At the Helm: Kent Johnson

By Patricia Olsen

A few minutes with the CEO of Highlights for Children, Columbus, Ohio.

Generation of family ownership: Fourth.

About the company: Highlights for Children reaches over 3 million families a year in the U.S., and Highlights products are available in 20 countries.

Number of employees: Slightly more than 400.

First job at this company: I served an editorial internship in our Pennsylvania office the summer after my freshman year in college.

At what age? 19 or 20. After college I went to grad school and worked in biotechnology and medical diagnostics for a few years. I joined the company in 2004 as vice president of strategic planning and in January 2005 my uncle, who was CEO, died of a heart attack and I took over. I was 36. That was our succession plan, but the timing was unexpected.

Most memorable thing I learned from my mentors: I had three business mentors within the Highlights ecosystem. My uncle the CEO was one, and my uncle the editor-in-chief was another. From them I learned how to integrate mission and business. An aunt, a non-employee director, mentored me in family stewardship and governance. My mom, an elected official who worked in the public sector, also mentored me in leadership and stewardship.

Best thing about this job: Being able to align my work mission with my personal passion of making an impact on children, and being able to work with incredible people.

Our greatest success: Rather than by means of big milestones, our greatest successes are measured one child at a time when we make a positive impact through our products. However, we had a big milestone in 2006: We celebrated the publication of the one-billionth issue of Highlights. We’ve been around a long time, so our sustainability and our ability to remain true to our mission for so long are also measures of our success.

Best advice I ever got: I was deciding whether to join the company when my uncle the CEO said, “Whatever you do, don’t join the company because of the family legacy or anyone else’s expectations of you. Join the company if you want to do the job.”

Quote from our company’s mission statement: We help children become their best selves: curious, creative, caring and confident.

One of my greatest accomplishments: That I’ve been able to attract incredible leaders to the Highlights team now and over the years.

Advice for other family business leaders: Stay true to who you are. Honor your legacy and build toward a new future. You can do both. Our future is all about using the strength and mission of the brand to expand the products, services and experiences we create for kids. We’re excited about business channels and digital products, we’re developing products for children younger in age and we’re having fun in international markets growing our business.

Philanthropic causes our family supports: We have the Highlights Foundation, which invests in the capabilities of authors and illustrators to raise up the craft of children’s content. We also support local organizations that support children and their development.

Books I think every family business leader should read: I like generational, non-fiction books like The Trust by Tifft and Jones, about the New York Times family. That’s where your lessons come from, those deep, deep stories.

I realized I had emerged from the previous generation’s shadow when … I walked into work the day after my uncle died and was the CEO of the company. It was pretty sudden compared to the way a lot of family business leaders get to go through succession. I wish I’d had a little more mentoring and time in the shadow.

Future succession plans: I’m 51, so right now our plan is all about building an incredible team so we can withstand any emergencies that happen to any of our team currently, but we’re also building that team to lead the way for an independent, board-member-led, deliberate succession process in the future. My children are in grammar school and high school, and I’m not sure they’ll want to work in the business. They have to find their own path.

Words I live by: Our foundational belief: Children are the world’s most important people.

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