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Karen Kaplan

Karen Kaplan“If you just know who you are and you’re proud of who you are and you play your own game, you can turn perceived liabilities into assets.” -Karen Kaplan, CEO, Hill Holliday

Massachusetts Conference for Women board member Karen Kaplan was recently named CEO of Hill Holliday, one of the top advertising agencies in the country. We caught up with Karen just after this exciting announcement to ask her a few questions about her career path and who inspired her along the way. Scroll down to listen to the full interview.

Q: You started your career as a receptionist, and a lot of people would be interested how you got to where you are today.

“My plan, initially, was to go to law school. I heard that Jack Connors, the founder of Hill Holliday, was personally interviewing people. He had rejected 40 candidates before me, and I wanted to see if I could get the job. The minute I stepped off the elevator I knew Hill Holliday was the place for me…Everybody was young, there was a great energy and great vibe. I just connected with it right away. It wasn’t a very strategic choice, but it turned out to be the perfect way to start my career at Hill Holliday.”

Q: You decided to work harder than everyone else by putting in an extra two hours a day and working weekends?

“That’s exactly right. This was pre-email, pre-voicemail, pre-fax… In order to get work done, in those days, you had to be physically in the office.

I started at the bottom with no formal training or preparation… I love to work, and I’ve actually concluded that it isn’t very hard to outwork most people.”

Q: As a leader can you tell us about another leader you have respect for and why?

“Because I worked for him for 25 years, Jack Connors is someone I spent a lot of time studying. He was and is a great mentor for me.

It was a hallmark of his to give someone a task that they think is beyond their capacity at the time and then really allow them to do it. I think very strongly that if you show people you believe in them as a leader, they believe in themselves.

When he hired me as receptionist, he said ‘congratulations, you are the face and the voice of Hill Holliday.’ Just framing the job that way made me take it very seriously.

I thought ‘this isn’t some job, this is a big responsibility.’ I considered myself CEO of the reception desk, then the next job, as the CEO of that, and I approached every one of the 12 jobs I’ve been lucky enough to have at Hill Holliday the same way, and it paid off. That was all sparked and inspired by Jack Connors.”

Q: What would you say has been the driving force in your staying in a male-dominated industry?

“If you embrace what makes you different and you are proud of it, if you just know who you are and you’re proud of who you are and you play your own game, you can turn perceived liabilities into assets.

It’s amazing that in 2013, I’m often in a room of gentleman and I say ‘Who do you think they are going to remember, the 10th guy in the gray suit or the one woman?’ I look at that as an advantage, not a disadvantage.

And I always say ‘I love men, I just think there enough of them.'”

 Interview by Karen Breslau