Derek: Awesome. So, I’m glad you brought that, that part up about, you know, being interested in, involved in politics, because I was going to ask you, you know, when looking at when you went into college and you majored in journalism and political science what was the decision behind that. When you think about, you know, if we all kind of track back to when you were undergrad, if you did go to college if not, then that’s okay too, but you know, a lot of conversation around sometimes what you major in is not necessarily the career that you end up in. And so just curious about your decision to major in journalism and political science and how that, helped to continue to support your view as you moved and transitioned into the business world
Karen: Well, I was first-generation college at UNC Chapel Hill. When I got in, it was a big deal. Yeah, it was a big deal to go to college. It’s a big deal to be able to do that. And so I like a lot of students going into college, you know, I was pre something, and I was pre law. That was where I started in political science.
But, you start to find yourself in college. I realized that wasn’t going to be pre-law for me. And I was looking for another major. And when I looked back at all those organizations that I had been a part of like the teen Democrats or whatever, and the just the different student government, whatever.
I had usually been the public relations person. And there was not a PR major at chapel hill at the time, but there was a school of journalism and advertising. And so I went into the J school and the advertising sequence. That’s how I found it.
Derek: Nice. Nice. That’s definitely, encouraging, because I think as you, when we talk about journey, right one part of the journey is giving yourself the permission to, to shift and to flow as you get to know and learn more about yourself. Mango, what about you? was that similar to your experience?
Mango: I mean, I I’m, I’m really interested, I think we share actually, a lot of similar experiences growing up in sports that’s in sports kind of helped me learn a lot of that leadership skills and working with a team. And my dad was in politics. So he was always meeting people and keeping conversations going and just very personable. So I think we actually share a lot of how we got to where we are.
What I’m interested is how you made that leap from college into, I believe your first job in McKinney Media. Right? Because that’s another experience where I share of how I got into media. Mine probably isn’t as exciting. I remember, back in the day where they were recruiters and they kind of like position you where you want to go.
And the question they asked me was do you like dealing with people or do you like math? And I said, you know, I like both, but I like math. Okay, you’re set for media. And that’s kind of like, unfortunately the way that I was kind of set up for my career. So I’d love to hear if that’s a similar experience of you or how you kind of landed your first role in.
Karen: Well, similarly, I always liked math and research and data. When I started looking for a job, when I got out of school, it was not an easy time to look for a job, but I was looking for something more in research and data, and wound up getting an introduction into the media department at McKinney
I started at McKinney. I started literally in the mailroom of the media department. So you know, my career, I’m just sort of a classic mailroom to boardroom kind of story. And they had a woman who is doing the job in the mail room, which was at that time sending contracts to media vendors and she was making a lot of mistakes.
So when I walked in, if they thought that I had a chance of not messing things up, that’s how I got a foot in the door. So that was, that was my first shot. And even though it was, I mean, if you had listed all 117 people who worked at McKinney at the time that I started out would have been number 117.
I mean, there was an agency mail room that was above me. But it was a great place to get a foot in the door. And I took the job, even though I probably had opportunities to maybe do a little better somewhere else because it was such a great agency. And I knew if I had it on my resume, it would have been, it would be a good thing to have, and boy was it.
Mango: And I noticed that one of the accounts you worked on was Bahamas. Were you able, ever able to go there and, you know, to see it in person through McKinney,
Karen: I did all the, Mango you know that they don’t often let media people go to clients and present cause we’re, we’re such dorks. But, but they did. I went, I went to The Bahamas and it was, it was, I was really nervous. You know, I’m in a suit. We’d go there that morning to present the plan to the clients, which also include a lot of the, the hotel representatives and, and, and other people in there. And as it turns out, we go to the ministry, which is right next to the straw market. And the security guard for the ministry had locked the door and locked himself in the break room, vending machine room somehow the night before.
So we’re standing out there with our boards, you know, our agency, all, you know, I mean, just in our suits, everything, before that big presentation, but I did to get that, to get it for that. So that was, that was a great experience and a fantastic account. we had a wonderful client and did just some remarkable, remarkable work for them.
Derek: Nice, nice. So as you are moving up in McKinney, how did, you know, as you are experiencing, because we say, you know, with your experience, you, you, you get more clarity around where you want to see yourself and kind of where you want to go next. So in that role and, and moving, you know, from the mail room up into being a part of accounts in, in leading accounts, how did that shape your, your focus to stay within, the space of service industries?
Karen: You know, McKinney, I would say that they were just really great at continuing to give me opportunities. They really did. So when I, when I took that job in the mail room, I asked the woman who hired me, Janice Hunter you know, I said, please don’t hire me if you can’t promote me.
And she was true to her word. She did, I got so many opportunities. There were so many great people there that I worked with. And I mean, mango, you were there at one point, you know, the environment, but we worked really hard and, and yeah, we’ll just say I worked all the time in my twenties, but I wasn’t that bright.
I mean, I didn’t know a lot, but I, but I worked really hard and they never, never hesitated to give us opportunities if people were willing to work. And so it was that, just that those opportunities that, that, that kept the passion going for whatever it was.
And then, you know I stayed in media. you know, really enjoyed being in a, in a role that was strategic because it was about where are you investing resources? And so for me, that was a really interesting part of the business to be, to, to be involved with it. And, and again, you know, we, um one of the questions I get asked a lot about you know, what’s the best career advice you ever got, or maybe the best career move you ever made.
And I would say the best career move I ever made was not to move. It was to stay, and so staying at McKinney for, you know, nine years and then go on to FGI and stay in there until we merged with Cap Strat and staying there after that, you know, just, just staying and getting opportunities where you are, where you have an opportunity to build trust with your colleagues is a, I think a great, you know, a great way to build a career.
Mango: Yeah, I think that’s where our, our careers are different cause working in New York, I don’t know. It’s different mentality, you know, and especially in media, it was one of those unfortunate things. You would make more money going somewhere else. And I got to look back at that mentality and yes, I probably should’ve done things differently, but unfortunately that was the reality of New York.
And the time you’re somewhere two to three years, you’re not getting promoted. Somewhere else, who’s willing to pay you more money, bigger, better accounts and media, you’re going to take it. But that is a good, I mean, funny, I came to, down here from McKinney. And it was the longest job I ever had. And still today it still is, six years, which in advertising I think is a good amount of time.
So, what I would love to hear also transitioning from media to you’re talking about cap Strat, and all the years you spent there and eventually making it to CEO, did you ever think that that would happen? When was the point in time where you’re like, this is something I want to do? just interesting of, you know, lessons learned as you went through that process.
Karen: We’ll never. And if you talk to the people who knew me at McKinney, no one that they will be as surprised as anyone other than me, that I wound up in that role. and that I wound up actually, even, even making a transition out of media, and I did that actually in between. And in between McKinney and Cap Strat.
And I did that at FGI where there were it was a very progressive from the, the people there were and the leaders there were very encouraging of me and they gave me again, opportunities to move and we, how I moved from media and to just overall, strategy and account management was we had a larger, large client at FGI that, you know, we were, we were burning through client leadership on it, pretty fast.
We had three turnovers in about a year, I think. And they came to me and said, hey, you’ve got a good relationship with a client. A big part of the relationship is around paid media. would you consider running it? And you know, I, there was some risk in it because everybody who was, who had run it had left, but I said, I’d give it a shot.
And it, it gave me that opportunity to grow again. But the CEO role at Cap Strat, the other thing I would say maybe in between that is one of the things that’s been very good in my career is when other people leave. You know, that that move into accounts happen because somebody left.
And when I was at first at cap Strat, I never envisioned CEO quite the opposite. I always saw myself as a good number 2. There were other people in there ahead of me who I would have anticipated would have been the, would have been CEO before me but they left. And I tell them that I’ll want, one of them is still a friend.
And so your, your departure was probably the best thing that ever happened for my career. And the truth is the first time that I was approached about being CEO by the shareholders at, at Cap Strat, I turned them down. I said, I don’t think that’s me. You know, a few weeks later, the then CEO Ken Yute, we were having a check-in and he said, you know, talk a little bit more about why you don’t want to do this.
And I said, I just don’t see myself in that role. Yeah. He said, if you read good to great, well, of course I had, I mean, everybody’s read good to great. And you know, so he asked me to go back and take a look at that. And he said, you know, I think the, the vision that you have of what a CEO is, is not necessarily the only way to be a CEO.
And he encouraged me to say yes, to take the opportunity and to prepare myself for doing it. So that’s what I did now that was back in, you know, in 2007 or 2008. And I didn’t, I didn’t get the job until many years later. But I worked at it and I think, I would just say that for so many opportunities, particularly for, I guess for, particularly for a woman, that sometimes somebody has to tap you on the shoulder and be an advocate for you.
And I was really fortunate, to have that, you know, at, at, at all the, all the firms that I’ve worked in. And so that’s, that’s how I made that leap. It was not an aspiration.
Derek: That’s incredible. I have a question. So the question that I’m thinking now is how did your view about what a CEO is change from like what you thought about a CEO before you even consider the role for yourself, and then once you got into the, the actual position and you started to actually work in the role as CEO, how, how different was your perspective on it prior to and then after?
Karen: That’s an interesting question. I’m not sure I have all the answers for that. I would say that I think going into it, I saw the CEO as much more of a, an external role. There was sort of an image that you had to fill with that. You know, when you’re in it, you realize as much more about equipping the people around you and the leaders around you than it is about what you’re going to do.
That the hardest part of the job is to get other people to do what you need them to do. So, so I would say that and I would say I’m still learning in the job, you know, never, never, ever quit learning. And the role continues to change.
Derek: Awesome. I think a part of that too, is, you know, when we move from role to role and opportunity to opportunity. I heard a saying that you don’t, you’re not starting from scratch. You’re just starting over. But you start over with everything that you have to learn and you brought to the table.
What would you say was maybe some of those key learnings that you learned even back in the, in the mailroom at McKinney that were still very, powerful and impactful for you as a CEO?
Karen: For me, I think one of the, one of the things that I learned from the very beginning is just the value of setting small goals. So you can have these big, big milestones, but, but setting a few small goals, you know, when I, the first day I started in the mail room at McKinney, I opened eight large duffel bags of mail.
Understand, I’m really old when you said three decades. I mean, this is pre-digital. So everybody, it was the Monday after Thanksgiving and everybody sent holiday cards. That was all I did the first day. And when I left at the end of the day, I said, I am going to get promoted before next Thanksgiving.
And so that was my first career goal. It was small, but it was, it was the first one. And I’ve just learned that value of just setting some small milestones that you can, that you can hit. You know, and so that you can say you’ve accomplished, you know, something and doing that with your team. The second thing That I would, that would say that, that it’s just really been key is, is just the value of your, of your relationships and your network, you know your skills are going to need to change.
The business is certainly going to change. You’re going to have ups and downs, but your, your ability to go to your network is, is something that that is an asset that I think you always need to be mindful of. And I still have, you know, some really, really great, relationships from those first years at McKinney.
They still, they still matter, you know? And, and so there, while they, I, I don’t, you know, they, I mean, they matter for a lot of reasons. Sometimes you just need someone to talk to, you know? So I think that’s a you know, second learning is the value of those relationships.
Mango: So what attracted you to Walk West.
Karen: Hm. well, I will tell you this. I have always loved midsize, independently owned businesses, I believe that, that is where the jobs get created. That’s where innovation happens. Those are the organizations that are really doing the work and are in our local communities. So I’m a, I’m a big advocate and I’ve worked for a lot of global clients.
I’ve worked for a global holding company and I wanted to do that too, but I love midsize independently held agencies or firms or businesses. And so for me, that’s a, that’s a real part of my why, just working in that environment. And so that was, that was one of the things I think that the second thing, is this focus on inclusivity?
Throughout our organization and also in the way that we approach the discipline of marketing and branding, I believe that we can be so much more powerful for our clients and for the brands that we work on before because of that. and then, you know, for me, I mean, it was all about the people, you know, I had the chance to meet, you know, Don and Abha and Christie, you know early on. And so, I mean, for me, it was all about
Derek: I remember when I was interviewing for my position at Walk West. I got a chance to, to speak with you prior to, and one of the reasons why I said yes was just the connection that I had to your story. You just, you know, the similarities that we had in our experience of being entrepreneurs at certain points in our careers, you know, working in the agency space, you know, on the onset of our careers, but then also sharing a passion for sports.
Both attending UNC, and so, you know, connections like he’s a connections matter and, and, and sharing our stories and our experiences really allow you to, to feel comfortable and around people when you’re meeting them for the first time. Cause that was our first-time meeting, but then also I never had the opportunity prior to, to really sit and speak with the CEO. And for me, that was a big, a great experience for me in seeing how a lot of organizations, things trickle from the top down.
So really getting to have a conversation with you and understanding your mission and your vision for Walk West joining on and, and your goals really helped me to make a decision on, you know, saying yes, because there were shared visions and shared missions and you being a servant leader and a lot of things that you talked about from the core. So that, that was very powerful for, for me just personally. And so I wanted to thank you for just being, you know, authentic and transparent, just even in our interview because you didn’t have to, but you, you did. And that just speaks volumes, to, you know, who you are as a person, but also as a leader.
Karen: Well, thank you. I mean, it, it is always exciting and also humbling to talk to people who are considering coming to work with us, you know because I always say, you know, it’s a big deal for us, everybody that we bring on the team, but I always recognize it as a bigger deal for that person when they’re talking to us and evaluating, cause they got so many options and there’s so much potential for what they can do.
And you want to make sure that they are, they’re getting everything they need from us to make the right decision for them. And I’m glad that you made the decision you made.
Derek: Well, thank you. I appreciate it. I wouldn’t be here on Talk West without it.
Karen: Right? Absolutely.
Mango: As am I. And that was when me and Derek were talking about, you know, Walk West, and re bringing back Talk West. When we looked at the core value of what we all share its various backgrounds, diversity and experience, and truly liking each other and learning more about each other because there is more than our just LinkedIn profiles and what we are doing today, everybody kind of has a story of how they got to it and what they learned to get through it. And your story was excellent. So thank you for sharing that as well.
Karen: Well, my pleasure. This has been great. You know, and I will tell you that, there’s something I read once. about, about luck and it’s it was that luck is not so much what, what happens to you, but who happens to you? And I would say that my career, you know, I just think, you know, if, when I tell people who are coming into the business, if they have half the career that I’ve had, they’ll be, they’ll have a great one, because I just feel so fortunate for all the people that have had that I’ve gotten to work with in my career. And that has really been the story throughout it’s really who’s happened to me. And that goes for the team at Walk West for you guys and everybody, you know, how much I’ve learned from everybody.
Derek: Awesome. I do want to touch on one quick thing, because I think it’s, it’s important with this, the conversation, what we’re seeing in the world today, the importance of, you know, mental health and just, you know, taking time for yourself. As a CEO, when you are leading an organization and, you know, staff and, you know, your networks and things of that nature, what do you do to unwind and re refuel when things get hectic in your schedule?
Karen: There, there’s a lot of different things I do to, to unwind and to adjust that balance. And I, and I would say that balance was not a concept that was very prevalent in the early part of my career. And I would also say that it’s probably easier for me, and I recognize that it’s easier for me now than it is for a lot of people who are in their career who have young children, aging parents to care for anything like that, that there there’s a lot to deal with.
But for me the, the key is, is really more how I start my day. So it’s a little bit less about the unwind and all of that stuff, but it’s more the three-piece you know, pray, prepare, and perspire. So every day, you know, I start with a moment of, a moment of reflection, which for me is a, is a devotion. Doesn’t have to be a lot of people, meditate or do something like that. But I start with that and then. second thing is just to remake my to-do list for the day, for the day. What am I going to do, prepare for the day?
And then the third thing is some sort of activity. It may just be a walk. I’ve been doing some yoga and Pilates to kick off the year, which has been good to kind of stretch out these hours of the chair. But if I do those three things every day, I find that I’m typically going to, going to be able to handle the stress a little bit
That’s great. That’s great. the three P’s.
Karen: The three P’s.
Derek: Hopefully someone listening may adopt your, your three P motto and, and, and implement that for themselves. And if you do make sure you, you send Karen a message and let her know how it was working for you.
Karen: Sounds good. How do you unwind?
Derek: Wow. I teach Zumba. So for me, I get to work out and then I also get to, to help others with their health. And then also I love movies. And so just being able to get a good snack and, you know, watch a great movie and just kind of escape a little bit is always something for me. And like you said, working out, so getting some good music and just going for a run or going to the gym always helps me to just relax and, and really reset, you know, my mind and get me back in tune with what’s important.
Karen: I bet you’re a great Zumba teacher, we might need to get you to do one for, for Walk West.
Derek: Hey, I’m, I’m always down for the cause. Mango. What about you? What, what do you do to, to, to, to kind of unwind and reflect or…?
Mango: I well, I realized this actually a lot recently, cause I didn’t do it for a week. It’s working out for me that that always gets my mind right. I have to do it every day, one way or another. If it’s going to the gym, if it’s going for a run or if it’s going for just a half an hour walk. I realized that it gives me a good mental break, allows me to kind of just get my body going.
And honestly, a lot of likes, as we’re like stuck on call, we were really busy during the day. It’s hard to be creative when you’re doing so many, checking off lists. So a lot of the creativity I get are on runs or walks or just being out there that my mind just kind of goes. So it’s always been exercise and getting my body going cause I can’t stand still. I had to stand up that, I just can’t sit down. They said sitting down is worse than smoking. That’s the new thing.
Derek: I got to stand up more. That’s my goal, right? I have a standing desk, but yet I need to create some more space around it.
Karen: Well, I took my standing desk into the office and when I’m there, I use it, but I’m not there as much. So I don’t, so I need a standing desk both places, but I’m right there with you on that.
Derek: Awesome. Awesome. Well, before we wrap up just wanting to ask if there was any final thoughts that you want to share with the leaders or those who listened and tune into the podcast, you know, who may be aspiring to be a future CEO or who just may want to be that number two and continue to serve in their journey as they grow in their careers.
Karen: Hm. well, I would, I think just in, you know, in wrapping up, I would say that yeah, that everybody’s path is different. And end of find your niche to really brace, embrace who you are as a leader. And be authentic in that because the worst thing you can do is try to be like somebody else. You’ve got it. You’ve got to be, you know true to yourself in that and find your spot.
Derek: You heard it first. Look, Karen, thank you so much. this Has been a pleasure. I’m always, you know, I’m excited to get to know more about the people I get to work with then also, you know, hear more about their story. So thank you for, for sharing and for being an inspiration to so many people who will listen. And we just thank you again for taking time out of your day to join us on Talk West
Karen: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.