• March 8, 2021

International Women’s Day 2021: Karen Kadin’s story

International Women’s Day 2021: Karen Kadin’s story

International Women’s Day 2021: Karen Kadin’s story 1024 683 micebook.

Brands at Work Co-Founder and Managing Partner Karen Kadin shares her leadership story as part of our focus on women in leadership to mark International Women’s Day 2021…

Like many, I accidentally fell into the events industry. I studied International Business and Marketing at university. There were no ‘events’ courses back then and ‘experiential’ was not established lexicon in the marketing strategy playbook. The post-graduation options were much narrower than they are now. You could go client-side in a corporate marketing role, or dive headfirst into agency life.

On finding an advocate…

I made my career start in New York City at The MONY Group, one of the oldest and largest mutual life insurance companies in the United States. I was hired as a strategic marketing analyst and reported into a gentleman who, despite his best intentions, had no idea what do with me beyond hand me a stapler and point to the copy machine. A female leader (and to this day dear friend) in the organisation, Susie Dwinell, saw a creative spark in me and advocated for me to get involved in the Chief Marketing Officer’s Think Tank. This dedicated team was tasked with inventing and discovering new distribution channels and cross-selling opportunities for the newly demutualised firm. I was part of a small team that launched MONY’s mid-market M&A advisory service; and this is when I first learned about the power of communicating a market story through events. This incredible opportunity ignited my career in this industry, and I am forever grateful to the leaders who held space for me to have a voice, learn from my mistakes and take risks.

On discovering that not every step in the journey needs to be ‘up’…

Emboldened by that early success, I made the move into advertising at the renowned global agency, J. Walter Thompson, which proved a humbling point in my career journey: I went straight into a management position without climbing the traditional ranks. This taught me an important lesson that while ambition is brilliant, the race for advancement in title and remit can’t involve shortcuts; or you’ll fall flat on your face. The professional ‘growing pains’ I experienced taught me a great deal about myself and have influenced my leadership style to this day.

After the excitement of delivering a global advertising campaign launch died down, I was approached by a recruiter for a role at MJM, a fast-growing agency in New York that specialised in business theatre. That’s right, business theatre is what corporate events were called back then!

On learning from the best…

This was my proving ground. I spent eight glorious years at this live communications agency, learning from the very best in the industry. I found a fabulous female-boss, mentor and friend in Mei Dickerson who taught me the art of questioning and listening, rather than always filling the void with noise (still working on that to this day!). Maggie Selby, Michael Wolkowitz, Mark Rubinsky, Stephen Phillips and countless others gave a very young, still-much-to-learn me a very big chance to discover my talents and unlock my potential. These leaders believed in me, course-corrected me, empowered me and always pushed me to just beyond the edge of my comfort zone – where the real magic happens. They also supported me in my decision to leave New York in 2005 and created a role for me in their London office where I met my now business partner and co-founder of Brands at Work, John Birger.

On taking the leap into entrepreneurship…

John and I started Brands at Work in 2010. The agency quickly established a loyal following of clients who remain with us to this day. It has been a wild ride! From our very humble beginnings with just the two of us, our laptops and an eye-watering cappuccino tab… through to our present-day, as a multi-award-winning agency where we unleash the power of experience for major brands around the world. When we started this agency, I was a single adventurous entrepreneur who could catch up on lost sleep at the weekends. Nearly eleven years later, I’m now married, I’m a mother of two young sleep thieves (children) and I’m spinning more plates than I can count. My personal life has changed who I am as a leader – I hope for the better. I now see what an awesome responsibility it is to grow and nurture the next generation of leaders. I want them all to make an impact. To find their voices. To discover their superpowers. To feel fearless when taking on new challenges. To overtake me and be the boss one day.

More than any awards on the shelves or accolades in the press, we are immensely proud of our people. We have spotted talent at its earliest, rawest stages and created opportunities for our people to stretch themselves and take leaps of faith, confident in the knowledge of having a safety net beneath them. To see how far they’ve come with us, or in some cases where they’ve moved on, lights my leadership fire.

On leading with vulnerability…

Being a leader in the events industry, I have the platform to create change for the better. The industry attracts many talented women, but not nearly enough make it to the top. It remains a challenging career path for those who want to balance family life. I struggle with that myself every day, in a mental, physical and emotional tug-of-war. Part of the responsibility I have as a leader is to not hide my imperfections and the messiness of my life.  I endeavour to be an open, authentic, empathetic and vulnerable leader. I’m very straight-talking and that can verge on ‘tough love’ at times, but those who work with me know that I have a very warm heart and open arms. I am not perfect by any stretch of the imagination and I don’t expect perfection from others. I don’t care if you don’t have all the answers, just ask smart questions. I don’t care if you make mistakes, just learn from them and improve. I don’t care if you need to ask for help, just speak up.

A silver lining of this pandemic is that our whole lives are on display: We can’t – and shouldn’t – cover this up. Moving forward, we need to embrace the diverse lifestyles of our current and future workforce. This can’t be a hostile industry for those with family demands and other passionate pursuits. We need to be able to get the most out of our people, while still giving them the space to get the most out of life.

To the next generation of female leaders, my top tips…

Don’t rush the career race: Take the time to master your craft at every stage of the journey.

Know yourself and play to your strengths: Don’t try to be a Jackie-of-all-trades and a master of none. You want to be as well-rounded as possible, but you’ll eventually feel a gravitational pull to your sweet spot. Lean into it. I started out as an earnest analyst and I’m now a passionate, arm-waving creative!

Measure your progress by your impact: Not how many years you’ve served or how many hours you’ve worked.

Let go of trying to do it all: I sometimes take on more than I should and need to create more space for others to contribute. I’m still learning to protect my energy, make time to catch my breath and reframe my brain; otherwise, my inner dragon comes out. You can’t take care of others if you’re not taking care of yourself.

Tell… Show your value. I can’t tell you how many times I turned up to meetings and all eyes were on my male colleague(s) in the tacit assumption that ‘he’ must be in charge. There will likely always be unconscious (and even conscious) biases to overcome, but rather than get snarky, let your value outshout your voice.

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