When Karen Walker graduated college, the economy was in a recession and jobs were hard to find. That prompted a journey that she describes as a “choose your own adventure” story. She embraced opportunities outside of her comfort zone and pursued paths that are true to her north star.
It may seem intimidating that one has the power to choose their adventure, but that’s when changemakers like Karen Walker are created. Her story shows that making uncomfortable choices can allow us to grow, change, and experience things beyond the limits of our own imagination.
How did your “choose your own adventure” story lead you to where you are today?
When I graduated from the University of Kentucky many moons ago, I found myself searching for employment in the middle of a recession. Companies weren’t hiring and I yearned for a career versus a job. That yearning (along with many rejected applications and failed interviews) led me to a temp agency.
I started my first corporate job as a temp without the first clue of what I would be doing or whom I would work for. I was totally out of my element. But, over the years, I have learned to embrace being outside of my comfort zone and discovered that it’s generally where I do my best work. Within three months of working as an entry-level customer service representative, I was hired permanently. Within 7 years of that, I had worked my way up to a director level role at a Fortune 40 company.
I have learned to embrace being outside of my comfort zone and discovered that it’s generally where I do my best work.
In 2019, it was time to choose a new adventure so I applied for an individual contributor role at my current employer, Humana, that would allow me to transition from operations to business support. The new position allowed me to use my unique vantage point to help drive improvements and value for both customers and operators. Although it was a non-traditional career move, it has afforded me the chance to leverage new skills and hone underdeveloped strengths that had atrophied in my previous roles.
As I look back, four themes emerge from my career journey:
A willingness to explore opportunities outside of my comfort zone.
Aligning opportunities with my north star of serving and leading others.
A personal mission of bringing my A-game and working hard to deliver results.
An unwavering belief in the value of building authentic and trusting relationships with my colleagues, leaders, and team members.
Those four career themes also led you to become credentialed in "Building Accountability into Your Culture." What are some of the things we all can and should do to build accountability around gender and racial equity in the workplace?
To me, accountability around gender and racial equity begins with three stages of current challenges:
Awareness Stage – Accountability is paying attention to what is going on around you and taking an interest in perspectives that may differ from your own.
Understanding Stage – Accountability is taking the initiative to ask questions, educate yourself, and learn from people, podcasts, articles, research studies, books, and other sources.
Acknowledgement Stage – Accountability is sharing your awareness and understanding with others or engaging in constructive dialogue about potential solutions.
The last step is the Willingness Stage. People must want to be part of the solution. Here accountability is taking action—no matter how big or small—aligned with and reinforcing that desire.
How have your story choices helped develop your unique leadership style?
I would describe myself as a transformational leader, which means I lead by example and strive to create a supportive, collaborative, and empowering environment where people and teams can reach their individual and collective potential. I believe seeing, connecting with, and valuing people—in word and deed—is a prerequisite to success in any endeavor. One of my favorite quotes is, “Treat people like their own end, not a means to an end.” I also believe learning never stops and that everything is “figure-out-able.”
What is the next chapter of Karen Walker’s “choose your own adventure” story?
I am currently pursuing my graduate degree in psychology with a specialization in life coaching and positive psychology. Positive psychology is the study of human flourishing and what makes life worth living. As we continue becoming a more technologically advanced society, I believe the ability to understand, analyze, and influence human behavior will become increasingly important. While this may seem counterintuitive, I think 2020 was a perfect example of how technology is not an adequate substitute for or even sufficient to meet our most basic need for human connection, security, safety, good health, and belonging. We have a plethora of sophisticated technological tools at our fingertips, yet we are simultaneously contending with some of the most perplexing and pervasive human issues of our time.
With that in mind, my vision for the future encompasses applying my knowledge to:
Teach organizational leaders how to cultivate diverse, high-performing teams that maximize the potential of their people.
Coach individuals to thrive, flourish, and maximize their potential in any area of life.
Why has IWL become part of your adventure story?
I joined the IWL Board as part of my ongoing commitment to community service, fueled by my passion for helping women advance in their careers and, more specifically, into leadership roles. I have been resolutely pursuing that endeavor by advocating for women’s advancement through mentorship, sponsorship, hiring, and active participation in employee resource groups.
When I first started in my career, I did not need the McKinsey Women in the Workplace report to affirm what I already knew from firsthand experience, which was that women were underrepresented at the highest levels of leadership and black women were not just underrepresented, they were nowhere to be found. This bleak reality did not sit well with me, so I set out to do what I could to change it.
IWL is thrilled to announce Karen Walker as our new Board Secretary for 2021-22. Karen brings a wealth of talent, ideas, and dedication to this organization and our mission of accelerating the advancement of women.