In 2015 I had the pleasure of seeing Karen Bowes, The Head of International HR at Capital One, speak at Nottingham City Business Club. Much of what Karen said about building a positive Culture, where people are truly supported in being the best they can be resonated with me greatly and many in the audience. I recently had the opportunity to spend an hour with Karen to talk more on her thoughts about developing businesses in the modern world.

10 tips to stay ahead in the new world - Karen BowesKaren has been at Capital One for 13 years first as lead employment counsel and then leading the HR function for over 2000 employees across the UK and Canada. At Capital One there is a culture of high expectation of their people and this is coupled with a servant leadership culture, where people are truly supported and respected by leaders via a flatter structure and much less focus on the command and control structure of the past. The Culture is ingrained in the DNA at Capital One, with Vision statements displayed in large moulded letters around the building. The focus on Culture works, as they have a sticky culture where people are treated well and typically stay in the business even through the rapid pace of change.

In this latest “Inspiring Leaders” blog, we change format slightly and I share Karen’s 10 tips to stay ahead in the new and fast changing world we all face as business leaders.

  1. Find and keep a focus on the Why – Karen believes in understanding the internal and external purpose for the people and the business. The sweet spot is when both of these are fulfilled. I have talked about Purpose in previous blogs and passionately believe all businesses need to understand their internal and external purpose too.
  2. Spot the most powerful actions and apply ruthless focus – For any business it is critical to spot what brings the best results and to ensure this is a key part of the focus.
  3. Flip not manage and then assess your new reality – We all should work against a vision, but Karen uses a great analogy of climbing a mountain in relation to this. When we reach a summit on the climb, the next stage is then seen from a new perspective, so we need to continually re-assess and take our new view on board.
  4. Find brilliant people to accelerate your thinking – At Capital One there is a firm belief that bringing in different people will disrupt in a good way. It challenges current thinking and should be embraced to change thinking where this is needed.
  5. Enable your people to act with autonomy – I touched on this in the introduction and this is an important part of the Capital One Culture, as it should be for all organisations large and small. People are connected and engaged by the Purpose at Capital One and then empowered to move the business forward.
  6. Awesome people leaders unleash greatness – The utopia view here is that you don’t need to know what the people do. It is about supporting and coaching people, not telling and directing. So great people leaders at Capital One are great coaches. Karen believes sport is a good metaphor for this.
  7. Flat not stack and democratise information – Karen believes in centralising knowledge and making it available more openly, to build an agile and trusting environment. Information can so often be over protected and controlled and should often be shared more maturely.
  8. Assume all constraints are debatable – At the organisation people are encouraged to “Just ask why?”. We all need the context for rules and sometimes this needs to be challenged.
  9. Get creative with your space – Like Google and Microsoft, Capital One provide a stimulating environment for their people. Games rooms, music rooms, vast open spaces are all designed to stimulate and bring camaraderie. There is also a great focus on people’s well being with courses in mindfulness and education on nutrition.
  10. Be resilient and weather the change storm – Karen believes in failing smartly and fast. Mistakes are made, but the Culture is one of acknowledging and learning from this and moving on speedily. New people change the climate and the thinking and help Capital One stay ahead with the ongoing pace of change.

It was fascinating to spend an hour talking to Karen about her thinking and the Culture at Capital One and I hope all business leaders find something in the 10 tips they can apply to their business in this new world.