Inside Edelman is an ongoing series that spotlights our colleagues who are doing extraordinary work across our network. This year's International Women's Day theme is #ChooseToChallenge and we’ll be spotlighting our female leaders, the challenges they’ve faced personally and professionally and how they’ve overcome them.

What does “choose to challenge” mean to you?

To me, it means to trust your instincts and speak up. When you have a point of view or a strong conviction, have the confidence to express it.

Who is a woman you admire as a challenger, and how do you carry on her legacy?

I admire New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern because she shows it’s possible to be smart/strong AND warm/humble. Lots of people think that combination is mutually exclusive and it’s not. I try to make those traits guide me in my work.

What advice do you have for a woman starting her career?

Try to have a 5-year plan but at the same time if a door opens, walk through it! They may sound like opposing ideas, but they can work in tandem. It’s important to take the time to consciously think about your career, what you want to be doing in 5 years, what skills you want to develop, etc. but equally to embrace change. I often think things happen for a reason and ironically, I didn’t plan any of my big career moves but they were all the result of an opportunity coming up, and my thinking change is good.

Can you tell us about a time when you challenged a colleague and/or client? How did you handle the situation? What was the outcome?

I was young in the Foreign Service (this was in the early 90s) and watched a senior male member of staff take down a woman peer in front of a lot of people. I was convinced it would not have happened in the same way had the peer been male, so I decided to raise it with him. It was a big call and I thought very carefully about what I wanted to say but, in many ways, it was formative for me. He was shocked, I think surprised that I felt able to say it but actually very reflective and said that he hadn’t thought of it that way. The news reached the senior woman and she called me to say it was courageous (and risky) given his seniority and reputation but that other women felt encouraged. Some weeks later he invited me to a meeting—I was scared by this, but he said he liked my approach (to raise with him direct) and would add me to his working team on a particular project. He actually went on to play quite an important role in my Foreign Service career.

How do you build your inner resilience?

Surrounding myself with family and great friends from diverse backgrounds who I can gut-check things with. I’m also a bigger believer in the basics of sleep, exercise and a good diet, and making sure that I spend time in nature.

What do you believe will be the biggest challenge for the next generation of women?

Burnout. I’ve been thinking about this a lot during COVID, and the fact that working from home has really blurred the issues around separation of work from personal life and I think this has disproportionally affected women who tend to do a lot more on the homefront. I also think as people live longer women also tend to be the caregivers or at least responsible of the coordination of issues with elderly parents.

Do you think it is important for women to challenge one another? How do you challenge other women around you?

Yes, I do. I think this is about respect, and not so much what you say, but how you say it. It’s actually a manifestation of trust—trust isn’t just important for institutions; it’s the NorthStar of all our own relationships. People trust you if you say what you think (tactfully!) and if you do what you say.

What is one of the best pieces of advice you’ve received in your career?

“People don’t mind bad news—they just hate surprises.”


About Kirsty Graham

Kirsty Graham is the Chief Executive Officer of Public Affairs and Chair of Health.