in oil painting and did a lot of fiction writing. Yale had an award where you got to study one-on-one with the writer-in-residence, who at the time was Robert Stone (winner of the National Book Award in 1975 for the novel Dog Soldiers). He was amazing and a mentor. In my senior year, I was trying to figure out what to do next. I had a few opportunities to write, but it was Robert who nudged me to think about writing for the broadest platform I could find.
So you joined the 2000 presidential campaign of George W. Bush, who had been one of your father’s college roommates. What did you learn from politics?
I initially joined as a speechwriter and went to Iowa, where I had a great mentor in Ken Mehlman, who was running the campaign’s Midwest region. Ken was fervent about servant leadership, and he encouraged me to put the needs of our colleagues and the broader organization first. This opened up opportunities for me to lead our volunteers in Iowa, then our regional data efforts, and then to become Ken’s deputy.
When Ken was promoted to national field director, he asked me to run the Midwest region. Both Ken and I reported to [campaign strategist] Karl Rove, who was skeptical. Karl said, “Listen, you’re only 22 years old, and you don’t know [expletive].” He was right. But I was lucky to have both him and Ken invest in me, and on election night 2000 then-Governor Bush won all five states in my region, including Ohio, Tennessee, and West Virginia. That was the first moment when much of the Appalachian longtime Democrat base began to move in a conservative direction. We were the first campaign to take advantage of that.
After the 2000 election, I was part of the President’s political team, advising him in the White House. When Ken was named campaign manager for the reelection campaign, he asked me to be national field director. We had been working for some time on a new way to approach voter data — to bring together reams of third-party consumer data on top of state voter files and coalition lists, coupled with large sample surveys — and from there, build out deep sub-segmented cohort analysis. We had a large field team of regional leaders and data scientists and analysts, in-state teams with elected leaders and staff, and a million volunteers across the country. My job as national field director was to help bring those pieces together.
You chose to leave the political world and enroll at Stanford GSB. What prompted that change of direction, and how did you benefit from your experience here?
I’d been working 80-plus hours a week for years at that point. My wife and I had put off our wedding until all the campaigns were over. After the re-elect, the President pulled me aside to say, “I know you’ve been asked to take the White House political director role. But I think you should get a real life. Go to business school, raise a family, and build real value. If you want to get back into politics, you can do it later.” I took his advice.
The GSB has given me so much — and continues to — but perhaps the two most important things at the time were a set of core business skills and an understanding of personal growth.
On the first — I arrived with real anxiety about lacking business chops. I had spent my career in politics but was surrounded by these private-equity and consulting and hedge-fund all-stars. So my first year, I really focused on core academics — accounting, finance, economics, statistics — the basics. I remember my first conversation at the Career Center, where the officer asked, “What would you like to do?” I said I want to “work in the private sector. ”She paused, then responded, “Well, it’s very big — we need to narrow it down.” Ha. I was that naive.
In my second year, I took interpersonal dynamics and several follow-on courses on the same theme. I was deeply impacted by the concept of neuroplasticity — that we can constantly rewire our brains — and that lifelong change and learning is possible through feedback, self-awareness, and the authenticity of your relationship with others.
You landed at Activision Blizzard, one of the giants in the gaming industry. How did that happen, and how did you navigate the cultural shift to become successful?
In 2008 [Activision Blizzard CEO] Bobby Kotick reached out to have dinner together. I didn’t know him well, but I was looking to find a mentor in business and accepted the dinner with that hope. Bobby said, “Hey, you don’t know much about the video game business, but you know how to run big organizations. I just acquired Blizzard and the company has doubled in size. Come be my chief of staff. I’ll teach you everything I know.” I jumped at the chance, and he was and is a remarkable mentor.
Games at that time were just going online, moving away from static code on a disc sold at a Best Buy and into downloadable live environments. Online games work best by creating a flywheel around user data, understanding the consumer, and re-informing the product. Well, that data-driven world I understand fairly well. It’s a lot like understanding voters.
Beyond just a data-driven approach, politics turned out to be wonderful training. When I would sit down with a video game studio leader or tech team, it felt like an almost exact analogy to sitting down with Governor Taft from Ohio or [former United Steelworkers president] Leo Gerard. The leader — be it a Governor or a studio head — knows everything about their state or their code. You don’t. But what you may have are larger resources and a broader view that can help them to be successful. If you can be humble, respect their expertise and their experience, you can then offer strategy and insights that will help you both find success together.
What was one of your biggest challenges?
Activision Blizzard’s success over the years has often been due to its willingness to make difficult prioritization decisions. A particularly hard one: in 2018, we made the strategic decision to invest in mobile and open-world free-to-play — which our consumers so clearly wanted — but which would not be easy. It would mean a massive restructuring of our capital and talent. We let go almost 15 percent of the workforce and shut down dozens of projects to focus on that strategy. It was the right call, but it came at a steep cost: most importantly for those who lost their jobs, many of whom were friends, and also for me, in trying to lead the company through that period. My learnings there are ones I often share with the founders and start-ups I work with today.
What advice do you have for GSB students and recent graduates?
First, to constantly look for mentors, wherever you can find them, and be willing to hear their feedback and incorporate it into your approach. And when choosing your next step — whether in a new role or at a new company or even if taking a sabbatical — try to select for where you will get the most mentorship, from someone you admire who cares personally about you.
Second, become comfortable thinking about your career in phases and as part of a broader growth mindset. Whatever goals you set won’t happen all at once. You might even take a few steps back or many steps back and make some radical changes. I certainly have, and they can be terrifying. But if you’re open to seeing each experience as a learning opportunity, you’ll likely find that your path surprises and deepens you in ways you couldn’t have imagined at the start.
Third, look to have empathy and gentleness for yourself, and for those around you. We are all, in some sense, on the same journey with just this brief moment to be in it together.
Photos by Tom Daly