By Tom Kernaghan
You’re at the centre of it all. Your potential influence, that is. For Karen Bowen and her team at ManagerKnowHow (MKH), high leadership effectiveness begins with personal mastery and radiates outward to impact all aspects of life and work. It’s about harnessing self-awareness to maximum effect in all decisions and situations, and Bowen has seen many of both. She has over 25 years of combined experience in leading teams, understanding organizations, and helping leaders to transform their cultures and improve their performance.
Originally from Nova Scotia, Bowen has a BA in English from St. Mary’s University, an MA in leadership from Royal Roads University and a Certification in Adult Continuing Education (CACE) in addition to myriad certifications in standardized tools for behavioural and workplace assessment. Her own leadership roles encompass many descriptions, including, among others, teacher, planner, designer and coach. Always striving to live and lead holistically, Bowen is also a fitness trainer and yoga instructor, and an outdoor enthusiast. She is a woman who knows the sphere and nature of her influence.
Let’s jump right in at the MKH model. In the centre of the circle is “Leading Self.” What, fundamentally, are managers looking to acquire when they come to MKH—in terms of self-awareness and skills—and what is often their ultimate goal?
Great question, and the importance of self-awareness is becoming more recognized as the absolutely essential first step in leadership. Leaders and teams that look for a deeper understanding of who they are express curiosity about how they show up, and what aspects of personality, emotional intelligence, values, biases (just to name a few) impact their interactions with both themselves and others. It is critical to recognize that understanding oneself does not mean judging or labelling any aspect of who we are as “good” or “bad.” Rather, it is an exploration in why and how we perceive our world around us, how that impacts our relationships, and the leverage points where we can increase our effectiveness. Astute managers, leaders and teams show inquisitiveness, tolerance, and open-mindedness when exploring self-awareness.
Having worked in a variety of organizations myself, I am keenly aware of the vital role leaders play in setting and influencing the organizational culture. Another term about your brand stuck out for me: “Workplace Culture Partner.” What does that mean in terms of the collaborative exploration you undertake with leaders?
When I chose “workplace culture partner” as a descriptor, it came from experiences where I was asked to “fix” things or to “solve” issues commonly referred to as “dysfunction.” In our world of quick fixes, there can be a perception that I come in, deliver a workshop and somehow make a culture better. While learning opportunities can be a powerful part of any team initiative, the work really happens on the ground in the day-to-day interactions, communications (and) processes. For example, I can teach people communication skills, but I can’t teach them to be good communicators; that is a personal commitment individuals need to undertake.
Positive culture is not a finite problem or endgame that can be solved and forgotten about; it is an ongoing challenge you keep working at every day. I often refer to “sticky issues,” a term I learned in my Human Systems Dynamics certification. Sticky issues are those ones that will not stay solved, that are complex and that can only be influenced by those directly involved in them. By this definition organizational culture is a sticky issue.
I am a partner in the process of learning new skills, identifying the positive patterns that you want to foster, and then fanning and supporting change through dialogue and intervention. I help to leverage “pockets of positive deviance” and coach you through the inherent challenges of change, but I cannot “fix” your culture. That is up to you and everyone in your organization to recognize and get on board with. Pursuing excellence can be simple in premise, but it is not easy to do, and it requires persistence. I offer support.
Having worked with a few leadership coaches in my career, I know this journey can be complex and challenging, but also highly rewarding. What drew you to this work? Can you point to events in your life, or did you have an innate desire to help others?
My journey was indirect, with many twists and turns, as most are. In my very first “real” job I was involved in supporting customers and training. The first eight years of my career were spent with a payroll company, and I travelled the Atlantic provinces connecting with our customers, supporting them, and helping them to learn the system and manage the change. Then I shifted completely to managing internal training and on-boarding the company’s new employees for a few years.
I have been heavily involved in technology, foreign exchange and most recently health care. My industry background is a bit eclectic, but the thread was always helping others to succeed. Through my direct experience in managing and leading teams, I realized I have a passion not for being the manager, but in helping other leaders. I often joke that I tried to leave my career a few times, but it kept finding me, which is as close to a calling as I can imagine. And while my technical knowledge and my understanding of leadership in human systems allow me to design high-quality and powerful sessions, I feel it is my empathy, vulnerability and compassion for those leading in complexity that keep me successful in this field.
I am fulfilled by watching people grow, shift, and stretch into their effectiveness and potential. I learn every single time I interact with my clients, and the richness I receive from working with amazing people, teams and leaders inspires me to continue to grow, fail, and stretch into my own personal leadership as well. I am so blessed to love what I do!
This is a short one. What do the terms “balance” and “well-being” mean to you?
Can I “LOL” here? I think the answer to this could be very long. However, in short, and to me, balance is all about feeding your mind, your body and your soul. If one is neglected, the others will suffer, and it is incredibility difficult to be optimistic and resilient if you are off balance. I also think this is personal, so I would not define balance for anyone but myself. For example, what is the best work-life balance for me may not be the same for another. And I think the two are very closely linked; knowing what balance means to you is, in my opinion, the foundation of well-being.
There is a myriad of ways to support your own well-being. Reflecting on the areas and strategies that will support you is key. Well-being is honouring all aspects of health: physical, emotional, mental and perhaps spiritual. This includes high-quality and positive relationships with yourself and others. As for myself, if I am unwell in any of these categories it directly impacts my sense of well-being. Being balanced feeds into my well-being. And if I find myself unhappy, I look to where I am lacking balance.
Our last question is always a playful one. Care to share a fun fact about yourself that most would not know? It can be a personal tidbit, a habit, or a story.
Hmm, this is hard, as I am a very transparent person and a bit quirky, so hopefully my sense of fun and humour is obvious. I love to laugh! I have a deep love for animals and can lose hours watching silly pet videos. And I have been known to make my own here and there with my two cats or my pug (he loves cameos in my desk yoga videos).
As my company can be seen as very corporate focused, I would like to share my interest and curiosity around how we connect more deeply as human beings and how extremely powerful simple compassion and touch can be. Currently I am working on my certification in Thai Yoga Massage, and when I teach my fitness classes my participants are gracious enough to let me practice with them—so much so, I think the reason they show up for the tough classes is to enjoy the relaxing head massage at the end!
Thank you so much for the opportunity to share a bit more about what I do and who I am!
This column was submitted as part of BWB Well-Being Wednesdays.
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