Social & Emotional Development

Behind-the-Scenes at Highlights with CEO Kent Johnson

By: Michelle Back
Dear Highlights podcast logo
14 minutes to read
For All Ages
Critical Thinking

In this episode of the "Dear Highlights" podcast, Christine French Cully, Editor-in-Chief, and Hillary Bates, Director of Purpose and Impact, are joined by Highlights CEO Kent Johnson. Kent answers questions from our readers, talks about why his great-grandparents founded Highlights with their retirement savings and shares what makes carrying on the mission so meaningful today. 

Before they dive into the kids’ questions, Christine asks Kent to explain how he came to be the CEO of Highlights. Kent admits it’s not a linear story. He did “almost everything [he] could in his life to not join the family business.” His parents never worked at Highlights, and Kent shares he was bitten by a science bug. He had a career before coming to Highlights. However, he explains, he got excited about what Highlights is about, its mission and vision.  

Since Kent wasn’t expecting to work at Highlights, Hillary asks what he thought he would do when he grew up. Kent recounts how he had amazing teachers and incredible experiences at science museums. He self-identified as a “geeky science kid.” He says he was passionate about curiosity and loved math and science, so he thought he wanted to be a teacher or a scientist. He studied science in school and went on to work in biotech, before coming to Highlights.  

To learn more about what Kent was like as a kid, Hillary asks him to imagine a raining afternoon when he would be around 9 or 10 and to talk about what he would be doing then. Kent explains he loved puzzles and games as a kid. He also loved to read. He was an active kid, too, so if it was a rainy afternoon, he might ask to go outside to jump in the puddles.  

Christine notes that curiosity is a common characteristic of the kids who read (and write to) Highlights. This curiosity is reflected in the questions they include in their letters. Christine and Hillary take turns asking Kent questions from kids, and share their own memories, curiosities and thoughts about working for Highlights.  

What’s amazing is “fun with a purpose” is only 4 words, but it describes a really broad range of human experience. What we’re trying to do at Highlights is making sure our content really addresses the whole child.”  -Kent Johnson, CEO 

Did the founders have any children? 

They did… They had 3 children—Jack, Betty, and Garry Jr. They ended up having 13 grandchildren. I’m a great-grandchild. They ended up having 27 great-grandchildren. It’s a big, growing and supportive family. 

How did you make up the name Highlights? 

The founders … wanted to create this vehicle for kids and families [that] brings the absolute best of a wide variety of content types—fiction, non-fiction, puzzles, pictures, poems. They wanted to bring the best because it’s so important to bring quality content to kids. So, they said it was going to be the highlights of all these different areas. And that name stuck. We want everything we provide to be a highlight of the category and a highlight for that kid. 

Christine shares she loves the story of the founders creating the first issue of Highlights. They had a dream, they had an idea, they had a concept, but they didn’t have enough content. Dr. Garry Myers sent out a telegram to all the children’s writers they could find and invited them to send in their works. It’s fun, she says, to imagine the founders picking through the works sent to them and finding the highlights.  

Kent agrees he marvels at the magic of the creative process. He can see the love that goes into the creative decisions to bring the best content. It ties back to how the founders had the passion and love for what they were doing right at the first issue.  

Is it hard/fun to work at Highlights?  

I can give you a one-word answer: Yes. It’s tremendously fun. We get to work with this wonderful group of people. On our best days, it’s a constant puzzle. We’re trying to solve problems. We’re trying to create. And there’s something fun about creating for kids and creating business ideas and solving problems. But it’s also hard. The world is competitive. Our organizations are complex. There aren’t many things in business and life that are easy that are worth doing… But we get our energy from the fun and the mission and impact we’re having and from the goals we have for kids and families.  

Hillary says working at Highlight is as fun as people would expect because “you can’t work at Highlights without thinking about kids and the reality of kids’ lives, kids’ minds and kids’ curiosity every day. It’s fun to approach the world with the freshness that children do.” 

Kent agrees and notes Highlights mission is to help kids become their best selves, and at Highlights we’re always asking, “How do we become our best selves?”  

How did Highlights choose the motto “fun with a purpose”? 

I like how fun and purpose are integrated in the slogan. As humans, we don’t have a model where a portion of the day is when we have fun and a portion where there’s purpose. These things aren’t separable, but fun is what we want to lead with. With kids and adults, if it’s not fun, you’re not going to engage. You’re not going to get into it. When we say, “Fun with a purpose,” we mean the fun has a reason. We’re striving toward what a child might get out of an intrinsic motivation about fun, and there are many different aspects of purpose we try to put into the fun, so it’s not a monolithic purpose… It’s fun to feel like you’ve accomplished something or to feel like you’ve learned something. There are a lot of different versions of fun we get to experience, from joyful, playful, silly to a deep satisfaction of accomplishment. We think kids can best develop if they get the whole continuum of fun with a purpose. What’s amazing is “fun with a purpose” is only 4 words, but it describes a really broad range of human experience. What we’re trying to do at Highlights is [making sure our] content really addresses the whole child.”  

Christine recounts a time when her son was working on a Highlights’ geography club activity on a Sunday afternoon. It was a little advanced for him, and she suggested he take a break so they could get ice cream. He didn’t want to stop his work, even though it was challenging. Christine realized she was witnessing fun with a purpose.  

Kent remarks how we’ve all seen kids in that mode, where they shut things out and lose a sense of time. Sometimes, he notes, adults will say that children have short attention spans, but he says we might not be thinking deeply about that. What Highlights strives to do is create fun and engaging products, so that kids are having fun with a purpose. Kids have the ability to deeply engage in tasks if they’re rewarding for them. At Highlights, he notes, they “accept that there’s more complexity to the humanness of childhood.” 

Kent shares a story about how the founders believed we should have higher expectations of children than many adults have. They believed that children are more capable than we give them credit for. This ties into intrinsic motivation, he says, and if a child really wants to accomplish something, “that opens up opportunity.” We need to present kids with things across the spectrum of challenges, from things that are hard and require perseverance and things that can be achieved with confidence.  

What’s the best part of working at Highlights for you?  

I’m not going to give you one best part; I’m going to give you two. The first best part is the people we get to work with here. We are incredibly blessed as an organization with the people who bring their whole selves to this company. [I’m] grateful so many people join in the shared mission and purpose of our organization. The second-best thing is more long term. There are times we get letters from readers who’re now adults… Maybe they wrote to us as kids, and we were there when they needed us. [The] best things is just to be able to reflect on the collective work we do to put these products out in the world [and] they form a relationship with families and that’s having a positive impact… That’s a really great part, not just when working at Highlights, but in my life, to feel like I’m part of something that’s putting some good out in the world at a scale of reach that’s important and that we really make a difference in kids’ lives.  

Christine agrees and says, “It’s great to wake up and come to work knowing we’re doing something meaningful to kids, who we referred to often as the world’s most important people.” She poses this question to Kent. 

What would we do differently if we believe that children are the world’s most important people? 

When I reflect on it, we’re trying to do things differently every day. I want us to be more successful. I want us to reach more kids. I want us to be in more media. I want us to do more because if we really believe children are the world’s more important people, [we can ask] have we done well enough with a product for it to have the most impact for a child. That’s about quality. But the businessperson in me says, if we’re achieving that, if we’ve created something that can be the scaffolding of a meaningful experience, have we reached enough kids? Are we living up to the quality we put into the products and reaching enough kids... There’s a passion I have about growth because of the impact. Not growth for growth's sake, but because if we believe those interactions are so positive, we have to reach more kids. 

Is there anything you’d like to say about the cherished tradition of answering every letter and email that we receive from kids that started with the founders? 

I had a summer job in the editorial office and half my time was spent reading kids’ letters and being part of that tradition. I’m not sure I added value to the process, but at the time, staff felt it was important that I learn about what the company was about by spending time reading what kids wrote… We try to bring some of the letters to the all-company calls so that everyone in the company is feeling like they’re hearing the voice of children and that children trust us with their questions, problems and submissions. People have asked, “Doesn’t it cost a lot to [answer all the letters]?” But we don’t measure what it costs; we just do it because it’s right and important. It’s not a marketing piece. It’s a relationship piece.  

Hillary shares a whole letter from a reader named Jillian, noting that when kids write to Highlights, they share a lot about themselves, while asking whatever question they might have. 

Dear Highlights Family, 

I really like Highlights. We used to get them. Then we stopped. Now we get them again. Let me tell you a little bit about myself. I’m almost 11. My favorite color is orange. My favorite animal is a chipmunk. I have a chocolate lab puppy named Fern. I enjoy playing sports, and I love school. I have three older siblings and a mom and a dad. I also love art. I like to spread kindness by helping those in need. Praying a Hail Mary every time a see a homeless person. I almost crossed this out—I like to include people if they want to play with us. I was also wondering why did you decide to write Highlights? On the about you page, I would like to put in that I like chipmunks because they’re cute and cuddly.  

Hillary says she loves every bit of Jillian’s letter and asks Kent if he can help answer her question about why his great-grandparents decided to write Highlights.  

Kent explains that Highlights was started because the founders believed children are the world’s most important people. They believed that having quality content and products can mediate positive developmental experiences. Highlights hopes because of these experiences, we can make the world a better place. He goes on to say about Jillian, “How humbling to think that maybe the relationship with Highlights and its role in that child being so passionate about kindness and including friends that maybe it will echo out across that child’s entire lifetime.”  

Kent explains that Highlights isn’t really a magazine company. Highlights is trying to plant millions of little seed that help children develop in a positive way to make our world a better place for everyone.  

Hillary says, “childhood is so short, but it’s so important to the scaffolding of who a person becomes.” She says that like other touchstone influences, adults write to say how important Highlights was to them when they were young. She asks Kent to discuss the sense of responsibility of having a big place in kids’ lives.  

Kent responds, “Being a person in a family business there’s often a certain pressure about the family. The concept of stewardship is important. It’s not about us and right now. It’s about how do we continue a legacy that was built on generations of employees who worked incredibly hard at success. We each have a role and get to write our own chapter at Highlights… It’s a huge responsibility. Anyone who’s engaged with kids, feel[s] that responsibility. But…you [also] have to be able to be free and fun and innovative.” 

What do you think your great-grandparents would be delighted by about how the world has changed for children over the last 77 years? 

I think they would be delight in how much opportunity kids have. There’s a discussion about how kids seem to be having accelerated childhoods, but they would be delighted that even in places where kids have so much exposure and so much opportunity that they still get to be kids and get to play. There are still opportunities in that short, sweet season… They’d be excited about the possibilities and that Highlights is still here. They’d be excited that a positive vision of child development could still drive an organization that, when they started it, was very small. We’re not a huge company now, but they’d be excited to see we’re still finding ways to implement a positive, optimistic philosophy around children and positive family relationships.  

Christine explains how the founders had great respect for children and felt the importance of instilling optimism in them. They defined it in a way that’s similar to how Highlights does today, she says. It’s not about the glass being half full or making lemonade out of lemons, but rather “the ability to see the good in yourself, the good in others and the good in the world, and …we should all work to create optimistic children who’re curious, creative and confident so they can make the world a better place.”   

Our goal of the “Dear Highlights”podcast is to elevate the voices of children from these letters and help parents raise kids to be curious, creative, caring, and confident.

Author Photo
By: Michelle Back