“This is a time to take risks, think differently, and move forward one step at a time – bringing others along.” -Karen King
This month, we’re celebrating women who inspire us – and of course, our own Karen King, President and CEO of Spawn Ideas, is the first that comes to mind. Here, we dive into Karen’s philosophy of what it means to be a leader in an ever-changing world. In highlighting the achievements, challenges and lessons learned in the last few years, we celebrate Karen’s fearless leadership, which has inspired and steered us through these unprecedented times.
Let’s start with the basics – what motivates you?
I am, naturally, self motivated – but that’s not always enough. My staff of employee owners at Spawn motivate me, as do other leaders in Alaska and elsewhere. I’m very curious (always), so reading about the world, history, (and fiction too) motivates me to keep learning, growing my vocabulary, honing or developing skill sets, and finding my purpose(s) to help drive innovation.
Who has inspired you?
As a constant learner, people with deep knowledge in a particular area (e.g., professors, writers, artists) inspire me. As do resourceful people willing to step out of their comfort zone and figure things out despite challenges.
What inspires you?
Anything that challenges me to think differently or take on something new, either physically and/or mentally: culture, nature, work, current events, people.
What insights have you gained throughout the pandemic and post pandemic as a leader?
Even in an industry used to constant flux, we could not have anticipated the adaptation that’s been necessary (and continues to be) in our industry, business, relationships and world. With gratitude, I commend my staff in general and, specifically, the leadership team for their indomitable patience and get ‘er done attitude.
The insights I’ve learned are still developing and remain, even now, as more questions than answers: what’s the right mix of in-person and distance work? Does distance work for the hometown team differ from those who were and are part of our distributed workforce outside of Alaska? How do you help staff adapt to the other challenges pulling at them which are also changing at the speed of life (childcare, education, etc.)?
Compassion, understanding and communication are so important – what’s the sweet spot between giving enormous grace which is called for, and sometimes asking for the impossible because we’re running a deadline-oriented business?
Bottom line: as leaders, workers, families and individuals, we’re all still asking questions and using trial and error to determine the future of work. This is evident in the media buzz on this topic and in our personal experience.
How have you adapted as a company and as a leader to these evolving changes?
For many years, pre-pandemic, I coached my team that they had to be “comfortable with the idea of being uncomfortable with change.” It’s the nature of our industry and the fluid (ever-changing vs crystalized) intelligence that’s necessary to be successful in it. So change is normal.
But pandemic change was and is anything but!
We’ve smartly adapted and adapted again to client needs, consumer needs, employee-owner needs, and to the greater world. We’ve been even more intentional about our use of technology to collaborate more effectively with one another. We’re constantly reassessing what’s best done in-house versus with a specialized partner. And we’ve tried, successfully I think, to be extremely compassionate about our staff’s needs and situations. We’ve worked to simplify, to roll with changes, to engage in different ways to sustain our rich culture, and more.
Still it remains ever-changing.
As a leader, I was pleasantly surprised when a fun exercise our social team did for Valentine’s Day culminated in a framed word cloud that summed up words to describe one another. When thoughtful, brave, kind and strong rose to the top of my personal cloud, I felt I’d done a little something right – even on days when I wondered what next would surprise me with a new challenge.
Today, ongoing and necessary challenges include staff leadership and motivation, promoting a vision during a tumultuous time, adapting to our industry’s rapid transformation around the attention industry, transitions in the workplace and the world.
Our commitment to work/life has to be balanced with the reality that we’re running a fast-paced, customer-service-oriented business that requires responsiveness, proactiveness, and agility.
As we continue moving forward, I think a degree of flexibility will be retained which is good for both business and staff. I fully expect what that looks like will continue to shift – demanding adaptability on both sides.
For those leaders facing the same challenges and adaptations, what advice would you give?
Give yourself grace while also charging toward change. One step at a time. Trial and error. Set goals and assess what’s working toward those goals and what needs to adapt still. Don’t expect to have all of the answers yet. Don’t expect that the answers that worked prior to the pandemic will work now. Be patient and determined.
You’ve been adamant about building collaborative relationships in the workplace. Can you expound on why you’re encouraging collaboration and friendships in the office?
I often feel a bit like a mother hen in my appreciation for and pride around the friendships that are developed among our staff – within the team and even across great distances when an individual moves on from Spawn – former Spawn team members are still a part of us. Those friendships are part of the culture that makes us a best place to work. They build trust, allow people to give each other grace when something goes wrong, and make hard or long work rewarding when it otherwise might be just hard or long.
What are some of Spawn's successes in the last few years?
The primary success we’ve experienced has been an expansion of our distance workforce. Prior to the pandemic, we touted Spawn’s commitment to finding and hiring the best talent “wherever they are,” and that need and reality has only increased. Now, about 40 percent of our team are distance workers for Spawn – in a myriad of specialty roles.
The mix of staff we have enriches the product and service we deliver to our clients, and offers team members constant learning from experts.
Being here, today, is a success on its own, as is adapting and hiring inspirational new team members in a difficult market, bringing them on board to form new working relationships and friendships at and through Spawn.
We’ve also found ways to sustain our well-known culture in many ways working from home or in a hybrid situation. Our social committee and others have made fun happen no matter where team members are.
How do the outdoors play a role in your philosophy of leadership?
Spawn positioned itself in the outdoor/adventure/attractions space many years ago.
Claiming that position demands we demonstrate it so, over the years, we looked through that lens consistently to align our company values and to create events, activities, visual representation, benefits, etc., that supports that position.
Our philosophy supports the belief that we need to be perpetual adventurers both at work and at play. The outdoors inspires determination, resilience, collaboration, creatively – in short, great work.
In 2022, we refreshed the way we position the agency with a new “why” we do what we do: It’s our aim to fuel the curious and the wild through genuine human understanding, meaningful connection and irresistible creativity. Truly understanding people’s motivations and behaviors is the only sure way to success.
Alaska is a wonderfully unique place to lead. What challenges and/or benefits of being a leader – specifically in Alaska – have you experienced?
Work/life is a priority in Alaska and always has been. That foundation, and Spawn’s reputation for great culture, helped shape adaptations for pandemic experiences.
The Alaska economy continues to be challenging which affects us and all of our clients and their customers here.
Finding qualified staff in-state is even harder than before. Merit learning can be just as important, or more, than a college degree, and we have an open mind about finding the right individual strengths and training people for our industry.
We are geographically distant but, as a frequent traveler, that’s never bothered me. However, the challenge of distance was more apparent when travel slowed to a crawl during Covid. Getting out of Alaska, for personal reasons or business ones, helps us all grow, learn, connect and continually transform.
What goals have you set for yourself, as well as your company and employees, in the coming year?
All companies need to move ahead as modern partners to their clients and consumers. The push to do so is more urgent than ever before. Yet, we know what we’re doing is trial and error, regroup and trial again – because the way we all work is still in flux.
We’re expanding our content studio, developing more and varied content across all channels to our clients’ audiences. We continue to push for greater agility (a pre-pandemic push that has both the same and different requirements now), proactive ideation with a distributed workforce and communication, communication, communication!
With fewer regular in-person meetings and happenstance water cooler engagements, it’s incredibly necessary to define how people communicate and with which tools and when, and to always over communicate, making no assumptions.
What are you looking forward to most this year?
I’m looking forward to what the future holds for me personally, for the agency, and for Alaska. We live in an interesting place that finds ways of being interesting beyond what nature offers us.
People, companies and the state need to be moving forward to thrive in the world.
More than ever, this is a time to take risks, think differently, and move forward one step at a time – bringing others along.
Karen has been with Spawn for 24 years, led as President for 15 and been CEO for 7 years. She is an avid art collector, chef extraordinaire (no really, she can cook), and enjoys reading, traveling, listening to podcasts and working out in her spare time. In the office, you’ll find her as the best dressed (always), and at home, relaxing by the fire with a glass of wine and her two adorable dogs, Soleil and Storm.