Karen Walker, Executive Coach, Consultant, Speaker & Author

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Karen Walker, Executive Coach, Consultant, Speaker & Author

Karen Walker is a consultant, author, and advisor to CEOs and senior leaders. She helps her clients grow their companies with successful outcomes that include IPOs, acquisitions, market share increases, and significant leadership development. Her clients include Inc. 500 start-ups and Fortune 500 firms. Her work helps senior leaders create internal strategies that support their organizations’ external growth; and she is the author of the recently published book, No Dumbing Down - A No-nonsense Guide for CEOs on Organization Growth.

Prior to launching her consultancy, Karen was employee #104 at Compaq Computer - then the fastest growing company in American and fastest to $1billion in revenue. In her 14 years as VP/Operating Services, she helped spur the creation of more than $15 billion in value. She resides in Jupiter, Florida, although she can most often be found aloft in seat 2C.


Grab Karen’s book, No Dumbing Down: A No-Nonsense Guide for CEOs on Organization Growth


[00:00:01] You're listening to Scaling Up Services where we speak with entrepreneurs authors business experts and thought leaders to give you the knowledge and insights you need to scale your service based business faster and easier. And now here is your host Business Coach Bruce Eckfeldt.

[00:00:23] Welcome everyone this is Scaling Up Services, I’m Bruce EckfeIdt I'm your host and our guest today is Karen Walker. And Karen is the author of No Dumbing Down: A No Nonsense Guide for CEOs on Organizational Growth. She has been an executive at many companies but most notably compact was employee No. 1 0 4. If I have my notes correctly and so has seen companies growth from many many levels and so I'm excited to talk with her about her insights about the book she's written the guides advice that she's given CEOs on and grow. So with that Karen welcome to the program. I'm happy to be here. Thanks Bruce. So what do we start with learning a little bit more about your background. So I mentioned the combat experience so give us a sense of how you know how that experience kind of formed your understanding of leadership and growth and then the work that you're doing with CEOs.

[00:01:11] Yeah well I was just fortunate to be in the right place at the right time when Compaq started back in the day we didn't have startups in the I'm going to say this wrong reparation that we do now. And I just I was at a large fortune hundred company and I noticed people leaving that I thought a lot of. And so I inquired to see what they were doing and the hand announced any product yet there was a lawsuit between the big company and the startup so they couldn't say what they were making. They couldn't poach employees. So I basically left the big company with just to work for the startup based on the strength of the leaders that were there. And that turned out to be Compaq Computer which was the then fastest growing company in American history and it was a big lesson in leadership right.

[00:01:57] Well you were there you were there for a while and you saw. I mean you saw several stages I mean so many not just the early days but you saw it really kind of grow through probably many different many different levels and transformations and changes as organization I'm imagining.

[00:02:13] Absolutely.

[00:02:13] So I was there from that first year of 0 111 million and I left we were 40. We were 15 billion dollars and grown from 104 people me to it's about 17000 worldwide. So so yeah I was there for for many different stages. And you know there's nothing like that that early startup stage right. And then what I think about is the big bang happens where you're you're just really clear you've got your product market fit and it's off to the races and the remaining part of my time at Compaq where I was a vice president charge of all the global physical infrastructure it was it was all about making sure we had the internal infrastructure and support. for the external growth that we are experiencing. And of course we didn't know we were going to grow that fast. So we had to make. I also got really good at dealing with ambiguity and being flexible and making plans for both greater than expected growth and less than expected growth although fortunately. But yeah I mean different. But I mean everything was different. The kinds of people we attracted to the organization were different in those different stages right. You you start out with people who are who are looking for risk in different ways. Risk reward right. And by the time you're 15 billion dollar company it's harder to attract people and you tend to attract people who are little more risk averse. And as a result you know their organization the culture their organization is just different.

[00:03:48] Yeah yeah I can imagine that. I mean I've certainly seen you my own company and the companies I've worked with that you know the types of people that you need at different stages and different kind of versions of the realisation can change quite a bit.

[00:04:02] I mean how much do you feel like you had to really kind of reinvent yourself or make big kind of changes or rethink how you were approaching your position and kind of mindset you know as you went from one hundred and four to 17000 thousand people.

[00:04:14] Yes well I mean certainly there were changes and just growth and develop on my own personal growth and development as the company grew right. I was in my early 20s I handle I thought this was fairly normal I didn't know quite how abnormal I was at the time.

[00:04:28] And as the company grew I would say the biggest changes happened when certainly when there was a change in the CEO our founder and president CEO Rod canyon was ousted maybe 11 years in and prior to that there is just a really strong emphasis on making sure that the compact was a great place to work. And in fact that was one of the key principles of the three founders. They started with we're going to make a great place to work and then they decided oh and by the way we think we can make this amazing first portable computer for businesses and the value said I think of the new the new CEO was more on just growth and you know these are not right and wrong answers they're just different. Yeah. But as a result of that my I would say my style was certainly more focused on. The former because I think you can you can grow and and be the place to work and not only not give anything up but those two can play off each other and help each other to more faster. Yeah yeah.

[00:05:31] So let's talk about the book. I'm out. At what point did you I guess when did you first consider writing a book. What was that process like. How did you choose kind of the subject that you chose and what what was the motivation for it.

[00:05:44] Yeah. So I never thought I was going to write a book. I've you know I've been a consultant now for 20 years and my work has all come through referrals or you know people who worked with me that a different company would take me with them that's I'm sure. And I decided a couple of years ago that it would be interesting to try to write a book because the writing itself helps you really codify your ideas and your principles.

[00:06:07] And so I got it sort of got into it that way and I realized in the process of writing this book that that what I had learned at Compaq and then the application of that plus the subsequent learning with all of these companies and CEOs and leadership teams over the years really did boil down to just a few principles sort of the basics. This book is more of a primer I think for CEOs and senior leaders. It's not a tome but just what are the what is the essence of what you really need to pay attention to to make sure that you can have your internal strategy support this external growth.

[00:06:39] And it seems like I mean you mentioned it before it's like there's the plan and kind of thinking ahead and then there's the dealing with whatever comes out. I guess yeah I guess how much of this is are you kind of helping leaders with the with that kind of planning forecasting anticipating versus how much of it is you know being being able to you know hopefully have a little bit of insight that something coming out you been then dealing with things that are coming out you in the right way.

[00:07:07] Yeah so I would say there's a good mix of those things in the book these five strategies plus the avoiding the so what at the end but the the how to deal with things that are coming at you I have a metaphor I use which is called playing bumper cars because we we you know we get into the arena when we're playing bumper cars and things do come at us from unexpected areas right. We get hit from all sides and often in our blind spots. And that can send us careening off in a direction that we weren't expecting. But what keeps you in the game is this idea of having guardrails and the guardrails push you back into the arena. If you're if you're playing bumper car and in a business you know we make plans for growth which we should do. And you know and I know and your listeners know it is so rare that that happens in a straight line that we can almost say it never happens in a straight line. But instead what happens is will grow faster than we thought or we'll not grow as fast as we thought. And then there'll be a correction perhaps to move us in the other direction. And this idea of playing bumper cars is that when you forecast your growth just make sure you have your guardrails in place both on the upside and the downside we're usually pretty good to do it.

[00:08:10] And on the downside right now my sales aren't X my revenues not why I'm going to have to take make these changes in terms of personnel or whatever but on the upside the same thing is true because if you exceed your upside by too much you'll begin to put a strain on the organization and you will find yourself in a place where you can't deliver on these promises that you made to your customers. Yeah. And as a result right then things start to get wonky internal to the company and in that growth trajectory may need to be changed and so what I'm suggesting is that you put an upside guardrail in place that alerts you to say or take stock. Are we able to continue to grow at this rate or do we need to shore up our internal resources or perhaps change the direction to sort of slow down the growth a bit. However strange that might sound it sometimes but I'll just change the direction of the growth a little bit until you're able to get things more stable and functional inside to keep up with that growth and then take off again.

[00:09:11] Well I think that makes sense I mean I guess my my my general kind of personal experience as CEO and many of the companies that I've worked with is that we're more likely to suffer from over achieving growth targets than the other side meaning that more companies die of drowning and then starvation is kind of the phrase that we like to use. You know that growth side can actually be existential crisis not managed graphic.

[00:09:35] Exactly. Yeah. And so there you know there are all kinds of ways to do to deal with that one is just making sure you're aware of what's going on and how your organization is dealing with it and then planning for how to get in front of it perhaps slowing things down. But then you know something as simple as as your hiring philosophy. Right. So one of the things we did at Compaq and certainly I worked with my clients on is you know you don't want to hire so far you don't get so far over your head of your skis that you fall but do hire hire more than what you need. Right hire people who can who can be there for the growth. And if you don't grow then you have a problem. You have other problems to deal with but if you will hire one of the things we did a contract was we hired people who were who could be there when we were a big company.

[00:10:18] It's an interesting one because I mean. Sure. I think so many companies that are in this kind of hard you know fast growth you know kind of situation or are backfilling you know they're trying to they're trying to hire other people just to deliver on the work that they have to actually think about how to hire four people that I'm going to need and you know six twelve months ahead it is that can be a bit of a mind bender or you know a big stretch for folks I guess. Is there a is there a rule of thumb of you know your growth rate. Time six months or something that you use or how do you how do you make sure you're not going to get a ride to your skis but yet but you were on top of things.

[00:10:53] I'm an engineer by degree so I love formulas have a formula for that. What I will say is that the downside of course is that it's more expensive to hire people just in terms of their their salary their benefits their compensation right to higher to hire ahead and if you have to replace a position everyone knows that is super expensive because you you've got not only the cost of replacing someone but you also have the cost of training them and maybe as or more importantly you have the cost of your time and the cost of your leadership team's time while you're trying to deal with having the wrong person in place or trying to find the right person for the place and the time is the one thing that is the scarcest resource for anyone.

[00:11:34] Typically for a senior leader in an organization and so anything we can do to to lessen the drain on that. But you also you don't have the foresight when you when you hire for today or end up really hiring for yesterday. If you're going because your company company is not a steady state so it's really hard to hire for today. If you do that you're already behind. Know that I am a big fan of hiring hit from those positions in that way. You have people in place who have perhaps been there done that who can see what the options are sort of help you navigate what's prudent for the organization and the growth is facing.

[00:12:07] Yeah. So let's talk about some of the other recommendations in your book. So you mentioned you have five. There's five key takeaways. Let's go through them. What are what are some of the first ones.

[00:12:17] Yeah. So the first one is just no dumbing down. And I I just stumbled on that phrase and I loved it because it's if I had I have a manifesto and in a war cry that's it. But dumbing down is basically teamwork as usual. And we've all seen it. We've all experienced it. When I work with with the companies and I get leadership teams in Room I sorry. Tell me about you know you're the best team you were on in the worst team you were on. Everybody has been on a horse team. You know it's just a matter of picking which one we're going to talk about and those behaviors are often a result of people trying to apply these great individual contributor competencies so we have that have made a successful teamwork. And while there is some overlap between those two they are not the same. And if you don't properly charter a team if teams don't have the tools in place to deal with conflict if they don't have a way to align misaligned priorities what happens is the team begins to look like a tar pit to your players and so they don't want to be there because if you've just got sort of one weak link sometimes a team can carry it but not you know rarely if there's more than one weak link is that possible.

[00:13:27] And what happens is the team really can only perform at the level of its lowest performing member. So that's the dumbing down that the rest of the team is to dumb down to that most preferred member and it's not always in fact even often that lowest performing group's fault it's it's usually they're not it's not that they're not trying. It's that they don't have the right skill set or they don't have the resources or they've got different priorities that they were given or you know it's it's not that they're not showing up trying to do a bad job. And I think as senior leaders in organizations it is our responsibility to make sure that the teams are in a are resourced in a way and supported in a way that keeps dumbing down at bay.

[00:14:05] Yeah but do you see I mean I guess you had an interesting comment earlier that people that are highly successful as a do individual contributors you know come into a team environment and you start doing the things that made them really great as individuals but maybe working against them as a team.

[00:14:20] I mean I guess is this is this something that you need to filter for or something that you need to kind of coach and train around.

[00:14:27] Yeah well the first things just to be aware of it. Right. And then once people are aware of it I would say there's the data and then there's what you do with the data. So sometimes people just being aware that they need different behaviors is enough. And that's great. Sometimes people need coaching and support or skills development in these other areas because they just don't have it. They've never had to use it before. And you know all of us have these strengths that we we apply and that that have made a successful and if we over apply them they turn into weaknesses. And I think that happens on teams a lot.

[00:14:58] You know I think it happens it happens. And I was with CEOs a lot you know just absolutely as they go from you know breathing being that kind of founder creative innovator whether it's their technical genius or a marketing wizard or you know sales gurus like they get into this leadership role and then realize that you know they've got to change and some make it and some don't. But. You know that transformation is key to the next level of the organization.

[00:15:23] So what else what are some of the other things that you find or that you hope it deals with.

[00:15:26] Yeah there's a another strategy called double back. And so this is thinking about sort of start up to grown up which many of us has habit as a straight line in our minds. But it's really a continuum. And I have seen young companies who were in grown up mode and I have seen old companies that were still in startup mode. My God and my experience tells me that the answer is not either or it is being the place you need to be for the situation that's in front of you. If you were in a place that calls for a sort of really seat of the pants agile reactions be able to do that. If you're in a place where you can apply process which is a very grown up thing right. Make sure that you have a process you can you can rely on but don't get so bound up in your processes just because you're quote grown up company that you can't react and be agile. On the other hand don't stay in startup so long that process can help you is what process does right is to make things repeatable and scalable and now you don't have to spend your time thinking about them again except to monitor the measurements you have for them to make sure you put enough process in place.

[00:16:27] Do you have any good telltale. Because I think this is an incredibly important thing to get right from a leadership point of view. Do you have any good heuristics or kind of things that will give you some keys or some feedback that you might be too far one way or another in terms of what you see the organization doing or what you see.

[00:16:44] You know responses are data that you're getting as a leader inside of a company that you either might be too far on the process side or too far on the dial entrepreneurial side.

[00:16:54] Yeah. So if you find yourself doing the same thing over and over again or almost the same thing over and over again right still 80 20 rule definitely put that on the list to have a process created. If you find yourself and it's not always just you. Right. Often CEOs and senior leaders have the ability and the organizations who can do what they want a little more than the rest of the organization does. So I think it's important to talk to people in your organization right. Do we have processes that are getting in our way right. Or are often the question really is just what would help you do your job better. And people will tell you right. I could get my job done better but we have to do this thing X Y and Z. And either they don't know you have to do it because of some legal reason or some. some other reason and that's caused it to be there but maybe it's just that it was a good idea at the time but it hasn't served you as you've grown. And that's often the case so I would say you know sort of look look at what's going on in the ground and talk to people in your organization they can tell you the things you're having to do over and over again that don't make sense. And they're also going to be able to tell you the things they are prohibited from doing because you have processes in place that don't support them.

[00:18:04] Yeah it sounds like that just that idea of I mean I'm certainly listening to your people but also having you know having the culture or the willingness to kind of question and be curious about OK well is this you know does this really apply now or is there a way that we could make it so that it would serve us better now you know as a process or as a policy seems to be a good indicator or a good rule of thumb for a lot of leaders when things are changing quickly.

[00:18:28] Sure. Think about it is like zero based budgeting processes. Right. Right. So from time to time just take a look at what's there and see if you've got stuff you don't need anymore if there's gaps where you need to add and then another area where I think it's important for senior leaders to focus and we just don't do this enough and I know I'm guilty as everyone else is what I think about is sort of learning to levitate or you know how do you create time to think for yourself you know how do you get out of this day to day so urgent you know everything's urgent running from meeting to meeting I think about it like playing whack a mole right from meeting to meeting and your nose flapping those moles back on the head and getting them in their holes and then they pop up someplace else and we could literally spend our lives doing that. Yeah. Many people do because there's no shortage of problems to be solved. The issue is you don't need to be solving all the problems and all the problems you usually don't need to be solved.

[00:19:23] And as I say certainly not by you. So to to create time for yourself to sort of step back look at the big picture think the big thoughts. I mean this really is why CEOs and senior leaders are paid so much. It's not so much of what you're doing. No it's good. Those technical skills it's the thinking and doing something with the thinking and having an annual retreat these days is not enough because we have so much change going on in our lives and in our culture and in our organizations. And so create time for yourself so that you can individually step back and take time to think. And so that your team and your organization can do the same and then put a process in place to hold herself accountable. This is what I call avoiding the so what. Because how many of us haven't read a good book or gone to a great seminar. We've said oh wow that would be amazing. And then we get back to the 300 e-mails in the day full of meetings and we did nothing except for.

[00:20:19] Guilty about not having rights having some sort of both individual accountability structure in place but even better is to have some sort of team accountability structure in place so that the team can in a non defensive way. So it's not like Oh why is that person calling me out for not having done it. Oh thank you for pointing that out because it's gonna get in our way. If I don't get that thing finished. Yeah but to have some sort of mutual accountability structure so that you can have behaviors that match your intentions.

[00:20:49] Yeah. Who cares about the. I think this whole kind of urgent versus important is something that so many executives struggle with.

[00:20:56] And you'd mentioned you know setting aside the time talk to me about what what else you can do to create kind of that environment or that that mind space or mindset or clarity because I think a lot of folks you know it's not just the time it's the quality of the time that they choose or that they set aside. What have you seen in terms of other successful strategies you do that you've used that you've seen your clients use in terms of creating the kind of the mental clarity or the mental space to be able to engage in these kind of strategy and important decisions that are not urgent.

[00:21:29] That's the key right. And you have to create the space and you have to have the discipline to follow through with it. Adam Grant had an article recently about he said let's not call it Time Management let's call it attention management because that's really what it is. And so for me it's about getting clarity around what are the most important things. This is not rocket science it is not new to us. We all know we have to know what the most important things are.

[00:21:52] We have to make sure that our days are filled with focus on those most important things. But what happens is we get bombarded by shiny new objects and shiny new objects feel good. And for those of us that are problem solvers just being able to jump to the next problem or pick up the next shiny new object and figure out what to do with it just feels really good. And so it's a it's a it's the discipline of being able to stick to. I know that these are the most important things.

[00:22:18] And why. Because you can fall back on the why you fall back on. This is what makes this most important for me to spend my time on. Otherwise you have to go through this thought process every time right about oh is this really the most important thing or could this shiny new object be the most important thing. And then I would say just don't beat up on yourself. This is not going to be a hundred percent if you schedule time for yourself to think you know even.

[00:22:41] And sometimes it sounds like an outrageous amount of time until you do it. But you know a half a day a week a day a month whatever it is what you do then you start having good results from it. Then you're going to want to do more of it. And then there you are modeling it for the rest of your organization. So they'll get to do it too. The the problem comes in when other people try to be credible on top of that time right. Most people are going to come to you with their urgent important things and they may or may not be urgent important things for you. I have a tell you a quick story. I have a friend named Mark Leavy who's a positioning consultant. Marks really good. And he's he could spend his time from you know sort of sun up to sun down on calls with clients doing this work that I was scheduling with him one day and he said hey he said I I have a rule I never book pass for 30. And I said OK why for 30.

[00:23:31] And he said because I go to the gym every day for it at 30. And I said well that's really interesting. Why do you call the gym three to four thirty. And he said because I didn't for a while I nice I stopped because a client had an urgent need. And so I I didn't go and I took care of them and then that turned into two days and that turned into three days and then I. And then I gained weight. And then I found out that I just didn't feel quite as sharp as I as I was I don't know that anybody noticed he said but I didn't feel as sharp and I it just wasn't good for me. And so now I go to the gym every day at 430. I you know I'm I'm healthy. I feel good I am at the top of my game and. And that's my discipline. Wow that is so inspiring. And so I I don't go to the gym every day at 430 but I've definitely taken parts of that incorporated it back into my life.

[00:24:18] Yeah.

[00:24:18] And I think that's and that is the you know that's the key to a lot of this stuff is is you know investing you know into the time and energy and the discipline into making these things happen because ultimately you know that you know going to the gym I'm sure for him you know gives him then the mental clarity and the right kind of sharpness to actually then create more value for his clients probably a lot more value than he created by not going to the gym at one time.

[00:24:41] So yeah I'm telling you now he's clear about the why. So when he has the twinge of oh I should make an exception for this person and he realizes now everyone this calling him is calling with something important. All right. They're not just calling didn't give a weather update. That's right. When he stopped when he starts to waiver he falls back on the why it's important for him to do that for himself. Great point.

[00:25:01] Excellent too. What other I guess any other takeaways or thing is that you generally recommend in terms of leaders in high growth you know in these kind of growth high growth situations that will help them be more effective as the organization changes.

[00:25:15] Sure. I would say it's important early on to get some. Sort of rhythmic meetings set up with your senior team where you and I recommend for most of my clients that we do this once a quarter where we both look at hey you know quick debrief of what happened in the past quarter what's happening in the coming quarter that's pretty common but also to take time to sort of have a look around and see if anything has changed that would change the planning you're doing for the coming periods right. I think that's something we sometimes we sometimes failed to do is to take that debrief time with the bigger picture level. Yeah. Yeah. And this whole idea of debriefing we're really good as a culture at executing we're okay at planning and we generally suck at debrief and learn and so. And if you don't do the debrief part you don't get the point. You don't get the learning and then you go out and you you execute less effectively and efficiently than you could. And so finding some way to get it made both in terms of the content of what's going on but also your process. I most of my clients will mill at every meeting. How did the meeting go how could it have been done better and that's it. That can be a three minute conversation right it doesn't have to be the two day postmortem of a project that just to get the thought of oh I can make this a little better next time so those incremental improvements can make a big difference.

[00:26:39] Yeah that sounds like just the discipline on the rhythm and the habit of of meeting on a regular basis and then continually improving on the on the work that you're doing right. I couldn't agree more.

[00:26:48] And I'd say the last thing is just to find ways to decrease your blind spots because I know that's the one thing that keeps people up at night it's the what don't I know. Because if you know it you will do something about the unknown unknowns. You're right but the unknown unknowns that what don't I know and how how can I decrease my blind spots. And so often you know by having a diverse team. And by that I don't just mean that we have you know today's definition of diversity but also that you have diverse experiences that you have process in place that allow those diverse voices to speak up and to be heard and that you try things that are outside of your comfort zone. You know based on that.

[00:27:29] No no no. Great points. We're going to have time here. So Carol if you want to find out more about you about the work that you do with clients what's the best way to get that information.

[00:27:39] Yeah. So the very best way is my Web site which is Karen Walker dot U S all traditional spelling. Karen Walker dot us on all the social media. I'm Karen Walker U.S. and my book no dumbing down you can find that on my Web site certainly. Or if you just got to know dumbing down dot com that will take you to one of the many places online where you can buy it.

[00:28:02] I'll make sure that those or in the show know so people can click through and and get to that. This has been a pleasure. The work that you you do is extremely important to the companies that are in these kind of situations. So I appreciate your insights and taking the time to speak with us today. I really appreciate the opportunity. Thanks.

[00:28:21] You've been listening to Scaling up Services with Business Coach Bruce Eckfeldt. To find a full is a podcast episodes. Download the tools and worksheets and access other great content. This is a Web site that scaling up services dot com and toll free to sign up for the free newsletter scalingupservices/newsletter.