Teachable Moments Can Happen Anywhere. For my first job, I had the opportunity to work at McDonald's as a 15-year-old. It was the first McDonald's that had a drive-thru, and on the day I was assigned to the window, I backed up 17 cars onto the highway trying to deliver burgers and fries to a lot of very hungry people. So it was not only my first job; it was also my first failure—but I learned a lot about customer service and resilience from that experience.
When in Doubt, Trust Your Gut. As a young Naval officer, I arrived at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to lead the base’s technology department. It was a tough environment, and I struggled to be taken seriously by my older colleagues (and one in particular). I went to HR and the lawyers to get advice and they said, “It’s okay. Just relax. You don’t have to do anything.” But in my gut, I knew that I needed to take action if I was going to be successful. So I sat in his office one morning and when he arrived I gave him a piece of my mind. That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Lean on Friends Who Support You. When I was first pregnant with my oldest daughter, I was ready to just take an off-ramp. I couldn’t see how I could be a great mom and successfully lead a big business. My very good friend said, “Karen, what are you thinking? You can do this.” And she was right. That kind of support from my network helped me not only stay motivated to stay on my career path but was critical when I was juggling kids, ailing parents, and my job responsibilities. We relied on each other.
Find Mentors Who Push You. Women have to be really courageous in seeking out the right mentors. Often women have mentors who are too empathetic, who cut them too much slack because of everything else in their lives. It can be ruinous to a woman’s career. You need people who push you. So for me, I sought out mentors who would give me a little kick in the behind when I needed it. That was really helpful to me.
Encourage Risk. I love this notion that we need to teach our girls to be brave and courageous—and not perfect. We have to take risks to accelerate our careers. I gave laminated “Get Out of Jail Free” cards to my leadership team, just like in Monopoly. If they try something and it fails, I tell them they can bring that to me to “get out of jail free.” It was a way of encouraging them to take risks.
Accelerate the Next Generation. Booz Allen has done a lot of research with the Center for Talent Innovation looking at what it takes to accelerate, develop, and advance women at an accelerated pace. Not surprisingly, we found that really scaled, sustainable programs to support women matter. Equal pay for genders matters. Strong mentorship programs matter. Making sure that you’re building those kinds of programs across your institution is so important.
Help Everyone Picture Themselves as a Leader. We want people at Booz Allen to look up in our organization and see people that look like them, whether it’s gender diversity or ethnic diversity or sexual orientation. When I first started as a partner at Booz Allen, that wasn’t the case with women. But now 42 percent of our board of directors are women, and more than 50 percent of our firm’s leadership are women. It speaks volumes about who we are as an institution and the kinds of leaders we want to cultivate.
See more with Karen at The Atlantic Festival here.