Be Tenacious and Take Control of Your Career
Karna Crawford is a Managing Director at JPMorgan Chase, leading marketing strategy, media and digital for the company’s Consumer Bank. She’s helping to transform how America’s largest bank tells their story and connects with people across the creation of advertising, content, technology and personal experiences.
On several fronts, Karna is an impressive figure. She studied Biomedical Engineering, transitioned into marketing, and eventually earned an MBA from Emory University. Her career blossomed at marketing agencies, as well as corporations such as Miller Brewing and The Coca-Cola Company. In the fall of 2014, she joined JPMorgan Chase.
In the following article, Karna shares insights on her path, career mobility, and how to drive change in a large organization.
What were your early years like?
I grew up in a lower-middle class family, raised by a single mother. When I was in the 5th grade, we moved from Indiana to Atlanta, so I claim the A as my home. My mom was a federal government paralegal, and she made many sacrifices so my younger brother and I could live in a relatively nice neighborhood and receive a top education.
Much of my success is thanks to my mom making deliberate choices about where we were raised and where we went to school. She worked multiple jobs and worked hard to give us the best chance at achieving success in our lives and careers. Whether it was choices in managing household bills, foregoing simple “pleasures” for herself, or basically having to live a more challenging life financially to be able to plan ahead for our future, she was willing to do what was necessary for us. We didn’t struggle as much, financially, as many of my friends growing up did, but we certainly had challenges making ends meet from month to month. I remember one year, when I got my braces off, I couldn’t get a retainer because we had to choose between the retainer and the school bill. It seems small, but that’s what a middle-class squeeze looks like. I share this example because it helps explain what laid the foundation for who I am today, and how I got here. I am tenacious, deliberate, and always striving to be my best, to make my mom’s sacrifices worth it.
Growing up, what’d you think you’d want to do professionally?
When I was a kid, the jobs that people around me talked about were mostly trade, retail and modest professional roles. The aspirational ones included law, medicine and engineering. I’ve always been good at math and science, so I thought it made sense to study engineering. I was just thinking about being a good engineer—becoming a corporate executive wasn’t even in the stratosphere of consideration.
Once I began my degree work in college, I realized that my passion is connecting with people, more so than with things. I began working in basic roles at a marketing agency, on huge programs like the Olympics. I remember one of my first jobs was spending six hours a day plunging my hand into an ice water bucket to give away free samples of POWERade at an event. As simple as the job was, it provided me an opportunity to connect with people directly. Over time, I gained more experiences, and I learned that marketing was not only a viable and energizing career, but ONE that I LOVED. I began to realize that marketing was the truest marriage of my strengths in analytical thinking and my passion for creativity and connecting with people.
How have you built a career as a transformer, in marketing?
I think in my heart, I’m inherently a builder and a tinkerer, evidenced by my engineering bent. Thus, my nature is to continuously learn and improve the work and the businesses that I and my teams lead in order to drive the business forward. This was true, even early on in my career.
The pivotal point when I recognized my abilities as a leader and change agent came when I was at Coca-Cola. I was tasked with transforming how we delivered media and digital for brands like Coca-Cola, Diet Coke and Sprite in North America. This change included not only evangelizing great ideas, but also shifting mindsets, motivating a team in an entirely new way, building new skills and capabilities, and adapting how we got work done. It was an extremely challenging experience, and I loved it tremendously. It made me truly realize that I run to challenges and I thrive in setting a vision and guiding a team through the change management to get there.
So, that was a key turning point. I put myself on the path to become a Chief Marketing Officer – rooted in all of the well-rounded capabilities I was building. Nearly every other role I’ve had since then has been focused on transformation.
What’s the trickiest part of driving change across a large organization?
Change is fundamentally about people. And the larger the organization, the more challenging it is to engage people to drive change. Being a transformational leader takes tenacity. But you also need to be patient with yourself, and the people around you – and still have a sense of urgency. You need to have thick skin, because driving change inherently means challenging mindsets. You’ll have people who will adopt quickly, and some people will resist. You have to be willing to break glass, but be empathetic and supportive in the process.
As a leader at JPMorgan Chase, I brought forward a number of past experiences to help achieve this in my current role. Additionally, our wealth of leadership and executive training in the Leadership Edge and the Advancing Black Leaders program have really helped me to hone my skills, establish new ones, and really thrive in my role with the company.
How do you continuously improve?
I seek constant feedback from my team, my peers and the truth-tellers around me. That helps me get better at the small things – and the big things, like driving transformation. To grow, you have to listen.
What’s the most misunderstood thing about career mobility?
That it’s your boss’s job to drive your career. Too often, I’ve heard people ask their bosses, “What are you going to do to help me do X?” Or “I’m not going anywhere because my manager isn’t doing Y.” My job, as a manger and developer of talent, in support of your career growth, is to do a couple things: First, if you don’t know what you want to do with your career, I’m here to help you find clarity and focus. Once you have clarity, my job is to present opportunities, support skill and capability development and eliminate barriers, so that you are best positioned for career mobility. But you have to own defining, seeking and driving that mobility to fruition.
Most recently, I’ve helped one of my employees define her career path and map out a development plan. She had been struggling to find a path and remain excited about her future. I guided her through how to network throughout the firm, and she used that to meet new hiring managers, establish new relationships, expand her existing projects to create connections with those new hiring managers, and as a result, find roles that fit her plan. She has just recently been promoted into a new Executive Director role, in a different part of the business. Her tenacity and ownership of working the plan paid off.
Ultimately, we control our own career mobility.
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