Leadership Matters

Perspectives on the key issues impacting senior leaders and their organizations
March 26, 2021

Taking a Bold Path to the CHRO Position

From the start of her career in HR, Karen Anderson decided that being a provocative, truth-telling executive could help propel both the organizations she worked for and herself. But it took some time in her career, she said, to understand how best to use those attributes.

“You have to have the courage for truth-telling,” Anderson said. “Number two, though, is that you have to combine that with EQ and an understanding of how best to influence people. If you can do that, you’re going to be very important to an organization.”

It’s a strategy that has served her well as CHRO of Mimecast, a cybersecurity services company she joined in 2019. After a career that included high-level HR positions in pharma and healthcare at Bayer, Baxter Healthcare, Pfizer, Biogen and Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, she immediately transformed Mimecast’s HR function, said Mimecast CEO Peter Bauer, elevating its status internally, clarifying the firm’s values and helping take a people-driven approach to dealing internally with the COVID-19 crisis.

“One of the things that really struck me is how you would never know that she had not been in tech and cybersecurity her whole career,” Bauer said. “It speaks to her own business acumen. It’s a people business and the people skills and management issues are very similar. For the parts that are different, she’s done a remarkable job.”

Anderson is one several HR leaders we’ve spoken with for a series of conversations about the CHRO career path and the elements of success in that position. In this interview, shortened for brevity, we talk with Anderson about what she’s learned in her career, the skills that helped her reach her position and when is the right time to speak up (and when isn’t).

Did you plan to take the CHRO path?

No. I had no thoughts of being a CHRO. I knew I was motivated by creating impact and stimulating and creating a debate. That's where I got my energy from — not from the title, but from the debate.

Early in my career, I discovered, and maybe naively, that being provocative and a truth-teller, while risky, does get you noticed. If you've done your homework, it can accelerate your career tremendously. It can also derail everything, and you have to be prepared for that.

One of my bosses, she was amazing. Very stoic, very matter of fact. It was a baptism by fire with her, and I learned a lot about how to channel that boldness. She told me, “Influence isn't just a power thing.” There are many different ways to influence people, in the moment and over time, and you have to understand how to do that. It was one of the most important lessons I learned.

You recently shifted your career into the tech industry after years in pharma and biotech. Was that a conscious shift?

It was a conscious shift. I had had biotech offers, but I was thinking about how I could get stimulated again. I felt that intellectually, part of the joy I get in HR is connecting business issues with people issues. I think I have skills and abilities to be able to ask business questions around structure or future viability around some market positioning of the company, and therefore connect that to the capabilities and the people. I felt that it would be a good challenge, and instead of simply lending my skills to an organization, it would also further my growth.

I think my “aha” is that people are people. That all begins to translate — human behaviors, leadership, culture and engagement, it's all sort of agnostic to industry, even if it’s relative to the company and the model they have. How do people react emotionally? How do leaders go through growth curves? How do employees react to certain engagement techniques? That part was all very familiar.

I think I underestimated how challenging the role can be when you're used to being the person at the table that had all the information around how a business works, and now you have to start over. You’re back to being quite vulnerable. If you've consciously chosen to be vulnerable, you probably can handle it, because you put yourself in that position and you can talk yourself through the anxiety. But if you haven't really thought about that, that can be really challenging because you're not as confident to interject, compared to an industry you had been part of for 25 years.

You and your family have made a number of geographic moves. How did that play into your career?

I think I'm an anomaly. I tell people that when people tell me I should talk to female leaders about my career, I say, "Yeah, I think that'd be cool, but take it with a grain of salt." I had a husband who gave up his career completely to take on additional responsibilities to support my career and be a stay-at-home dad supporting three children. That's not always achievable. I was fortunate to enough have a very good professional situation and a husband who was comfortable with that role.