November 4, 2019
Board work is such a rewarding way to keep yourself sharp, use your skills and give back.
Karen Grabow is not one to sit idle. An industrial/organizational psychologist with a self-described “short attention span,” she gravitates to opportunities that spark her curiosity and challenge her intellect. Often, that means juggling multiple engagements that feed her passions.
“I always overcommit. I’ve accepted that—it’s just who I am,” she said.
Non-profit boards help build your muscle and credibility for corporate board service
Corporate board service fits the bill perfectly. It leverages Grabow’s diverse background as a chief human resources officer, psychologist, consultant, business development leader and assistant professor, while simultaneously providing a platform for continued growth. Her career highlights include transformative stints with Target and Land O’Lakes.
“During my tenure, both of those organizations were transitioning from holding companies of diverse businesses to operating companies. I was in the trenches with a number of truly exceptional leaders, and learned a great deal about helping organizations through change and challenge,” she recalled.
Twin Cities Business magazine recently honored Grabow as an Outstanding Director for her nine years on the Fairview Health Services board. She shared with us why board service is rewarding, what makes a good director and how Navigate Forward can help executives shorten the distance to their first board seat.
From Small Non-Profits to Formal Governance
Grabow’s board journey began in the 1990s, when she joined the committee of a local non-profit. That experience triggered a non-profit board opportunity. One engagement led to the next. Over the next decade, she served with multiple non-profits and associations, rising to chair of the Blake School Board of Trustees, president of the Minnesota Women’s Economic Roundtable and president of the Minnesota Professionals for Psychology Applied to Work.
With board work, you’re not dealing with the mundane. I’m constantly growing on this board.
The work provided diverse experience and exposure to a range of strong leaders. It also led to more formal governance roles with larger organizations.
“Non-profit boards help build your muscle and credibility for corporate board service,” she explained. “You want to join non-profit organizations that are well regarded and well run, where your fellow board members are strong leaders.”
The opportunity to work in healthcare drew Grabow to Fairview Health Services. She joined the board in 2010. Where many see an industry facing daunting challenges, Grabow reacts with excitement.
“Healthcare is the most complex industry there is,” she stated. “An astonishing number of stakeholders with different, often competing interests. A dizzying pace of change. It’s very challenging.”
She added, “With Fairview and the University of Minnesota coming together to form the new MHealth Fairview, there are such exciting opportunities for innovation that benefit our state and our region.”
Chaired Search Committee for New CEO
On the Fairview board, Grabow first chaired the HR committee, overseeing CEO performance, executive compensation, engagement, succession and culture. Currently, she chairs the audit and compliance committee as it monitors enterprise risk management.
The variety appeals to her as well as Fairview’s mission in the community.
“With board work, you’re not dealing with the mundane,” she noted. “Board members get to wrestle with important dilemmas. I’m constantly growing on this board.”
She added, “It’s an interesting balancing act. Your mission is to both challenge and support the executives. You’re valued for bringing an independent perspective, but you’re also there to support the leadership team.”
It’s an interesting balancing act. Your mission is to both challenge and support the executives
Her background in psychology and previous HR experience led to the role Grabow describes as her “best accomplishment” with Fairview to date. In 2015, she chaired the search committee that hired James Hereford, the current CEO.
“James is deeply knowledgeable and a remarkably clear thinker about healthcare,” she said. “The search committee recognized he was exceptional pretty immediately, and did a great job luring him here from California.”
Boards Bypass ‘Brilliant But Difficult’ Candidates
Grabow’s practical nature, affinity for data and critical thinking make her a strong director. It gives her a unique perspective on the requirements for corporate boards which she uses in her Board Readiness engagements with Navigate Forward.
“There’s no one profile of any candidate,” Grabow explained. “In my case, my academic and career experiences give me a great appreciation for rigor and discipline. At the same time, my corporate life enables me to be very pragmatic. It’s a really good combo.”
Boards want people who will speak up and participate, but in a way that is facilitative and respectful.
Grabow cited several in-demand competencies for directors, including financial skills, operational oversight, cybersecurity, HR and digital marketing. However, she emphasized that this functional expertise is not enough to land a board seat. Traits like thought leadership and collaboration are equally valued.
“Being a good team player, easy to get along with, shouldn’t be underestimated,” she noted. “I’ve seen it happen, where people who are known to be brilliant but difficult are passed by.”
She added, “Boards want people who will speak up and participate, but in a way that is facilitative and respectful. Someone able to engage in honest conversation, but savvy about moving things forward, rather than being obstructionist.”
Board Readiness Service Provides Structure and Discipline
At Navigate Forward, Grabow helps senior leaders as they seek their first corporate board role. She guides their branding and search strategy, and serves as sounding board and advisor.
“It’s enormously helpful to have the structure and discipline that the Board Readiness service provides,” she said. “We help people position themselves and their experience in a way that’s most likely to lead to success.”
It’s enormously helpful to have the structure and discipline that the Board Readiness service provides.”
Thought leadership is a particularly important concept, and one that’s often missing from a typical executive resume. Grabow cautions board candidates to “stop talking about your tactical accomplishments, and start talking about the contributions you can make at the level of strategy and thought leadership.”
She added, “It means packaging your expertise in a way that helps an organization understand what’s cutting edge. It’s something I see everybody having to wrestle with.”
With nearly a decade on the Fairview Health Services board, Grabow continues to be enthusiastic about her role and looks forward to tackling new challenges for the organization.
“This is such a rewarding way to keep yourself sharp, use your skills and give back,” she noted. “It’s a great capstone to a career.”
Start Your Board Journey. Whether you’re ready to add value beyond your day job, or considering an encore career, we can help you achieve your goals. Learn more about our Board Readiness service.