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Values-Based Leadership in Turbulent Times with Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks

In this episode we talk to Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks, who joins us from Colorado Springs in the United States.

Karen is President and CEO of TRANSLEADERSHIP, INC., and the 2021 recipient of The RHR International Excellence in Consultation Award. Karen hosts The Voice of Leadership podcast, as well as the Dr. Karen Speaks Leadership TV show. She is author of the book Lead Yourself First: The Senior Leader’s Guide to Engaging Your People for Greater Performance and Impact.

For more than 30 years Karen has worked with values-based and Christian corporate executives in secular businesses. She advises executives on how to create a powerful leadership legacy that leaves the organization, the people, and themselves transformed and equipped for the next chapter. She is a trained clinical psychologist and served in the U.S. Army on active service as an officer and psychologist.

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Patrick Daly: Hello, this is Patrick Daly, and welcome to Interlinks. Interlinks is a program about connections, international business, and globalization, and the effects these elements have had on our life, our work, and our travel over recent times. Today on the show we will be talking to Dr. Karen Wilson-Starks who joins us from Colorado Springs in the US.

Karen is a president and CEO of TRANSLEADERSHIP, INC and 2021 recipient of the RHR International for Excellence in Consultation, Award host of the Voice of Leadership Podcast, host of the Dr. Karen Speaks Leadership TV Show, and author of Lead Yourself First!: The Senior Leader’s Guide to Engaging Your People for Greater Performance and Impact. For more than 30 years, Karen has worked with values-based and Christian corporate executives in secular businesses.

She advises executives on how to create a powerful leadership legacy that leaves the organization, the people, and themselves transformed and equipped for the next chapter. She’s also a trained clinical psychologist and served in the army as an officer and psychologist. Welcome, Karen. Delighted to have you here with us today.

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: Thank you so much, Patrick. I’m very glad to be with you today.

Patrick Daly: Tell me, Karen, in an overview say what has been your career today? How did you come to be where you are now? Because as I said in the intro, you served in active service in the army. Isn’t that right?

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: Yes. I was an active duty army officer and also of psychologists as well. I’ve done many different roles in my current company. Been in my current company for about 26 years. Also worked for about five years for the Center For Creative Leadership. For people who are familiar with that organization, they’re premier training organization and leadership with corporate executives as well. It all started really, Patrick, in childhood, because when I was in the sixth grade, that’s when I decided that I wanted to be a psychologist.

My vision of it at the time was being in private practice, which I did do for a number of years as well, and it was really when I was in the army that I saw the potential of the psychology tools for business. I thought, well, later on, I’ll probably do a business application of psychology, because in the army we had to do both. We had to do treatment of soldiers and we had to look at organizations and deal with leadership. I thought, oh, that sounds fun too, although I originally had not started out thinking of about it.

Patrick Daly: Okay. How come you wanted to be a psychologist at such a tender age? How did you become even exposed to that at that time?

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: That’s a good question, because certainly no one in my family was in a field even remotely related to psychology. I had a vision that there was a column in the local newspaper in the United States that was called the Dear Abby column. People would write in. They’d have problems and issues, and then she would answer. And I thought, this is what psychologists must do. They must have people in their office and address this. I’m the oldest of four children, so I kind of functioned in that role with my brothers and sisters anyway.
And then with my parents, they always consulted me. I was a consultant at childhood. They consulted me about many things. And I was very much a leader, very much had viewpoints and opinions about things that were used by other people. I think it was just a gifting early on in my life.

Patrick Daly: In TRANSLEADERSHIP, which is your business today, what services do you provide to your clients and how do they benefit from working with you?

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: Predominantly what I do is executive advisement. Generally speaking, I’m working with the executive leader of the company or someone whose one of the executive leaders of some very large global organization. Historically, I’ve worked more with global publicly held companies. Currently, I’m doing a lot more work with more mid-sized to large privately held companies and still working with the executive leaders and the executive teams.

With the leaders themselves, I’m really focusing my efforts with them on critical conversations about the business that they really need to have, thinking about what’s going on and what decisions need to be made. And very often these people don’t have other places where they can just talk about anything. That’s one of my roles. With the executive teams, just getting them to think more enterprise wide, what can they do collectively as an executive team that’s different from what they might do in their individual silos that advances the business.

It’s really helping with that lens. And then occasionally at times I’m working with what I call high performance teams in an organization. I really do believe that it’s high performance teams that do the bulk of the work. They’ve got to learn how to communicate with one another how to operate in such a way that they’re going to get the best results for the business. I’m often called in to do some work with them.

And then I would say for my medium size to large small companies, I also do some executive selection work so that they get the right people in the right places. They’re integrated into the organization, and then we develop those people as we go along. All of this really facilitates what I call getting the company to a place of creative advantage. What’s going to benefit them in the marketplace and also benefit their customers in the marketplace and what will allow them to become what I call a partner of choice.

Moving beyond just vendor or commodity to really becoming a partner of choice. And overall from the executive’s perspective through doing all of these things, they’re creating a powerful leadership legacy and they’re resourcing their organization, resourcing the people in their organization, and making a good decision about what’s next for them.

Patrick Daly: At the individual personal level psychologically, what is the greatest obstacle that you find with people in reaching their potential? What stands in their way?

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: Very often I would say it’s being stuck in doing things the way they’ve always done them or believing that there are more barriers than really exist, and not taking the time to spend the time to think creatively enough about the business, to identify ways of operating that they may not have thought of or didn’t occur to them. And very often these senior leaders and executives also have to remember they’re not the only ones alone who have to come up with this.

That’s why they’ve got great people they’ve hired around them so they can have those conversations internally as well and figure out the best pathways forward. Sometimes it is the success of the past, not knowing how to do something different, getting stuck in that comfort zone.

Patrick Daly: Is self-esteem an issue? In a way, people look at us from the outside. We might be managers or we might be broadcasters or whatever. People look at us and they see us as being successful and being confident and so on. But we inside ourselves see our own flaws and that knowledge of our own internal flaws, does that sometimes impede us from taking the next step, from moving on from where we are? Do you find that?

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: I’m sure that’s certainly true of some people. What I see most often… Because some of the companies that I work with, they’re in what I call a transition phase. They’re transitioning let’s say from a large small to mid middle size company or from medium size to large. And when you’re in those transitions, you have to think about what’s required to build the infrastructure and the foundation we need for our larger size. Very frequently, they don’t have always the experience for the next level.

May not even have the exact skills, interests, or inclinations to do what’s needed at the next level. It’s a hesitancy to move forward because that’s not their superpower or it’s not their strong suit. If anything, it might be how do I step into that and learn it or hire someone to run this part of the business while I rise up to even a higher level in the organization. That’s what I find is challenging. Because it’s hard, I’ve never done it before, and I don’t know how to do it.

I’ll just keep doing what I was doing, which doesn’t benefit the business.

Patrick Daly: You have published the book called Lead Yourself First. Could you tell us what’s the premise of the book and what are the main arguments that you set out in the book?

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: The book is really designed for the individual leader to think about their own life journey. Because I’m really a strong believer that your experiences along the journey of life and what you’ve encountered, these are the treasures in essence that you can share with other people that also inspires and encourages them to get through some difficult times. Yet a lot of leaders have not taken the time to think about, well, what are those milestones in my own life?

What have I learned from my own leadership journey that positions me to really be credible in my own organization? The book is my way of saying here are some examples from my life. Not that these are relevant for you, but the point is, there are questions in there to get the person to reflect on what happened in my life that I could pay attention to and also share. I mean, I could give you an example.

When I was in the army, one of the things that I just never wanted to do and it was certainly a factor in whether I wanted to be in the army or not, I was not naturally an army oriented person. It was repelling off of mountains. I said to the recruiter, “I just don’t want to ever do that.” And he says, “Well, you’re a psychologist. You’re probably never going to have to do that.” And here I am one day looking up at this 25 foot tower about to rappel and thinking back to that conversation with the recruiter and I was petrified.

It was the last thing in life I wanted to do. And of course, I learned. It’s daunting from the ground and it’s even more daunting as you climb up that straight ladder that has no incline to get to the top of the wall. That was more frightening than I ever imagined it would be. I get to the top of the wall. There’s a sergeant standing up there and he’s saying, “Okay, now it’s start to rappel.” I say, “I think I’m going back down.” “No, you’re not going back down.” I had to figure it out, and I wasn’t elegant about figuring it out either.

Because I’m at the top of the ball and I forgot everything I had learned in the training on the ground. I’m holding myself up there. I said, “I can’t hold all this weight.” “Well, you’re not supposed to. Let go of the rope.” “I’m going to die.” “No, there’s someone down here. The belay master is there to… If anything happens, they could yank you in midair.” When I think about this story, I mean, I pushed through the fear to get this done.

I went up the tower several times to mastered the 25 foot one, then went to the 50 foot tower, mastered that, then that afternoon, we were rappelling the mountains. I said you need someone at the top of the wall in your life who won’t let you quit on yourself. That’s one of the things. You also need that belay master who could stop you in midair if need be. There were lots of lessons out of that I learned. I learned that even with fear, you can get something done that’s difficult, and you can practice it and be enriched as a result.

Patrick Daly: Interesting. Yeah. Yeah. In your work today, what kind of practical issues… Not so much the psychological individual issues that people face. What kind of practical business issues are companies and executives in companies facing today as our societies across the world are emerging now from this emergency phase of the coronavirus pandemic? What’s on their plate?

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: Quite a lot, because the pandemic at least… I don’t know what’s happening in Dublin, but in the United States, the pandemic is far from over, Patrick. It is far from over. We have a lot of confusion in the United States and a lot of division in terms of where people are and what they understand. This affects business, because you’ve got people who are vehemently against taking the vaccine. Some for some reason it actually makes sense and others maybe not, because there’s a lot of misinformation that’s out there and people don’t know what’s true, what’s not true.

I think that the business leader has got to think about what is so sound, accurate, and true information that I can provide to the workforce so they can make informed decisions about what they’re going to do. A lot of the clients that I’m working with who are in manufacturing and in construction, they’re working on government projects. They’re working on big projects where it’s required to be vaccinated to be on site. If their employees choose not to be vaccinated, then they have a problem of not having enough personnel who can really go and do the work.
Being able to allow some degree of personal flexibility and choice with certain consequences, like our president, President Biden just announced last week that those who choose not to be vaccinated in private companies, they will have to be tested on a weekly basis. So managing all of that, dealing with the fallout in the workplace has been huge.

I think over this pandemic year and a half, a lot of the work I’ve been doing with my clients is related to messaging about the whole pandemic and how are we going to continue to do our business in spite of it and managing the emotions of people in the workplace. Initially, fear, fear of dying, fear of bringing some kind of contaminant home to their families. And now it’s a fear of being poisoned by vaccines and other things. I mean, there’s always something.
And it’s not even the core work of the business, but it affects the ability of the business to do its core work.

Patrick Daly: Yup. I guess these challenges, the fear and the regulations and the resistance, are giving rise to shortages, shortages of personnel that then turn into shortages of service and shortages of supply and so on. This is why I think everybody is talking about supply chain, right? Like years ago, nobody ever spoke about supply chain. It was there and your yogurt turned up in the fridge and your newspaper turned up and your download turned up and the whole thing was there.

And now everybody from television reporters to politicians are talking about supply chain. What are you noticing in the US now with regards to supply chain knock on effects of these difficulties that people and companies are having?

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: Yes. Thank you, Patrick, for that question. Let me frame it in this way. My expertise is in leadership. I’m always looking at the leadership lens of supply chain or whatever else my customers are facing. Here’s what I see, and you’re right that there is definitely a talent challenge because I have some clients that are working in very specialized industries that require a lot of expertise on the part of the workforce. You can’t just hire someone off the street.

They’ve got to have gone to specialized schools to learn the craft of the business that they’re working in for the construction industry and so on. Those people are hard to find. Depending on where the client is located, it may be difficult to attract a person to that geographic location and particularly at the salary rates that the person wants or with the benefits that they may be accustomed to. For example, if they’re moving from New York to Colorado, that’s not going to feel like a good deal for them.

Although the cost of living is lower in Colorado, but they may not understand all of those dynamics. You have those kind of issues for sure with personnel keeping enough to really do the work. In addition, I think what’s really going on now with customers, customers are less flexible than they had been in the past. With that being the case, a lot of I’ll call them one sided sort of contracts written everything’s in favor of the general contractor and so on.
And those who are the suppliers and deliverers of the specific services, who would normally be my clients, they’re sort of left to hold the bag of if things don’t go right, even if the general contractor did not do what they was supposed to do and it causes the calendar to shift in an unfavorable way. They’re much more likely nowadays to apply the liquidated damages approach and really charge exorbitant fees to people because maybe they can’t meet the debt.

And not just because of failings on their own part, but the job sites weren’t ready from the GC point of view and all of that. I think we’re dealing with a lot of those kinds of issues, as well as employees thinking, “Do I really want to work 24/7 because we’ve got personnel shortages? Maybe I’ll retire early, or maybe I’ll just stay home with my family.” There’s all of that.

Patrick Daly: There’s a lot of pressures from different sides coming on. I have noticed quite a few people, professionals in particular, reassessing their career priorities. Have you seen that? I’ve seen some people make some spectacular are very surprising changes.

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: Absolutely. What we cannot forget is what is going on in people’s personal lives. This really varies significantly from person to person and also different ethnic and cultural groups. For example, in the United States, African American and Native American people are disported negatively affected by the virus and also the vaccine. Some people have got to make decisions about needing to be home to care for relatives that are going through difficult scenarios, or they’re going through a lot of personal loss, a lot of deaths amongst family and friends.

It does call to question, what’s important to me? Where do I want to spend my remaining years and my time? The priority may shift from the workplace more decidedly let’s say to the family or personal interests, because I think death has shown people life is short. Life is short.

Patrick Daly: Do you work internationally, Karen, as well as in the US?

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: Oh yes. In fact, over the I’d say 30 plus years that I’ve been doing consulting, my business has always been international. I’ve worked in Germany, worked in France, worked in Belgium, worked in Bahrain in the Middle East, worked in Saudi Arabia, all kinds of places. And that’s been over the years now and the last Canada, that’s right up right above us. I have worked often enough in Canada. I actually had a work permit there to do some work with clients I had in Canada. Since the pandemic, I’ve been working predominantly in the US.
Although if it’s a larger company, those global companies have historically also had operations elsewhere. My work has always involved speaking with leaders in other countries, even if it’s a country I didn’t go to. For example, I’ve worked with leaders in China, India, and so on. I never went there, but sometimes they came here or we worked virtually on a platform similar to this. But before we had these platforms, companies had their own telephone, and so on. So yeah, always in the past globally.

My family is less excited about me working globally now, as you know, in comparison to the past. When I went to the Middle East, Saudi Arabia, it was right after some bombings of some American territory and things and they were worried to death. They didn’t know if I’d come back alive or not. There’s always a safety issue too.

Patrick Daly: Over the last 30 years or so, there’s been increasing globalization. It’s become easier to do business overseas, to move money, to communicate, to exchange ideas, and so on. But in the last four, five, six years, here in Europe we had Brexit, then you had Trump election in the US and he kind of moved things away from multilateralism. We’ve had the pandemic as well, which has kind of caused countries or regions to close in on themselves.
Where do you think we are in this process of globalization? Has it stopped? Are we in reverse? Is this just a blip, or is it changing form? What do you think?

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: I think everything in this season is changing form, I’ll say. I’ll put it that way. I think globalization is here to stay. I don’t think that anyone’s closed the door on that. And in fact, some of these virtual formats have increased the kinds of conversations that we can have with people globally without necessarily having to travel. I think that if this had been five years ago, you and I might not even be talking in this format. I think there are more opportunities. It’s probably going to look a little different in the future.
We don’t even know exactly what that might mean. I think there’s so much to be gained from globalization that you’re not going to be able to put that genie back in the bottle. That’s what I think.

Patrick Daly: As we come towards the end now, maybe I’ll just change gear and just ask you a little bit about yourself. What kind of things do you like to do in your spare time when you’re not working and so on?

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: And when there’s not a pandemic.

Patrick Daly: And there’s not a pandemic on.

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: One thing I can do all the time, pandemic or not, I love reading. I love reading books, I’m reading things all the time. My favorite place to go for relaxation, vacation, and a refresh of the mind is the ocean. It’s at the ocean that I really feel the sense of I call it the awe of God in creating the universe.

Patrick Daly: I know I make you envious now. If I look out the top window of my house, I can see the ocean.

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: Oh my gosh. Yes, because that’s where I always go.

Patrick Daly: You’re in Colorado Springs, right? You’re in the middle of the country?

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: I can look out the window and see Pike’s Peak, which is a wonderful site. We’ve got mountains here. I grew up in the US on the East Coast on the Atlantic Ocean. That’s where my heart is, is always the ocean. It doesn’t have to be Atlantic. I love the Pacific. I love any ocean. I’d come to Dublin and be at that ocean as well. That’s my favorite. Because other things I enjoy, I love international travel. I like meeting people from different countries, different cultures and engaging with them. That’s fun to me. I love Broadway theater in New York.
There’s nothing that beats that when I’m in New York and just going to a play. I love musicals, but I love straight plays, just straight drama. That’s one of my favorites. And then music, music in small venues like watching a jazz ensemble or something like that.

Patrick Daly: Are you reading anything at the moment or any audio books or podcasts that are inspiring you that you would recommend?

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: Yeah. Let me mention a couple of podcasts that I find interesting. One is a podcast. The host is out of the UK. The podcast is called The Business Elevation Show with Chris Cooper. He recently just celebrated 10 years of doing his podcast. He was an early adopter to the technology. One of the things I love about his show is he brings interesting people who are not only doing great work and challenging themselves, they’re also giving back to society in some profound ways. I find a show inspiring in that way.

I also would recommend JV Crum III, who has numerous, but the two that I really like is a brand new one that’s called Limitless, because it’s all about taking yourself outside of the constraints and the boxes to really do more than you thought you could do, and the Conscious Millionaire Podcast. He’s written a book on that as well. Those are the podcasts I’d recommend. As far as books now, this will seem like an odd one maybe to have on the list. I find the Bible to be an excellent book to read, even though it’s older and ancient.

Patrick Daly: I believe it’s a bestseller, right? I believe that book is a bestseller.

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: It’s a bestseller. There’s a lot for life in it. I read it every day. That’s one of the books that’s always on my list. And then may be a bit more traditional, a book by Kevin Harrington, who’s one of the Shark Tank originals, and Daniel Priestley’s called a Key Person of Influence. I really like that book because not only is it useful for individuals to think about how to be more influential, I find the principles applicable to my clients and to their businesses as well.

And then a third book I’d say is by Earl Nightingale, and this book is from the success culture and industry. He was a radio host back in the ’50s, wrote many books, but one that I really like is called Lead the Field. And again, it’s being a leader in whatever it is that you do, and it talks about the mindset that’s important behind that.

Patrick Daly: Excellent. Where can people find out more about you and your work and how can they contact you if they wish to?

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: They can find out about me from my website, which is They can also write to me at doctor, dr.karen, K-A-R-E-N, They can also find my podcast, The Voice of Leadership, and listen to that as well.

Patrick Daly: Excellent. It’s been an absolute pleasure, Karen, talking to you today, and I wish you every success both personally and professionally.

Dr. Karen Y. Wilson Starks: Thank you so much, Patrick. A delight to speak with you as well. Thank you for having me on your show.

Patrick Daly: You’re very welcome and thanks to all our listeners for tuning in. Any comments or questions, just drop me a line on pdaly, P-D-A-L-Y, @albalogistics, A-L-B-A Keep well and stay safe. Until next time.

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Patrick Daly Interlinks Podcast

Interlinks is a programme about the connections, relationships and supply chains, that underpin the globalisation of our modern world.

In each programme, we interview people from around the world including entrepreneurs, executives, academics, diplomats and politicians to get their unique perspective on globalisation as it has affected them both personally and professionally.

There is a little bit of history, a dash of economics, a sprinkling of business and an overlay of personal experience both from me and from my interviewees from around the world.

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