IWF UK Leadership Stories: Edna Kissmann

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This month social entrepreneur Edna Kissmann, founder of The Wonder of Me, a new application and education package to challenge children’s obesity, reflects on how she rose from a junior at Burson-Marsteller in New York to become an expert authority on healthcare communications, and a trusted counsellor of CEOs and other leaders around the world.

What does being a leader mean to you?

It is not about the endorsement of others. It is the outcome of daily actions. I wanted my clients to shine and achieve their goals. I worked to ensure that the people who worked with me were as successful as I believed they could be. I fought for their self-development and opportunities, and when I saw injustice I confronted it.

I was guided by two North stars: Excellence and Empathy. These were the criteria by which I judged myself and others. I never operated as a solo performer. Aware of my own limitations and abilities, I had always sought, and still do, to complement my skills with the expertise and experiences of others. Behaving in this manner always produced better results. It was very definitely more fun. Humour was a must. Laughing with others at myself, at the absurdity of situations and the foibles of people, was a great benefit of the team experience.

As soon as I was assigned to a new position, I identified and trained my replacement. This was, first of all, a way to ensure that the client would never suffer if I was not around. Secondly, I never allowed myself to become trapped in the “too valuable where she is, so we cannot move her” syndrome. I have never believed that someone is irreplaceable, including myself. Thus, I tried always to promote and highlight the contribution of others.

What have been the one or two biggest challenges in your life and how have you overcome them?

The challenge I had to face on turning 65 was how to shape the third period of my life.

I wanted to continue using my skills, contacts and interest in the service of something useful and to leave a meaningful legacy. I wanted to have fun, keep my brain in high gear, enjoy the company of friends and make new ones.

I dedicated 2016 to the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University. I’m thankful to IWF for the information on the Fellowship and for the wonderful friendships with members from the Boston, Kansas City, Florida, Connecticut and UK forums. The outcome of this fascinating and life-affirming year is my social enterprise, The Wonder of ME. It is dedicated to challenging children’s obesity.

I have spent personal funds and almost two years building a team of game developers, nutrition and behaviour-change experts, project managers and communications specialists. We have developed an interactive digital App created by 4 to 7 year-old children. Through fun and engaging games and in-class materials, the children will acquire knowledge, build their skills and develop the confidence to create new healthy habits. The Wonder of ME will also campaign to include a child-led component in any public health campaign aimed at children and parents. We have now begun an evaluation to build the evidence base for this innovative approach.

What do you regard as your greatest successes, and why?

My trust in my intelligence, analytical and problem-solving skills was rock solid. I often deployed them on behalf of the collective beyond the team. I volunteered for ad-hoc teams that addressed complex business issues and was often the “go to” person when the client or company issues were involved. This became my calling card, creating real value for the company, and a very clear impression among senior management of what I was capable of achieving.

This led to several roles within Burson-Marsteller. I was appointed the Joint MD of the UK office and the head of the Healthcare business in Europe. The latter required a great deal of conviction and personal commitment to persuade the leadership of each office to invest in that business. I was the temporary head of the German operations that needed a major turnaround effort and a member of the global leadership team that redefined the company’s business in the mid 90’s. I became the Vice Chair in charge of developing the first-ever global knowledge management strategy organisation for a communications company, and the global head of the Healthcare Practice, accounting for 25% of the global company’s income.

I was astonished and delighted when I discovered as a Harvard Advanced Leadership Fellow that my experiences were aligned with what Harvard’s best minds codified as the principles of advanced leadership. This unintended endorsement was worth the difficulties and challenges of a thirty-year career.

How has your leadership style changed over time, and why?

When the late Martin Langford and I founded Kissmann Langford Ltd, a boutique, London-based, C-suite consultancy, we added two other principles of successful leadership. We made sure that we were always in a position to choose the next move, staying on the alert to preserve this freedom of choice, lest a seductive offer came along and trapped us in an uncomfortable corner.

Our second rule was that one should always remain passionate about the matter at hand. This level of personal commitment was the yardstick by which we evaluated both clients and staff, and even the business opportunities we picked.

What advice do you have for younger women aspiring to leadership roles?

  1. Be realistic about your own strengths and gaps and believe in you
  2. Map the organisation in which you find yourself:
    • Who are the people, the human beings behind the titles?
    • What do they care about, how do they behave under pressure, how are they likely to react in different situations?
    • What are their strengths and weaknesses, and who amongst them can complement yours optimally?
  3. Practice and promote Team and Collaboration
  4. Keep the focus on quality and act decisively to improve, and if necessary, remove laggards
  5. Embrace and promote “Communicate, Communicate, Communicate”
  6. Above all, never lose sight of your humanity and that of others

I was guided by two North stars: Excellence and Empathy. These were the criteria by which I judged myself and others

Edna Kissmann
Edna Kissman

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