Karen Kaplan epitomizes what makes Hill Holliday, the 13th largest ad agency in the U.S. and owner of Erwin Penland locally, great — energy, optimism, passion, smarts, and loyalty. Not to mention a healthy dose of scrappiness. A driving force behind Hill Holliday’s growth to more than $1 billion in annual billings, she’s been recognized by Business Insider and Advertising Age as one of the most influential women in advertising.
As keynote speaker for our annual ATHENA Leadership Symposium on November 17th, Karen shared her story and “How to get what you want by being who you are.”
As the receptionist finally hired after 40 interviews, Karen was told by the company’s CEO that she was the face and voice of Hill Holliday. She “kinda thought that was what the CEO should be,” so took that thought and ran with it, deciding to be the CEO of the reception desk, then on to CEO of every position she held and department she led within the company.
Karen shared the following nine lessons with the audience, quoting many progressive leaders along the way:
- Originality requires attention. Multitasking has added approximately six hours of media to our days, but the days are still only 24 hours. Pull your head up and pay attention to what’s going on around you in order to find inspiration.
- Be confident and optimistic. Confidence is fearlessness. It doesn’t matter where you came from or how you got there, it’s what you’re doing and where you’re going.
- Embrace what makes you different. Your individuality is your competitive advantage. Knowing who you are and embracing it can be your greatest asset.
- It’s easy to out-work people. Karen noted The Beatles, Thomas Edison and Malcolm Gladwell here. Adding a few extra hours each week is the fastest way to get to where you’re going.
- Keep your eyes wide open. Be a lifelong learner. Inspiration comes more from what you don’t know than what you do. See the world around you and give change a big, warm hug.
- Go where you’re celebrated, not tolerated. The right environment can make all the difference. Karen gives the culture at Hill Holliday more credit for her success than herself, for nurturing, encouraging and rewarding successes.
- Today’s peacock is tomorrow’s feather duster. Truly successful people don’t take themselves too seriously. Always be nice on your way up because there will always be a way down.
- To those who much is given, much is required. Reach out to others. Most people have no idea what they’re capable of, but with a little love and encouragement, they can do great things. Karen quoted one of her dad’s favorites sayings, “A pat on the back is only a few inches away from a kick in the butt.”
- Believe. Wake up knowing you can and will make a difference.
Notes from Audience Q&A
On pedigree vs, perspective: Everyone brings a different perspective. As an idea company, its best to bring people together from all walks of life to help find a solution. Karen notes having better luck hiring from second tier schools than ivy league/MBAs as it tends to take 18 months for them to understand they don’t know everything.
On being a millennial and being heard: Technology is leveling the playing field and millennials have an advantage in being digital natives. Believe in yourself and be confident, but have some humility and contribute in order to make an impact.
On work-life balance: You may have to take some unlikely turns and positions when you decide to put family first, but they will all be learning experiences. In managing people, everyone has something at all stages of life. Be empathetic and cut some slack when people need it in order to have a happy workforce.
On multi-cultural messaging in advertising: We use to divide people into demographics and develop messaging siloes, but in the age of minorities becoming majorities, the best way to get your message across is to consolidate and be clear about what your company stands for.
On empowering employees: The reality is that in order to make money, you need to push the work down the ladder. Tell employees you believe in them and encourage them to grow and be the CEO of their position and they will reach for more.
On setbacks. If you don’t think you have them, you must be missing something. Either you win or you learn something. It’s like bumper cars – if one direction doesn’t work, pull back and redirect.
On diversity. Bring people from different backgrounds together. Respect and be empathetic of where others are coming from.
Always be curious, open and collaborative.