Michael Gewirtzman is the Sr. Manager of Thought Leadership at IVY, where he curates today’s most influential voices to educate and inspire the IVY community. After a nearly decade-long career as an executive in the music industry, he discovered a passion for producing meaningful and impactful content, first for leadership minded college students across the country, and now for IVY and its members.

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When Karen Kaplan interviewed to be the Receptionist at Hill Holliday in 1982, one of the country’s leading PR and Marketing firms, her goal was to save money to pay for law school.

Little did she know that she would hold 16 more positions at the organization before being named its CEO and Chairman. In her role, Kaplan has overseen such high profile marketing campaigns as America Runs on Dunkin.

Karen and I sat down to discuss her story, and the lessons that she learned in each of these unique roles at a recent IVY Ideas Night in Boston hosted from the Hill Holliday headquarters.

Be the CEO of Your Job

According to Kaplan, throughout her climb within the company, her mentality stayed the same.  “I considered myself the CEO of the reception desk, and that’s how I approached the job. I considered myself the CEO of every job I had, and every account I ran.” By the time she took on the role as Chairman, she had a strong advantage.

“I knew exactly what kind of changes I wanted to make. I felt like it was a luxury to become the CEO at the same place I grew up in.”

It was that perspective that also allowed her the opportunity to truly learn what was needed to be a successful CEO.

“The two most important qualities in a CEO are empathy and humility.”  Kaplan said. “Empathy was easy to me because I had walked a mile in everybody’s shoes.  Humility came from starting at the bottom, and step by step, making my way to the top.”

Traits of Success: What Can Be Taught, and What Can’t

Similarly, there are some incredibly important traits that Kaplan looks for in any new hire.

“I look for people who are curious, open, and collaborative. I can teach you everything else,” she explained. “You have to be more impressed with what you don’t know than what you know.” This was followed by the public acknowledgement of her current receptionist, along with her former receptionist, Britt Dunn — who now holds the roll of Kaplan’s Chief of Stuff — a title that truly shows appreciation for how much Dunn does.

Most importantly though, it’s a strong sense of self that Karen believes needs to be instilled in each individual throughout their career. “I feel very strongly that you have to be authentic. You’ve got to be true to yourself, and you can get to where you want by being who you are.  If you have to compromise your values or core beliefs, it’s not worth it.”

Kaplan also put a strong emphasis on the ability to be comfortable and confident in expressing yourself; a lesson she learned the hard way at times. “There were many times when I was in a meeting, and I was the only woman, or the youngest person in the room, and I didn’t speak up when I had an idea.” Ultimately, someone else would say what she was thinking and be applauded.  “I would encourage you all to not do that. Particularly women.”

The Power of Community: What Really Matters

Finally, in her tools for success, Karen spoke with the IVY community about continuing to do exactly what they are doing now.

“Belonging to communities like IVY is a really smart way to develop your brand,” she said. “You have to think about every interaction.  Put yourself out there. Put your ideas out there.”

It is that type of support system that has helped Kaplan to get to where she is today.  “I have what I call my personal board of directors,” Kaplan explained.

Throughout it all, it is a simple philosophy that has kept Kaplan at the same organization throughout her career, and a philosophy that resonated true with members. “I am a big believer in going where you are celebrated, not where you are tolerated.”

As the evening came to a close, IVY members waited in a long line to chat with Kaplan, who — along with her Chief of Stuff — spent time speaking with each individual: another sign that she is truly authentic, and got exactly where she wanted to be by being exactly who she is.