Kym White on Becoming a Leader Early

November 2, 2018

Kym White Highlights

Current job title: Senior Vice President and Chief Communications Officer at Vertex Pharmaceuticals

Previous executive role: Global Sector Chair, Health and Global Director of Sectors, Edelman

Other leadership positions: Global Vice Chair, Health, Edelman; Vice President, Corporate Communications, and Global Function Leader, Baxter International Inc.

You became managing director of Ogilvy PR Worldwide’s Global Healthcare Practice just 10 years after graduating from college. What special challenges did you face as a young leader, and how did you overcome them?

Being put in charge of a large group of people while in my early 30s posed two particular challenges for me. One was managing and winning the respect of older, more experienced colleagues. I had to navigate the sometimes-awkward path of having responsibility for the work and development of people who in many instances had considerably more experience than I did. That was hard.

I quickly learned that the best way to handle the situation was to let the work be my guide, backed by some Midwestern common sense. If I could focus on the assignment at hand and what we needed to accomplish, leaving my own self-consciousness at the door, more often than not we arrived at the right place, and I was able to earn the respect of those around me. I also quickly learned how important it was to ensure that people felt their contributions were recognized and valued, whether they were older or younger than me — something that none of us ever outgrows.

My second challenge was to walk the fine line between being the boss and a friend. As a young leader, I often found myself enjoying and respecting those I managed, and in fact formed many friendships that are still important to me today. It was sometimes hard to shift between being a boss and a friend — wanting to be part of the group, to be trusted and included, while also playing the role of manager the next day and communicating difficult decisions.

At that stage of my career, I learned that being a manager sometimes meant allowing for certain boundaries, despite your affection for people. Being someone’s manager, even when in other instances you would be great friends, often means you have to plant the seeds for a friendship that may emerge later when you no longer have oversight for things like promotions and raises. 

What do you know about leadership now that you wish you knew then?

At the beginning of my career, I attributed success to “doing my homework” so I would know as much as possible about a given situation, which was very much the way I had been as a student. That approach served me well, for a while. But as I progressed and the volume of information that I would need to study mounted, that strategy became increasingly less effective. It was impossible to go that deep into every topic. I had to get better at figuring out what I really needed to know, at recognizing what I could count on others to cover, and at identifying big-picture challenges. Though it may sound trite, I grew to realize that being a good leader didn’t mean having all the right answers, but it came with a responsibility to ask the right questions.

In what ways is leadership the same, whether it’s on the agency or client side?

A team is a team, whether it’s in a corporate or agency environment. No matter how large a team is, as its leader you will inevitably have to manage a dynamic of different people with varying levels of experience who have different career aspirations, work styles and personality types.

Whether sitting within an agency or a company, your job as a leader is to recognize what resources you have and to channel the best from people, both individually and collectively. Client teams and agency teams both need their leadership to work toward a common goal and to leave everyone feeling good about their contributions.

Ken Jacobs

Ken Jacobs is principal of Jacobs Consulting & Executive Coaching. Visit his website (www.jacobscomm.com) and contact him by email (ken@jacobscomm.com) or Twitter (@KensViews).


John Margaritis says:

Love the perspective these many years later. Keep up the spectacular work.

Nov. 13, 2018

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