Early morning sun slants through the windows of the local community center in Arizona. All is quiet except for the rhythmic splish-splash of a few swimmers vigorously propelling themselves through the crystalline water. In lane 4, a torrent of waves issue from the wall as Donna Johnson, formerly a top competitive swimmer and now the top earner at a privately-held direct selling cosmetics company, flips and pushes off to begin her fifteenth of fifty laps.

Later in the day, Johnson, ranked number one among the one million sales representatives at her company, will be deluged with requests: for advice from one of the thousands of recruits in her pay line, for service from one of the many customers she personally serves, or from one of her five children. But right now, her time is her own, and she uses it to prepare herself for the rigors ahead.

Still passionate about her sport after years of swimming and coaching the Appleton East High School girls’ swim team, Johnson begins many days in the water, and says swimming has given her the direction, inspiration and motivation necessary to build her business into a direct selling powerhouse comprised of hundreds of thousands of sales consultants responsible for multiple millions of dollars in sales each month.

It was the lessons Johnson learned in the pool that helped her make a splash when she entered the network marketing profession, and they have kept her several lengths ahead of the pack ever since.

“Coaching a swim team is very similar to building a networking business,” Johnson says. “You have to create a strong vision for people and build their confidence so they believe they can succeed.”

Dreaming Big

This was a lesson Donna had to learn for herself. Growing up in a traditional blue-collar family, she never had anyone at home who encouraged her to dream big or to develop the confidence it would take to pursue such dreams. Her parents divorced when Donna was twelve, and she watched her mother, with neither business experience nor marketable skills, struggle to support herself and her children.

Although the experience was painful, Johnson says it also helped her understand the importance of self-sufficiency.

“I vowed that I would never let this happen to me. No matter what happened in my life, I was going to be able to take care of myself.”

Education didn’t seem a viable route to independence. No one in her family had attended college, and none of her key influences suggested she become the first. When she turned to her high school guidance counselor for advice, he suggested she think about becoming a secretary. But Donna wanted more, and she quickly realized that she would not find it along a conventional career path.

“Everyone is always telling you what you are supposed to do,” Johnson says. “We are trained to trade hours for money. I have always believed there had to be a better way, but at this point I saw that I was going to have to swim upstream to find it.”

As she actively sought out opportunities for something challenging, an acquaintance introduced her to the idea of network marketing—and Donna leapt at it.

“I immediately saw the potential in the business,” she recalls. “And I was very motivated. I had just gotten married and my husband didn’t have a steady income. I needed something I could depend on. Direct sales seemed perfect.”

As she became acquainted with how the business worked, she right away noticed a similarity between the work ethic required to succeed in swimming and that needed to build a successful networking business.

“No one drops their time in swimming without a lot of practice. I equated that to business—being out there in the world meeting people and talking about the business was my practice. I wasn’t afraid to do the tough stuff.”

Her practice quickly made Johnson’s business flourish. In less than three years, she was earning $2,000 to 3,000 a month and was awarded a company car. She ascended the company ranks, becoming the youngest director in its history.

Bold Decisions

For the next ten years Johnson’s career flourished, but her marriage started to fail, and she eventually reached the painful decision to end it. As difficult as this time was, there was one crucial factor that gave her comfort: she would not have to struggle the way she had seen her mother do upon becoming a single mother. She had accomplished a goal she had set in childhood: she would be able to take care of herself.

“As painful as my divorce was, I never felt helpless. Because of this business, I knew I would be able to make it on my own.”

Enthusiastic about her profession and confident in her ability to succeed, Johnson made another bold decision: to leave the company where she had achieved so much success and join forces with a brand new company.

“It was a big risk,” she says, “giving up a secure paycheck and a company car. But to truly succeed in this business, you have to align yourself with a company that you feel passionately about at every level, and this was simply no longer the case for me. As far as I had gone at my company, it wasn’t a perfect fit. I knew I couldn’t change the company. I decided that the change had to come from me.”

Bold though her decision was, Donna upped the stakes even further with another characteristically strong decision: rather than attempt to bring anyone within her current organization, she would move to the new company alone and start building a new organization from scratch. And like the impeccably good sport that she has become through her swimming career, she makes a point of always speaking highly of her former company.

“You don’t become a champion by putting down the competition,” she says. “To win the gold medal, you can’t worry about the performance of others. You have to focus on always improving yourself.”

Her winning strategy paid off. She quickly established a successful downline in her new business, helping to launch the company nationwide and becoming its first National Vice President and its top earner—a title she has held now for nearly twenty years.

The Cornerstone: Integrity

Her success hasn’t lulled her into complacency; Johnson still actively seeks out training and development opportunities, constantly trying to surpass her personal best and setting an example for other sales consultants.

“Everything you do duplicates,” she explains. “If you want to have a model business, you’ve got to model the business. If you don’t train, neither will your team. If you’re not actively building, then that’s what duplicates throughout your team.”

The thing Donna most seeks to duplicate has to do with her values, which Donna credits more than any other factor in her success.

“My success comes completely from my faith,” she says. “The work ethic, the discipline, the dedication, it’s all important—but in the end, your results really stem from the values you hold.”

Donna starts her team meetings with a conversation about integrity, because she believes it is integrity that binds a customer to a consultant and to a company. Without it, she says, nothing else matters. She also teaches a program she calls “Preserving and Creating Culture” throughout her organization.

“Everyone in time tends to develop a certain theme in their life,” says Donna. “For me, that theme is about the Golden Rule, about doing the right things for the right reasons. And I think the more we create a culture in our business based on those values, the more valuable the contribution we make.”

Donna’s influence has spread throughout her company and increasingly throughout the profession itself. She recently contributed a chapter called “Creating Culture in Your Team” to the DSWA-produced book, More Build It Big, and a full chapter in Michael Clouse’s new revised edition of Future Choice is devoted to Donna. Author Chris Widener (The Angel Inside, 12 Pillars of Success) invited Donna to write the foreword to his new book, The Image.

Training to Work Smarter

Ethics and integrity are bedrock, says Donna—and beyond that, success is simply a matter of training. With thirty years of superstar performance under her belt, she has plenty of best practices to share with new recruits, focused on working smarter instead of harder.

For example, someone new to network marketing may enter the business thinking that success depends on activity.

“You can get a jump on the competition by being assertive and getting out to talk to a thousand people,” she explains, “but if you go out and turn off those thousand people, you’ve done the activity but won’t get the results.”

The difference between assertiveness and aggression—and ultimately, between success and failure—comes down to a sincere concern for others, says Donna.

“If you hope to make it in network marketing, you have to put people first. Not sometimes: always.”

Johnson’s success in winning the trust of others relies on listening with an open and a helpful attitude.

“When I am talking with someone about the opportunity, I listen to find out how his or her dreams can fit into the business,” she says. “I never try to convince people to join. I just listen to them and say, ‘I am not sure this is a fit for you, but if you think you can do it, I’d love to work with you.’

“I am not in the business of convincing people. It’s simply my job to tell the story about the products and business. Is this a fit for them? Only they know the answer to that.”

Donna uses the same kind of light touch in getting new recruits started in the business, putting the onus for success upon them right from the start.

“I ask everyone to do their due diligence,” she says. “I show them what the company is about and what we offer. I ask them what they want and let them know I will show them what it takes to get there. But then they have to show me they have the will to win.”

She repeats her earlier refrain: “I am not in the convincing business. I’m in the sorting business.”

Coaching to the Top

Her morning workout finished, Johnson showers and dresses comfortably as she prepares to sort through the myriad requests that will come her way. As numerous as the demands on her time may be, she approaches each one with an esprit de corps, knowing that a team spirit is the foundation on which her team is built.

“When you see a gold medal winner on the podium, you see the triumph but not all the hard work that went into getting there. While you’re training for competition, victory is only a dream. It’s your coach and your teammates who keep that vision alive for you while you’re putting in the time and hard work.”

It is the same thing in building a successful networking business, says Donna. Time, focused effort and unfailing belief can take you only so far. Without a coach and a team to root you on, it can be discouraging to continue working during the time it takes for a business to take hold.

Inspired by the success of Donna Johnson, many entrepreneurs have taken the plunge into network marketing, and with her coaching them along, are swimming toward success.