A CEO's road to authenticity
Our different locations require us to meet via Skype, but her energy has no problem to manifest itself through the screen. We only exchanged emails, so I don’t know her yet, but I like her immediately. Karin Bakker is a vital woman with playful curly hair. I notice she appears strong and not afraid to show her vulnerabilities. And she has an enormous track record in retail business and a killer CV.
Her many executive director positions provide an interesting perspective on the dance between fitting in and standing out and her journey towards authenticity. Should we strive to become the perfect employee who fits the company’s needs and culture perfectly? Or should we strive to become more ourselves, stand out and serve the company with our originality?
From Puppet-show to Playground
Immediately after our interview starts, she shares her impeccable synthesis of her journey: From Puppet-show to Playground.
At some point in our lives, we transform from playing carefree children to adults that try to fit in a certain perfect picture. If we are happy, we come to realize we became puppets. In our attempt to be perfect and meet all demands, we are entering the stage of a puppet show. Successful on the outside, but lead by others instead of ourselves. We struggle for a couple of years (or longer) to find our way back to freedom. Once we find that this playfulness and creativity is in fact still inside of us, a new adventure starts.
Are we able to welcome the authenticity and playfulness back into our lives? Can we start to stand out and have an incredible positive impact?
Are you a puppet?
Karin gradually entered business as a puppet and lost the ability to feel free at work. Nevertheless she never fully lost contact with that inner voice. Let Karin’s story inspire you to re-think your own career and life choices. Are you a puppet working hard to fit into that image of becoming someone "perfect"? Or do you feel free and take enough opportunities and risks to express your creativity and thrive?
Have you become a "walking head" who lost being in touch with your feelings somewhere on the road? Or are you making use of both your mental and intuitive abilities and feel alive most of the time?
Refusing to enter the Puppet show
After graduating from the Delft University of Technology, Karin started working as a consultant/product developer. At a certain moment in time, she delivered a new retail concept. She wasn’t happy with the result and expressed her disappointment to her boss. "This is not something I can be proud of. I almost feel ashamed of the way our design turned out." Her boss tried to comfort her by explaining: "This is how consultancy works. We can easily improve this concept and double the initial earnings." On the way back to her desk, she decided to resign.
Creating her own playground
She realized she had much more to learn about retail. Theories couldn’t bring her the insight she desired. Experience would. As a deputy store manager at a famous multinational furniture store, she was lucky to have a wise boss who took her on a tour each morning to check whether she comprehended what was going on. She really started to understand the essence of retail. She especially learned the importance of connecting with employees on all levels to gain insight into leading the daily business.
A few years later she got the opportunity to start the first Factory Outlet in the Netherlands. Her face brightens when she tells me about this period. “Creating something extraordinary and at that time controversy came close to working at a playground." She was very successful in building a profitable retail concept from scratch. A little amount of resources encouraged her to be creative. Opponents challenged her to take bold actions.
The turnaround – how she ended up entering the stage of the Puppet show
She took on a new position as Director of a Women’s Fashion purchasing organization. She started to change. Her immense career's success made her believe she was immense herself. She thought only she knew the answers to everything. She stopped connecting with the workplace and while doing so also stopped connecting with herself.
“I became the mental version of myself’.
She isn’t an exception in becoming this kind of a leader. It’s a human mechanism to identify ourselves with our outer image rather than our inner one (who we really are). Our outer image is more concrete and tangible. We can identify ourselves with our success, just like others identify themselves with their looks, with their money or power or even with the success of their kids.
In this case, Karin identified herself with her success at work. She had success and it felt immensely good! She wanted to maintain this no matter what. And when we’re in the middle of it and haven’t learned to reflect on ourselves, we don’t recognize the danger. The more we inflate the importance of these outside circumstances, the stranger our decisions become to maintain our situation. We become puppets, totally lead by others. Our inner being, also called our conscience, starts to shrivel, since it never gets activated. And we all know that doesn’t lead to healthy situations.
And if your whole foundation is built on outside circumstances, like success, what happens when there are no triumphs anymore?
In 2010 Karin is asked to revitalize a famous furniture retail brand. When three months later this revitalizing seems to mean "reorganizing", she is asked to become CEO. Again she is very "successful." Her mental version of herself is capable of switching off every feeling. She laid off the majority of the people and arranged a lucrative take-over.
She ignored the shrunken, though still alive, inside voice asking her if this was the right way and she became the major puppet in a mental puppet show called "short-term business success."
Her honest words describing that time reveal a grim atmosphere. The tides are changing. After a conflict with the board, she gets suspended from her role as CEO. She is devastated. She hits rock-bottom. She remembered driving home crying. She felt betrayed, incompetent and exhausted.
Then…amid all her despair a sentence entered her mind, sudden and subtle: "This is the best thing that could ever happen to you." She didn’t understand its meaning and didn’t understand where it came from, but she instantly knew it was 100% true.
First steps back on the playground
After a period of sleeping, partying and re-connecting with long lost friends, the untangling started. She decided to join a week at a training center a friend recommended. When she saw the other participants, she remembered thinking, They all look like normal people. Where are the psychos?
When she entered the classroom, her skeptical mind kept asking her why she didn’t just read a book to "repair" herself. Nevertheless, after 30 minutes their teacher, Marianne Broos, touched her deeply within her soul. She realized she had been missing out on a whole other dimension for a tremendous period.
“All the time I was living in two dimensions ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling’, but I had totally missed out on a third one."
This third dimension teaches us to be conscious and to be lead by ourselves instead of by our reactive, coping mechanisms. It was a long time ago, she felt this alive and engaged instead of feeling entangled. She learned to experience the world with wonder again. She might have experienced this earlier in nature during holidays, but dedicated it to being in nature, instead of realizing it had everything to do with her own state of mind.
She re-connected with her authenticity
"My desire for freedom didn’t involve owning fast cars and big money, but involved releasing the tension I felt inside and involved experiencing this immense freedom within myself." Her shriveled core had woken up and wanted to be in the lead again.
The 13th-century poet Rumi captured this in wonderful sentences, “There’s a morning when presence comes over your soul... Your heart hears and, no longer frantic, begins to dance.”
Although Karin never had personal development on top of her priority list and never used words like soul and inner being, she decided to enter the Pulsar Academy, a 3-year program to become an expert in transformation and change. She identified her mastership, her unique added value, and still is discovering the enormous impact of her augmented sensitivity and consciousness. She appreciates the fact that the Pulsar philosophy acknowledges the importance of putting insights into action, rather than merely reflecting.
Putting insights into action
Currently, she enjoys her role as a member of the supervisory board of another major furniture company. She transfers her experience to the CEO and challenges him to release creativity in himself and his employees. “I asked him when he would start enjoying this journey. Because when you are stern, how on earth are your employees going to connect with their passion and be more engaged?” She never misses an opportunity to ask people she mentors if they know what their natural talent is and encourages them to tap into more sources than just their mental abilities.
She envisions herself leading an organization where there is freedom to play. Where people are lead by creativity instead of fear. Where people can stand out instead of constantly trying to fit an image. Where humor is allowed to play a role. Where people work autonomously, make use of their unique talent and dare to trust each other. This doesn’t mean just being nice and giving people everything they want to "play with." She envisions leading an organization where hearts and souls are also invited to take place in the meeting rooms. She is convinced when you add these to the mental mix, it will definitely lead to an increase in productivity and profit.
Listening to her, I immediately would want to work for her. She is a unique combination of hard and soft: a leader full of energy who understands what kills engagement and creativity and who draws from personal lived-through experience. She is a leader who encourages everyone to bring his or her brains, hearts and souls to work and still knows everything about what it takes to be a winner.
2 Minute Exercise:
Now I encourage you take two important minutes to reflect on Karin’s story. What are two minutes, right? I also encourage you to be really honest to yourself, when you reflect on these questions.
First set of questions: When are you truly engaged? When do you feel free at work?
Second set of questions: Which moments are you playing a role in a puppet show, primarily lead by what you think other people would think or by outer circumstances, like fear, success or power? In what situations you secretly want to control everything?
Third set of questions: Having reflected, what concrete first step can you take to improve your working life? What can you do if your tendency to fit in inhibits your ability to stand out?
So...How do you want to proceed your career? In the puppet show fitting in or on the playground standing out?
I hope to see you at the playground!