New Council Chair Looks to the Future
The morning after attending the Rolling Stones’ late October performance in Minneapolis, Karen Himle is up bright and early, talking about the future of public affairs. “The Stones played for more than two hours, and I’m still charged up,” said Himle, elected as the Council’s 2021-22 chair at its Fall Board Meeting, October 18-19.
“The Stones are amazing because they keep their concerts fresh. We took our daughter, who is 27. There were a lot of gray heads in that crowd, but a lot of younger people, too. The first time the Stones were here was in 1964 – 57 years ago – and they are still drawing new audiences!”
Himle, senior vice president of corporate and government affairs for Thrivent Financial, sees the public affairs profession as dynamic and ever-changing too, entering a new and exciting phase of its history. Himle plans to create a Committee for the Future to identify the unique challenges the profession will face in coming years “and consider how the Council staff and leadership can most effectively respond,” as she said in her inaugural speech to the Council board in mid-October.
“This committee won’t just be an executive committee where everyone looks like me, but a global and multi-generational group — a pipeline to figure out our role in the future,” she says. “We’ve seen a lot of changes in the way we define our mission in the work we do. In a few short years, corporations have moved from corporate philanthropy through cause-related marketing to corporate social responsibility. We’re now beginning to develop our expertise in ESG — or environmental, social and governance reporting — which is part of a larger effort to define environmental and societal impact and how it can be measured.”
‘Our Acceleration Point’
Himle finds it “exciting that the work we do is never static. This is our acceleration point, where the pace of change will quicken. The Committee for the Future will be our own accelerator, a think tank that will help us prepare for the next decade,” she says. “For example, we know the power of social media has increased the pace of change in public affairs, but none of us can predict what the impact of the next generation of social media will be. Together we can get a better understanding of the possibilities and prepare for the future.”
Himle, who has been with Thrivent since 2014, was formerly executive vice president of the Minneapolis office of the executive search firm DHR International. Before that, she worked for The St. Paul Cos. — now Travelers Cos. — as senior vice president for corporate and government affairs. She has been executive vice president and president of the foundation at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota and served as vice president for university relations at the University of Minnesota. She is married to John Himle, who was Council chair in 2011.
Ground Zero for Racial Justice
As a Minneapolis-area resident, Himle “was at ground zero for the re-awakened push for racial justice, because it was here that George Floyd was murdered. There is so much work to be done, as we know from the Council’s own Public Affairs Pulse survey. That survey found that 40% of the country thinks racism in this country is getting worse. And despite the billions of dollars pledged in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, we also know that only 22% of Americans believe that the business community is having a positive impact on the problem.”
She cites a Washington Post analysis that determined that only a small fraction of the dollars raised after Floyd’s murder has gone to organizations focused on criminal justice reform. That might account for why a lot of Americans seem to believe the business community “is just throwing money at the problem, without assessing where it is most needed,” Himle says.
“Many Americans also think corporations aren’t doing nearly enough, so big companies clearly face an expectations problem. It’s possible that good work is being done, but the public just doesn’t know about it. Or perhaps it is just too soon to see meaningful improvement. The takeaway here might be that we need to be more thoughtful and strategic in our social engagement to know exactly what we are trying to accomplish and to what extent we are succeeding in these efforts. So there is a clear need for the Council, and the entire public affairs profession, to take the leadership in this challenge.”
This is also where a more deliberate understanding of ESG comes in. “We’ve moved way past the idea that a business’s sole responsibility is making money and returning a profit for stockholders,” Himle says. “The ‘E’ in ESG is readily understandable because it refers to the environment and the ‘G’ is evolving because it involves questions of corporate governance and diversity in the board room – but we’re still defining the ‘S.’ Much of this comes together in our efforts to develop what I think of as ‘collective action for meaningful impact,’ but we have yet to arrive at a meaningful and actionable definition of ‘social.’”
Beyond the Immediate
Council President Doug Pinkham says Himle “is the right leader to guide us in a long-term, thoughtful way. She has always looked beyond the immediate and knows the limitations of thinking quarter-to-quarter. Karen’s background working in many different sectors enables her to understand how major economic, political and social changes affect different types of organizations. As you can imagine, that’s an invaluable skill for a Council chair.”
Himle is also a good example of a genuine “lifelong learner” who does more than give lip service to that ideal. She has a B.S. degree in business administration as well as a law degree from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. But more recently she earned an MA in systematic theology from Luther Seminary in St. Paul, with a concentration in ethics.
“It took me six years to earn that degree, conferred in 2018, because this was in midcareer,” she says. “I’d already seen a good deal of the corporate world and how decisions are made and how calamitous some of these decisions can be. I wanted to develop a deeper understanding of how a leader’s moral foundation influences their decision-making,”
Himle said that for her it all comes back to the idea of stewardship. “I came away from my seminary experience with an appreciation of creatio continua, which is Latin for the idea that God’s creation ‘continually creates’ itself. I think that is true of our own profession. We are continuously in the process of creating our own future and figuring out what it might be and what our contribution could be. That’s pretty powerful!”
Progress Is Evolutionary
She is quick to point out, however, that this process is evolutionary. “I’ll just be building on the good work of my predecessors, such as Charlene Lake, Pete Slone and Peter Wilkinson, who understood the importance of workforce development and expanding the pipeline of people of color into our leadership ranks. Each of them understood that we must operationalize DEI so it is a business management function and not merely another form of CSR,” Himle says. “We also need younger people in leadership positions — younger people like I saw last night at the Stones concert.”
Himle is not just a music lover but an optimist. “I’ve been involved with the Minnesota Orchestra for many years and served as a board member through the labor dispute that resulted in the lockout of musicians and the cancelation of concerts for many months,” she says. “People wondered if we’d ever come back. Well, I’m thrilled to say we are back, with live concerts at Orchestra Hall and virtual concerts during the height of the pandemic. The Orchestra leveraged the challenges to renew itself. Things have a way of working out if we are thoughtful about how we approach the challenges we face.”
During the October Board Meeting, the Council also announced new members of its Executive Committee and Board of Directors.
New Executive Committee members are:
- Greg Crist, chief advocacy officer and head of external affairs, Advanced Medical Technology Association
- John Galligan, general manager of global public affairs, Microsoft Corp.
- Molly Njeru Ryan, vice president of government affairs and policy, Global Blood Therapeutics
- Scott Orr, vice president of government relations and public affairs, Fidelity Investments
- Erin Streeter, senior vice president of communications and brand strategy, National Association of Manufacturers