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Kent Johnson, CEO, Highlights For Children, To Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: “I’m Rooting For Every Family, For Every Company, And For Every Government As We Try And Adapt And Get Through This Together.” The Mr. Magazine™ Interview…

April 9, 2020

Publishing During A Pandemic (9)

 “For our magazine business, we’re keeping our print publishing schedule the same as always. And I will say, there was a technology task to get our editorial for our magazine product development to work remotely, because the designers work with such big files and important technology systems. So, that was also a transition that I’m happy to say we’re on the other side of. But we’re keeping our print schedule the same.” … Kent Johnson

 “My overall message and the way I’m trying to lead through this crisis is with transparency and much more frequent communication to our company. But the main message is we will get through this and we’ll get through it together. In a time of crisis and stress, we have to double-down on our values and we have to double-down and emphasize the purpose of our company.” … Kent Johnson

Faith and learning to adapt, two things that CEO Kent Johnson and his teams at Highlights for Children are having and doing to continue to publish during this pandemic. I spoke with Kent recently and he was candid and very grateful for his team’s ability to continue with quality content despite the stress and disruption of this terrible crisis. He said nothing would change about their publishing schedules for now and was very thankful for the online products that Highlights offers for children and that they were doing so well in this day of homeschooling and isolation.

Having a degree in physics, Kent said he believes and enjoys data-driven thinking and decision-making, but with the pandemic, his idea of leadership for himself and his company is through transparency and much more frequent communication to the company.

“I try to focus all of us on our mission and remind us all that however hard it is today, we’re going to get through this as a country. We’re going to get through this as a global, interconnected human population. We have to keep our faith, but be realistic and do the best we can every day.”

Indeed, Kent. We will get through this together.

And now please enjoy this ninth installment in the series of Publishing During A Pandemic, in the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Kent Johnson, CEO, Highlights for Children.

But first the sound-bites:

On how Highlights for Children is operating during this pandemic: All things considered, we’re operating pretty well. We have great leadership from our governor here in Ohio. We jumped on the idea that we had to be fully remote pretty early in the process. We trusted our teams and empowered our IT and leaders to get us working remotely. I was just amazed at how fast they did it. After the initial adrenaline of the change, we’re now in the stage of trying to figure out how to get used to it, be productive and be well-balanced in this virtual office environment. I’m impressed with our team and happy that we’re adapting as well as we can.

On whether the work-from-home move was easy or hard for everyone: I would say that we were lucky and it varied by function. We made the decision on a Wednesday morning that we should do a dry run of work from home on Friday, but by Thursday night we decided we would just go fully to work-from-home. So, it took us about maybe 72 hours due to some of the tougher positions. And that includes getting customer service, our contact centers, getting those people who deal with customers to be able to work from home too. So, there was a technology piece to that as well.

On whether he is considering any changes to publishing schedules or frequencies due to the pandemic: For our magazine business, we’re keeping our print publishing schedule the same as always. And I will say, there was a technology task to get our editorial for our magazine product development to work remotely, because the designers work with such big files and important technology systems. So, that was also a transition that I’m happy to say we’re on the other side of. But we’re keeping our print schedule the same.

On the message he has for his staff and readers during this pandemic: My overall message and the way I’m trying to lead through this crisis is with transparency and much more frequent communication to our company. But the main message is we will get through this and we’ll get through it together. In a time of crisis and stress, we have to double-down on our values and we have to double-down and emphasize the purpose of our company.

On whether his degree and background in physics has helped him during this pandemic in running a major magazine media company: It’s interesting, because I do have training in science and I love to be a data-driven decision maker in business and our company thrives on data. We, as a leadership team, have been very conscious and very explicit that in a time of crisis we say all our crystal balls are sitting shattered on the floor. We’re trying to use our intuition, use our heart and lead more like a general than a rational thinker. We take all of the data we have, but we have to make decisions in a time of crisis more rapidly. We remind everyone that we can’t be perfect, that we have to move quickly and make decisions in a decisive manner. And communicate why we’re doing it and what we’re doing, and adapt.

On whether Highlights’ worldwide publications have been impacted by the pandemic: Our international business is really important to us from a mission perspective. I think we’re still trying to understand the impact globally on our business. I will say that maybe as a company we had sort of an early insight into the impact of this pandemic. One of our key customers, a really valued partner for us is based in Wuhan. And we’ve worked with them for many years to get our Highlights/High Five content and other early childhood content to preschool kids in China. So, we both had the early view of what happened to business as Wuhan and Hubei province shut down in China.

On what keeps him up at night: Uncertainty. It’s probably keeping us all up at night. We have to take this day-by-day with faith that the purpose of our company is important today and will be important on the other side of this. I lose a lot of sleep thinking about our people, hoping our people are keeping a  balance in their lives so that they can perform well and maintain their mental and physical health and an effectiveness in their lives as a whole, across their families, extended families and their colleagues at work.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Kent Johnson, CEO, Highlights for Children.

Samir Husni: With everything that’s going on today, how is Highlights for Children operating during this pandemic?

Kent Johnson: All things considered, we’re operating pretty well. We have great leadership from our governor here in Ohio. We jumped on the idea that we had to be fully remote pretty early in the process. We trusted our teams and empowered our IT and leaders to get us working remotely. I was just amazed at how fast they did it. After the initial adrenaline of the change, we’re now in the stage of trying to figure out how to get used to it, be productive and be well-balanced in this virtual office environment. I’m impressed with our team and happy that we’re adapting as well as we can.

Samir Husni: Was the work-from-home move easy or hard for everyone?

Kent Johnson: I would say that we were lucky and it varied by function. We made the decision on a Wednesday morning that we should do a dry run of work from home on Friday, but by Thursday night we decided we would just go fully to work-from-home. So, it took us about maybe 72 hours due to some of the tougher positions. And that includes getting customer service, our contact centers, getting those people who deal with customers to be able to work from home too. So, there was a technology piece to that as well.

Samir Husni: With the pandemic, are you considering changing any frequencies or any of your publishing schedules or is everything status quo for now?

Kent Johnson: For our magazine business, we’re keeping our print publishing schedule the same as always. And I will say, there was a technology task to get our editorial for our magazine product development to work remotely, because the designers work with such big files and important technology systems. So, that was also a transition that I’m happy to say we’re on the other side of. But we’re keeping our print schedule the same.

We’ve seen a pretty significant increase in demand for the products from Highlights that aren’t our magazine. Our Highlights Learning line of products, things like workbooks, summer workbooks, get ready for Pre-K, getting ready for K, kind of fun with a purpose with more explicit learning objectives. Those have sold incredibly well on Amazon and through our site as parents are looking for help with their kids home now and with everyone trying to be a homeschooler across the country. We’ve been working very hard to keep ourselves in inventory and market those products appropriately, let customers know. That’s been a bright spot in our service to customers.

The other thing I would say is that where we have changed from the old role of content is we’ve just launched this week a program we call “Highlights At Home,” which is a frequent publication of helpful digital content that has inspirational messages from our chief purpose officer, Chris Cully. It has humor and activities that you can do at home. And we’re both launching that to our consumers directly through social and email, but we’re also making that content available to partners who want to provide it to other companies, other nonprofits who want to provide it directly to their customers.

So, we’re totally changing the rules about intellectual property and how we partner just to try and be of help to families and parents stuck at home during this pandemic and this crisis.

Samir Husni:  You’re a physicist by education, did you in your worst nightmares ever envision something like this happening, not only in the United states, but across the entire world?

Kent Johnson: Many of us have contemplated this in the realm of fiction. I was trained as a physicist and between finishing my degree in physics and coming into the magazine industry, I spent six years in the medical diagnostics industry, including working on some assays for biotoxins. So unfortunately, I have run in the circles that think about the technologies we use to detect viruses and disease. I have been exposed to people who have worried about this, but you don’t take that risk seriously in your day-to-day life. But I do think this kind of pandemic was anticipatable and it’s just horrible that it’s here. I’m rooting for every family, for every company, and for every government as we try and adapt and get through this together.

Samir Husni: What message do you have for your staff and your readers during this pandemic?

Kent Johnson: My overall message and the way I’m trying to lead through this crisis is with transparency and much more frequent communication to our company. But the main message is we will get through this and we’ll get through it together. In a time of crisis and stress, we have to double-down on our values and we have to double-down and emphasize the purpose of our company.

I’ve been talking a lot to our employees about what we do, whether it’s in education in our magazines, across all our products. We’re not the frontlines; we’re not the medical providers who are the heroes right now, but what we provide is a really important service to families as they try to broker the disruption and the stress. I try to focus all of us on our mission and remind us all that however hard it is today, we’re going to get through this as a country. We’re going to get through this as a global, interconnected human population. We have to keep our faith, but be realistic and do the best we can every day.

Samir Husni: During this pandemic, does your degree and background in physics help you in any way running a magazine media company?

Kent Johnson: It’s interesting, because I do have training in science and I love to be a data-driven decision maker in business and our company thrives on data. We, as a leadership team, have been very conscious and very explicit that in a time of crisis we say all our crystal balls are sitting shattered on the floor. We’re trying to use our intuition, use our heart and lead more like a general than a rational thinker. We take all of the data we have, but we have to make decisions in a time of crisis more rapidly. We remind everyone that we can’t be perfect, that we have to move quickly and make decisions in a decisive manner. And communicate why we’re doing it and what we’re doing, and adapt.

I think a crisis like this has caused me and our leadership team to adapt our style. And it adapts a little bit away from the scientific and the rational to the more intuitive and the heart, leading with values and best judgements, given what we know at the time.

Samir Husni: I know you have worldwide publications also; have those been impacted by the pandemic?

Kent Johnson: Our international business is really important to us from a mission perspective. I think we’re still trying to understand the impact globally on our business. I will say that maybe as a company we had sort of an early insight into the impact of this pandemic. One of our key customers, a really valued partner for us is based in Wuhan. And we’ve worked with them for many years to get our Highlights/High Five content and other early childhood content to preschool kids in China. So, we both had the early view of what happened to business as Wuhan and Hubei province shut down in China.

But what’s inspiring for our people and it reminds me of our message point that we are going to get through this is, right now we’re constantly talking to our partners in China and watching China’s economy come back on line. We’re very worried about our friends in China and worried about the impact on their economy and their society just as we’re worried about the impact this will have on all of us.

One of the things we did early on when they shut down schools in China is we had a pilot going for our Highlights Digital Library, which is a digital platform with thousands and thousands of stories that have been published in Highlights and  High Five over the years. Early on we rolled that out as broadly as we could through our partners for free. We expanded the pilot to reach as many kids as our partners could at home, because they were stuck in the homeschool environment early and in isolation and with social distancing.

So, I’m very concerned about the impact on the global economy and we’re just trying to support our partners and work with them as their businesses get back on line.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Kent Johnson: Uncertainty. It’s probably keeping us all up at night. We have to take this day-by-day with faith that the purpose of our company is important today and will be important on the other side of this. I lose a lot of sleep thinking about our people, hoping our people are keeping a  balance in their lives so that they can perform well and maintain their mental and physical health and an effectiveness in their lives as a whole, across their families, extended families and their colleagues at work.

I believe we’re all kept up at night thinking about the public health and all the pain and suffering, first in the public health, second in the economy, and for all those people this impacts directly and indirectly. We will get through this, but it’s hard.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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