Kym White | Gagen MacDonald

Insights & Events / Let Go & Lead / LG&L Interview

Kym White

Jun 17, 2015

Fast Facts


Pharmaceuticals, Hospitals, Healthcare providers, Biotech Companies, Device-makers, NGOs


Chicago, IL & NY, NY

Number of employees::

67 offices worldwide, 500 people indirectly

Number of years in current role::

2 years, 3 months; 28 total years in PR industry

Previous experiences::

Global Vice Chair, Edelman; Vice President for Corp. Communications, Baxter International; Managing Director, Ogilvy PR Worldwide; Managing Director, Global Healthcare, Ogilvy PR Worldwide; Group Director, Senior VP, Ogilvy PR Worldwide

First job::

Entry Level Account Manager, Burson-Marsteller

Leader you admire the most::

Nelson Mandela

Questions & Answers

How do you foster a collaborative environment at Edelman?:

Within a large organization, you have to model the behavior that you want to see and make your expectations clear. I bring healthcare communications expertise to our campaigns, but I need expertise that comes from other teams within my agency to really give clients the solutions and campaigns they expect – whether that comes from my colleagues in Digital, Corporate, Crisis or other areas.

The expectation from clients is that you bring the best of your company to them, not just your individual expertise. That can make day to day life more complex, but once you see the benefits of this kind of collaboration – the opportunity to learn, more relationships with smart, interesting colleagues, better and more integrated work – people are sold and far less likely to want to limit the circle of collaborators.

What separates great leaders from others when it comes to inspiring creativity?:

You have to create a safe environment where people can jump in and share their ideas, even if they seem half-baked. Good ideas often come from crazy and unexpected places. Sometimes something that starts as a kernel in one person’s mind can be brought to life by another colleague. No level, title or department has a lock on creativity.

What is the toughest lesson you have learned as a leader?:

Leading teams has taught me many things:

  • Not everyone is motivated by same thing. You have to figure out what people need from you and not assume there is one winning formula that motivates everyone equally to perform and contribute.
  • You have to ensure that the people you are leading understand your vision and where they fit into it, and that they want to be part of it – we are much more successful when we build something that people want to join, versus give orders.
  • Good ideas and smart thinking don’t always win. It is important to recognize that politics, emotion, past experience, corporate culture and relationships are all factors in determining what gets done, and who gets to do it.

Edelman selected you to lead their global health practice because of your leadership and health experience and at Ogilvy PR Worldwide and at Baxter International. What one leadership experience in your previous or current position stands out for you and why?:

When I ran the New York office of a global PR firm, it was important to me to be approachable and real. Sometimes, when you take on a big job, people stop treating you like a regular colleague, and they become more careful about sharing information with you.

I made a point of walking the floor and being out and about, knowing that not everyone would come to me. I sent people hand-written notes on their anniversaries. Years later, when I left this job to gain corporate experience, I received a note from an entry-level colleague who wrote to me, “I told my Mom that the head of the New York office came to see me and welcome me to the agency on my first day. She told me that doesn’t happen very often and I must be lucky to be a part of a place that looked after people like this. Now that I have worked in more than one firm, I recognize how unusual it was, and I make a point of doing the same thing you did with us for our new staff.” I kept that note and it made my day. Small things – saying hello, knowing someone’s name, stopping by their cube – matter.

Edelman expects the firm’s global health offering to continue to evolve. Which leadership characteristics would you say are the most important to have while carrying out this goal and why?:

You have to be unafraid to get out of your comfort zone, recognize you don’t know everything, be willing to learn new things and to accept ambiguity. The communications world is changing at warp speed with new technologies and tools, and that is not unique to healthcare PR. But what we were doing five years ago doesn’t cut it anymore. You can’t rest on your laurels, otherwise you’ll run the risk of sharing the same fate as the typewriter repairman. At a conference earlier this week, I heard a CEO say, “The business model works – until it doesn’t.” It is very dangerous to get lazy or complacent.

The PR industry has had its ups and downs in hiring and firing qualified leaders. What are the first few steps you would take if you were appointed as a CEO during a recession to turn a company around?:

I have been in such a position during down economies, and the challenges are not unique to the PR world. It is especially difficult when you are part of a public company— you are under such intense short-term pressure with quarterly earnings. It is just one of many reasons I love working for Edelman, because we are a private and family-run company.

Managing through a down economy is a challenge. It is perhaps more important than usual that people understand your vision, where they fit and what they need to do so the organization can deliver on its goals. It is important to be conservative in hiring, to get the best from the staff and resources available to you, to take good care of your clients and to take care of your star employees. You are undoubtedly asking a lot of them and your most valuable employees always have options beyond your organization. It’s also important to keep your eye on the bigger picture – many companies continue to thrive during recessions, some emerge even stronger, a changing business environment creates changing client needs – and all business cycles ebb and flow.

You mentioned that since joining Edelman, you’ve “seen firsthand the power of Edelman’s talent, experience, and relationships in partnering with our clients to address their most pressing business needs.” As a leader, what strengths or characteristics do you want people to bring to the workplace or when working with you and why?:

There are so many traits I value in my colleagues and look for in new employees:

  • Curiosity. You have to want to know how things work, why things happen, etc.,
  • Life-long learning. Closely linked to curiosity, you have to be willing to learn new things, and not to rest on knowing what you already know, and
  • Having a life. It is important not to be one-dimensional. Have a passion for something. Have a life outside of work. It will make you better at what you do and a well-rounded person who can draw on a greater variety of experience.
  • Sense of humor. You have to be able to laugh sometimes (ideally, often) and keep things in perspective.

You mentioned during your visit to a TEDMED conference in DC last year that smart phone technology holds the potential to help both physicians and patients, and to lead to a more productive and satisfying interaction on both sides of the exam room. Where do you see the future of social media in the next ten years and how will it affect PR culture as a whole?:

Social media has changed the PR world tremendously, dramatically changing the way we get, share and consume information – including but not limited to actual news. We don’t know what new platforms or technologies lie ahead, but it is safe to say we all need to keep up with them, to experiment and understand what they can do, and that in just a few years we’ll be talking about things we can’t even imagine right now. But regardless of the tool or technology, the end game for PR professionals is still the same – and that is using whatever technologies or tools are available to us to tell a story – to ultimately evolve, promote and protect companies, brands, services and ideas. You can’t lose sight of the fact that while the channels and tactics may change over time, our objectives are still grounded in communication.

You’ve been successful at multiple PR firms such as Ogilvy and Edelman, as well as on the client side at Baxter. What keeps you motivated and innovative as a leader and why?:

Working with smart people. Getting to work on such a wide variety of assignments. Being a part of interesting and meaningful issues. I also really like our corporate culture. I like wearing jeans to work and being surrounded by smart, fun and creative people doing interesting things.

Any advice you would give to individuals like myself who want to work in PR, specifically in corporate communications? What are you looking for those just starting their PR career and who would possibly want to have a leadership role in the PR industry?:

Adding to the points I made earlier about curiosity, learning, having a life and a sense of humor I’d suggest the following:

  • Read newspapers, blogs, websites, and magazines. Watch TV – really! Listen to NPR. You must be a voracious consumer of media and what’s going on the world to succeed in PR. Keep current with popular culture.
  • Do your research. Do your homework. Don’t wait for a training session to train you.
  • Volunteer. Take new things on. Don’t be afraid to try things you don’t (yet) know how to do. Ask questions as you go and figure things out.
  • Present yourself in the best possible light, and don’t let style distract from substance. Make sure you are speaking, writing and communicating in a way that ensures you are taken seriously and appreciated for all of the work you have done.

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