Karen Handel | Executive Profile | ATLANTA TREND
Keeping Up with Karen Handel
By Karen Rosen
Karen Handel is still on the go. Fresh off the Georgia governor’s race, she went into training for a road race, then joined the race to find a cure for cancer.
After losing the runoff for the Republican nomination by fewer than 2,500 votes, Handel took time to decompress. “After about two weeks of just doing nothing, I thought, ‘I’m going crazy here. I need to have a goal,’” she says.
That goal was to run 5K by Christmas. Handel ran 5K not once but twice Christmas week, just in case the first was a fluke.
She also formed a new company, The Handel Strategy Group, and her biggest client is Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the world’s largest grassroots network of breast cancer survivors and activists. Handel first worked with the Dallas, Texas-based foundation when she was in her 20s, first through Hallmark Cards and then as a deputy chief of staff for Marilyn Quayle, wife of the vice president.
Handel is helping guide the foundation’s public policy group, as well as 130 affiliates around the country that organize fund raising road races. The former Secretary of State is making sure they are “prepared and understand what’s happening from a state budget perspective with Medicaid and health care reform,” she says.
This is the 20th anniversary of the foundation’s launch of a program for breast and cervical cancer screening. “Everybody understands that budgets are really, really tight in virtually every state,” Handel says. “And that means that every program, no matter how worthwhile, is on the table to be scrutinized. We just want to make sure that if there’s a way to improve it and make dollars go further, that Komen’s at the table to be able to work through that.”
Handel will literally pound the pavement for the cause when she participates in the Global Race for the Cure in Washington, D.C., in June, as part of her personal pledge to keep running.
Running for office again, however, is not in Handel’s immediate plans, although she says she will always fulfill her responsibility as a citizen to be engaged in issues that affect the state.
“One Tough Candidate”
“I learned a long time ago that politics sets the timing,” Handel says, “so my job is to move on and be productive and contribute where I can. If there’s another opportunity, I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. But know this: if I ever do run again, I will be one tough candidate.”
Handel says former Gov. Sonny Perdue gave her some sound advice. “He said, ‘Karen, you came within 2,500 votes. Have the discipline not to torture yourself (asking) if I had done this or not done this, because every decision and action has a reaction.’
“Who knows, if I would have done something different,” she adds, “maybe I wouldn’t have been in the runoff at all.”
Handel calls the grueling 2010 gubernatorial campaign “an amazing and wonderful experience. When she makes appearances to groups, she quotes Winston Churchill: “Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”
“All through life, anybody is going to have a series of challenges,” Handel says, “and sometimes you face a challenge and you win and sometimes you don’t win -- and that’s just life. To me the real essence of an individual is two things: How you handle winning and, equally as important, how you handle defeat.”
She said it was important to come out of the campaign without bitterness, instead carrying the positives of the experience and to build on that going forward.
“I’m very proud of where we are,” she says. “Here was a gal who went from arguably no chance at all, a fourth-, fifth-tier candidate, who came within 2,500 votes of being the Republican nominee. That’s’ not so shabby.
“In particular, I hope that women look at it and embrace what was achieved, and to know that this was a huge step forward for women being able to run on a big stage.”
Now she’s more behind the scenes. The Handel Strategy Group is comprised of Handel and, she jokes, her technical support team, which is her husband, Steve. She is focusing on organizational strategy for companies or nonprofits that need to be taken to the next level. “It’s a turnaround/fixer type of a role,” she says.
She draws from her extensive experience in both business and government. Before becoming secretary of state, she was manager of government and community relations for KPMG, manager of international communication for CIBA Vision, president and CEO of the Greater North Fulton Chamber of Commerce, Gov. Perdue’s deputy chief of staff and chairman of the Fulton County Commission.
Examining the Remote Workforce
Handel, who works from her office in Roswell, says Komen is on the leading edge as far as having a remote workforce, especially in the public policy area. Yet she notes, “It’s interesting from a technology standpoint that we still have a long way to go to make virtual workplaces truly functional. “
Komen utilizes webinars and conference calls, in addition to email, so in order to stay connected, Handel must carry a Mac, an iPad and an iPhone with her. “At any given time, I can't connect,” Handel says. “My husband would say, ‘Have you checked user error?’ Sometimes it is, but more often than not, it’s not user error.”
Handel also believes people tend to rely too much on email, which sometimes is not the most effective way to communicate. She advocates a different management approach. “If it takes you more than an exchange of two emails to come to a conclusion on an issue,” she says, “it’s probably time to pick up the phone.”
Another challenge with a remote workforce is providing technical support. With more employees working increasingly on a contract basis, they’re bringing their own equipment into the equation. “You’re going to have a great mix of PC platform/Mac platform,” Handel says, “and so you have to make sure that your IT structure has the ability to support both -- and many do not.”
Employers also must adjust as the definition of “quality of life” changes from generation to generation.
The newest generation joining the workforce has “a desire to have flexibility,” Handel says. “They want to be able to have ready access and be able to take their lunch break and sit in the park and be able to still check email.”
But a drawback to the virtual office is the sense that you can never “unplug. “
Time to Check Out
“There are no real boundaries and you have to be much more disciplined about ensuring that you have checkout times,” Handel says, “ because checking out facilitates recharging. You need your team members to be fresh. No one can work 24-7, 365 days a year, year after year, without downtime.”
Well, she adds, they can, but it’s not sustainable and can lead to burnout.
“Everybody works differently,” says Handel. “Some people, they need the weekend to recharge and then there’s other folks like myself: I can go 100 mph for a pretty sustained period of time, and then I just need a chunk of time, even four days to recharge, and then I go back and do it all again.”
Handel says companies can drive recharging and benefit in both their bottom line and their employees’ quality of life by not allowing vacation to be carried over limitlessly. She says a lot of companies allow employees who get three weeks of vacation to carry over a maximum of one week.
“It makes sure that you manage your time and that you do take that time to have a vacation,” she says, “and then secondly, it’s a good thing from a bottom-line standpoint” so accrued vacation isn’t a budget liability.
On a statewide level, she’s concerned that the stimulus dollars that have been doled out over the past few years have been used by many states, including Georgia, to create ongoing programs. “Common sense tells you that if you have a one-time injection of funds, you use those dollars for a one-time project, not ongoing,” she says. “And so all across the country, we’re going to see the plug being pulled on any number of projects and it isn’t that they don’t have merit, it’s just that there is no money to sustain them. “
Handel says that like business, government should have five-year cycles. “You don’t go out and set up a whole new division just because sales were good that year, not knowing what your projections are for the next year,” she says.
But she won’t project too far ahead in her own life. “I never imagined in a million years I would be a Fulton County commission chairman, let alone running for governor,” Handel says, “so I try not to put things too set in stone and be mindful that opportunities often come at you when you least expect them to.”
Secrets to Success
- You have to have passion for what you’re doing. People know if you’re doing something just for the sake of getting a paycheck.
- You need vision -- to be able to see the future, describe it, and then use your passion to bring people to that place you envision when they might not have wanted to go there on their own.
- Have drive and be action-oriented. Understand that typically success doesn’t result from one big flashy thing or play; it’s kind of like in football. How many teams really win the Super Bowl off of the Hail Mary? No, it’s what Margaret Thatcher said: Relentless incrementalism. Always be moving the ball.
- Go for excellence because good is simply mediocre.
- Learn to be a follower, too. That might sound weird in a leadership role, but if you aren’t willing to follow your team from time to time, aren’t you then nothing more than a dictator?
- Set expectations, communicate, demand results and be accountable -- yourself as well as your team. And be willing to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are and bring different and better skill sets.
- And lastly, don’t be stupid. We can all name those moments: How dumb was that? Why did I do that? But it’s also important not to fall into the trap of trying to second-guess every move or decision that you made. Because most people, if you’re in a leadership role, try to make a decision based on the set of facts and the information that you have at that time. Things don’t always go right or go as planned. And part of being successful is not prolonging a bad path and being willing to change course when you need to, to know that it’s OK to make a mistake. And then how you deal with the mistake is generally far more important than the mistake itself. It’s that compounding of a bad decision that will take a mistake and make it a catastrophe.
Karen Handel is Owner of The Handel Strategy Group. Atlanta Trend expresses its thanks and deep appreciation to Karen Handel for sharing her thoughts with us.
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