Servant Leadership with Karen Walters

In our 28th episode, Sofie is joined by Karen Walters, the founder of Beyond Culture HR Consulting, to explore servant leadership. With three decades of experience as an HR professional, Karen delves into the transformative effects of supporting an organization from the bottom, rather than always leading from the top. This approach fosters a sense of purpose among individuals as they contribute to their organization’s values-led culture. Karen also addresses the hesitations surrounding the adoption of servant leadership, particularly among those accustomed to traditional workplace hierarchies.

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About the Guest

Karen Walters

Beyond Culture, LLC is a human resources consulting practice built on a belief in the power of a values-based, servant leadership model.

Founder, Karen Walters, has 30 years of human resources leadership experience and enjoys imparting wisdom gained via her career within the sports and entertainment, non-profit, and IT industries.

Karen coaches leaders, provides full-cycle human resources support, and facilitates leadership development, team effectiveness, and culture building initiatives. Karen is prepared to tackle a wide variety of strategic human resources projects that span the entire employee life cycle and include core values creation, organizational design, devising people strategies, and HR compliance audits.

During her 19-year career under the leadership of Arthur Blank (co-founder of Home Depot), Karen was on a small team devoted to staffing and onboarding thousands of new Mercedes-Benz Stadium associates. This award-winning, core values-based initiative resulted in a highly engaged workforce inspired to positively impact the lives of stadium fans.



Sofie: Hello everyone and welcome back to Claim Your Potential, the empowerment podcast. I’m your host, Sofie, and for this episode, we are joined by Karen Walters to discuss servant leadership.   

Founder of Beyond Culture, Karen Walters, has 30 years of human resources leadership experience and enjoys imparting wisdom gained via her career within the sports and entertainment, non-profit, and IT industries. 

Karen coaches leaders, provides full-cycle human resources support, and facilitates leadership development, team effectiveness, and culture building initiatives. Karen is prepared to tackle a wide variety of strategic human resources projects that span the entire employee life cycle and include core values creation, organizational design, devising people strategies, and HR compliance audits. 

During her nineteen-year career under the leadership of Arthur Blank, co-founder of Home Depot, Karen was on a small team devoted to staffing and onboarding thousands of new Mercedes-Benz Stadium associates. This award-winning, core values-based initiative resulted in a highly engaged workforce inspired to positively impact the lives of stadium fans. 

 Please welcome, Karen Walters. Thank you so much for being with us today, Karen. 

Karen Walters: Thank you, Sofie. I so appreciate the offer to come on with you. 

Sofie: It is such a pleasure to have you on. I would love to start our conversation with hearing a little bit about what servant leadership means to you and how it’s influenced your career?

Karen Walters: Oh, great. Thank you. So servant leadership to me – what does that mean, it means that it’s sort of breaking the mold of the traditional view of hierarchical leadership, I think. So when I was coming up in the business world, I just looked at it as “hey, there’s an org chart in this company and there’s somebody who’s in charge and that person is the person we should probably listen to and this person is, you know, the boss of that type of thing,” and I didn’t really think much beyond that but I’ve seen the power of flipping that model on its back and instead of leading from the top, guiding from below – guiding from the bottom. And so the power of that is that it unleashes so much special talent and special giftings for the organization when people feel like, you know, they’re being supported from below.

Sofie: Yeah and I like that you mentioned that supported from below piece because I did actually have more of a concept question for you. How do you balance being a servant leader while still maintaining the authority necessary for effective leadership?

Karen Walters: That is actually getting to the heart of it and I think that’s what people often wonder is like – it’s sort of a fearful thing to say, “hey I’m going to just support everybody from the bottom of the organization.” But I think what I would say is, I believe in any organization and must even take it out of the business realm. Like this is true in a classroom, this is true on a sports team. You know the coach and the athletes or it’s even true in the home. You know your question is very – very germane to the home. Parents and children, you know that could be chaotic if there is no structure. There are no rules that type of thing. So no, I think it’s both. I think the leader of the home, the leader of the sports team, the leader of the classroom, the leader in business, they’re all responsible for creating structure and order and really kind of like guard rails. So when I say guardrails, you know, like when you’re driving down the highway and you see those metal guardrails that keep you on the road? That’s the role of the leader as well is to provide a safe place for people to thrive and I noticed on your website, you’ve done an excellent job of creating some core values. I believe those are the guardrails. In dozens and dozens of ways they become the guardrails of a healthy organization and it’s the leader’s responsibility to hold people to those and to model those and so it is both. It is inspiring people, getting out of the way and cheering them on, allowing them to be their special selves but to provide order because nobody wants to work or be a part of something that’s chaotic.

Sofie: And oh yeah, I could not agree more there. And yeah, I think those core values play such a huge role in not just, you know, acting as a leader but making sure that people feel that they have the knowledge that they need to act independently as well. And so I would love to hear a little bit about your experience when you led that highly engaged workforce at the Mercedes Ben Stadium. Could you share some insights into how you cultivated a values driven culture and the impact it had on the organization?

Karen Walters: Okay, sure. Yeah, and again kudos to you for having the wisdom, you know, that obviously that you have – the insight that you have to lead with values. I think there’s a tremendous power in that. If we could imagine the stadium that’s empty with no employees in it but having to staff it up very, very quickly; there was a team of us that approached that challenge of how do you attract and inspire and bring on board four thousand employees into a stadium. And it’s the core values that we’re fueling all of that. It’s like, “okay, how do we – who do we want to hire.” Well, people that are living out these core values or have in the past and then how do you onboard them? How do you inspire them? Well, it’s experientially allowing people to get excited at the root of what’s behind each of those core values. 

I think you’ll probably appreciate this – we had some training sessions that were designed to be inspiring for all of these new hires in the stadium and so when they – we would do them, I don’t know let’s say there was one hundred people at a time and we did many, many of these, you know, inspirational onboarding trainings. But when they walked into the room as new hires, they had their head down. Their nose was in their phone. They were maybe a little bit shy because they didn’t know their co-workers and we sat them down at tables and we got it started. But through the course of this four-hour training that we did it was so experiential and so exciting and so kind of – they could see that they had accepted a job that was so much bigger than what they fully understood at first. That we were unleashing them to go impact the lives of our fans and we were treating them like they were the CEO. Right? So we wanted them to feel like they are the CEO, not Arthur Blank, and the reason we wanted to do that was because we wanted them to take full ownership of every moment that they would encounter so that they can operate out of those core values and we did some fun exercises so that they would know at the heart level, what each of the core values means not in the head but in the heart so that they could action out of those.

Sofie: Yeah, absolutely and I – and I couldn’t agree more there. I think that, you know, really making sure that people understand those values and practice those values and that they’re really a part of that organizational culture is so important when it comes to not just, you know, developing as an organization but also as you’re practicing that servant leadership and I know that sometimes servant leadership gets a bad reputation, especially at larger organizations in the sense that leading from the bottom up, as you previously said can be such a scary thing for larger organizations or organizations that have been practicing that traditional hierarchy for so long. And so how would you or how do you advocate for and promote the adoption of that servant leadership style in environments that might not initially embrace it?

Karen Walters: Well, I don’t think it’s a forced thing because it’s not for everyone. Right? So I think it starts with some sort of a pain point. Organizations sometimes struggle with – of course, you know, people are complicated and people are complex so we can – we can imagine some of the, “I’m not getting it. you know, as much performance out of these folks or people are leaving the company.” Or you know whatever the pain point might be. Well for me, it’s – it’s about peeling back the onion and trying to understand what are the reasons for that pain point. And I don’t know, I mean ninety-nine point nine times out of a hundred it’s going to come back to the operating system of the organization, meaning the whole people strategy. Is it built on kind of random concepts or reactive principles and practices or, you know, it – it could it be more strategic and values based so I think probably a hundred times out of a hundred there’s a benefit to building a people strategy on something that’s strategic and personal to that business. And so I think resistant leaders quickly become or can become excited and definitely not resistant once – once we’ve peeled back that onion and kind of explored these concepts and why they pay off.

Sofie: Yeah. And I think something that throws kind of a bit of a monkey wrench into organizational culture and just leadership and servant leadership in organizational culture is the rise of remote work and virtual teams. And so how do you adapt your servant leadership approach to accommodate the unique challenges and opportunities presented by a distributed workforce?

Karen Walters: Right. So I think it requires leaders to be even more intentional, even more bought in, even more engaged, even more connected at a personal human level with the team. And so if you think about the concept of, you know, we say leading by example, like that’s – that’s a phrase that I think we toss around pretty often. So leading by example, I’ll just throw out a couple – couple examples of that, does your walk match your talk? Are you saying things but then doing something completely different. In a physical environment where everybody’s together in an office, you know, an example of that might be, you know, a leader walking past trash and not picking it up and putting it in the trash can because somebody else should do that, you know. So people see that. Maybe the team has to stay till two in the morning and work late because of a project. Well, if the leader leaves at five PM, people definitely see and feel that. So those are two examples where it’s when everybody’s together in an office environment. 

Okay, so what are some ways we can lead by example or walk the talk when people are working remotely. Well I think you got to care an awful lot and you need to be super intentional. It scares me a little bit because we are all so busy and sometimes, we move too fast and the things that get thrown out that we don’t take the time to do is to tell stories. So what – when I say tell stories it’s, you know, how a core value of living out a core value this week was super beneficial to the company and kind of reinforcing and building the culture on a daily basis. So I just say it’s – it’s a little bit of an Olympic event each day for a leader to be a true culture builder and – and a leader by example when people are remote. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing because it’s a good thing. It can be an incredibly wonderful thing for people to work remotely, but I think the trick is being super intentional.

Sofie: Absolutely and as you were speaking, I was thinking to some of the examples with our own organization. We operate one hundred percent fully remote and there are definitely some pain points and learning curves with just trying to navigate building a team culture when no one is in office ever and everyone is in different parts of the United States and on different time zones and in different spaces in their careers and it makes it, you know, very hard to build that organizational culture there.

So absolutely I couldn’t agree more there as you were speaking to – it’s almost like a marathon or an Olympic event. Every single day just trying to ramp up. Alright, we got to make sure that we are being extra intentional with the culture that we’re trying to create with that feeling of belonging in the workplace simply because of our structure. So definitely remote teams, virtual teams have it hard in that way. But as you said the intentionality has to be there and that makes it a whole lot easier when you’re intentional about it and you can focus your – your attention to it. I’d love to shift gears here a little bit to young women professionals that are emerging leaders who might be interested in adopting a servant leadership approach. Do you have any advice to give to these young women who want to embrace this leadership style?

Karen Walters: So for young women, I think servant leadership as a young person is a certain amount of humility. And I think it is in a traditional hierarchical organization – and again this could be in the classroom, within your friend group, anything – there’s a certain amount of ego boost to be in charge. You know say, “hey, I’m in charge. I’m the project manager. I’m the leader,” whatever it might be. But I think as I’ve matured in my career, I’ve realized that it’s amazing to allow other people to have their own aha moment. And what I mean by that is if you can see the light bulb above somebody’s head. Right? Is not racing to tell somebody else the answer, but to allow them to arrive at a point where they’re coming up with their own answer that they’re going to remember forever. 

Letting go of that desire to be the smartest person in the room, and the person with all the answers and, you know, the whole one-upping people, I think that – that silent servant leadership sometimes leading from below, encouraging others, celebrating others successes, guiding people, inspiring people to a higher purpose, there’s so much more meaning in that. And so I think as a young woman, finding opportunities to encourage others because we need that in this world – to share inspirational stories and just take that journey of being an example of somebody that will put yourself last when it’s hard. Like you’re going to be the person that parks far away, puts yourself last, let’s other people go first because it’s an example that you’re trying to set.

Sofie: Yeah, there’s an amazing book called, Leaders Eat Last and it’s about that concept of servant leadership where there’s so much power in setting that example of, “hey, I know I’m the leader but you come first, your needs come first. I have to make sure you’re taken care of before I can take care of myself and what I should be doing.” So I think there’s a lot of power there and I think that funny enough I was just talking to someone about this, how a lot of the time young women when they get into those manager positions, those leadership positions, they tend to practice or mirror what they’ve previously learned from their own managers or what managers have previously done or how they’ve interacted with them. And a lot of the time, especially young women who’ve been in more intern roles or, you know, associate roles where a lot of the time you’re kind of just there to get projects done and tasks then and you’re less incorporated into organizational culture, they find it very hard to be a manager and to lead and to adjust because it’s almost like they want to mirror that, “I got to just assign projects because that’s what I’ve been taught to do from my manager, that’s how my manager interacted with me.” And so I feel like a lot of it, you know, is leading by example. Do you have any perhaps tools, resources or just any way that some of these young women can educate themselves on how, you know, to break that cycle and really develop their own leadership style?

Karen Walters: I love that. Probably follow your organization because it seems like you have a lot of tools and resources and courses. So kudos to you on that. But I think in the bigger picture, it is – I wish I would have known this when I was much younger is that difference, I think what you’re getting at is the difference between managing and leading. It’s – managing is really just making sure that the task gets completed. You know, and it’s important. We need that and in every facet of our life to make sure the tasks are getting completed but when we talk about leadership, It’s really taking that self-inventory from time to time and saying, “okay to what degree am I leading,” and when I define that myself, I look at that and I think, “okay it means that people have chosen me as somebody that they want to follow because of my example.” And so I can’t really even call myself a leader. It’s other people label me that and so if I look behind me and I see people following, then I know I’m a leader but I don’t think I can call myself that. So it’s seeing the bigger purpose in all the people that are around you, you know, and helping people to maybe discover what the bigger purpose is of their role. I don’t care what your job is or what you call yourself – what you’re engaged in. There is a bigger purpose to every single task out there, every job out there. And so I think we can impact the world when we allow people to get inspired by a bigger purpose day to day and it is that quote of, “people won’t remember what you told him, they’ll remember how it made him feel,” and I think servant leadership is all about inspiring people to step into a bigger purpose.

Sofie: Absolutely. It’s about providing that bigger context as to what’s going on, why people are there, why what they’re doing is important. And yeah, I couldn’t agree more there. I think that that’s a piece that’s missing from a lot of organizations and especially organizations that I’ve been in is providing that context to people. I’d love to tie everything together with what is one thing that our listeners should take away?

Karen Walters: Yes. I think it’s that issue of self-inventory, you know. We do – we live in a fast World; we’ve put a lot of things on our plate. I think for each of us that daily self-inventory and it’s like okay, “what is what is inspiring people even mean.” Maybe ask yourself periodically, “who am I inspired by, you know, and why am I inspired by that person and then who’s in my circle that I, you know, I would love to inspire because the impact would be so great if I could inspire this person.” And then what might that look like.  

So I think pausing and doing some self-inventory on the impact that we’re having on others and then being an incredible listener. You know, asking good questions and being a great listener because the one advantage that we haven’t talked about in servant leadership is just, boy the ideas and the observations and the suggestions that will come to you when you’re a good listener and when you empower people on the front line to come back to you with suggestions, wow that just makes your role so much easier because you’re like, “okay that’s a good observation. That’s a good idea. What do you think about that.” It’s not only one person being in charge. It’s – it’s everybody feeling ownership and coming up with their own ideas so I hope that helps.

Sofie: Yeah, thank you for sharing that – that last piece of wisdom there. And for our listeners that would like to connect with you to hear even more of your wisdom, where can our listeners get in touch with you?

Karen Walters: My website is Karen and my email is I’m also on LinkedIn under Karen Walters, so pretty easy.

Sofie: Amazing. Thank you so much for sharing that. I know that a lot of our listeners will probably be checking out your LinkedIn, going over to your website. I think servant leadership is one of those podcast topics I don’t see too often, so it’s always super fun to do a topic that I am passionate about, that I love, and be able to share that with everyone. Especially one that is definitely a little under the radar which is sad to say but I think servant leadership is fantastic and I want to say thank you again so much for coming on to the podcast Karen. You’ve been an absolute pleasure and thank you for all of the wisdom that you share.

Karen Walters: Thank you. Keep up the good work, I’m impressed.

Sofie: Thank you. Have a wonderful rest of your day.

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