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

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. Go for excellence because good is simply  mediocre.
  5. 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?
  6. 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.
  7. 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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