I'm excited to share my interview with Karen Base, an exceptional leader in business and technology, known for her innovative and forward-thinking approach. In our conversation, Karen shares insights that blend traditional and modern practices in dynamic workplace environments.
Key highlights include:
- Innovative Leadership and Mentorship: Karen discusses her role as a visionary leader, emphasizing the importance of mentorship and apprenticeship in fostering innovation and engagement. Her approach reflects a unique blend of personal growth and professional evolution, especially significant in smaller, mission-driven companies.
- Fractional CTO and Technological Adaptability: She introduces the concept of the fractional CTO, an agile solution for businesses seeking expert guidance without a full-time executive. Karen also shares her perspectives on adapting to rapid technological changes, drawing on her experiences at the TED AI conference.
- Overcoming Remote Work Challenges: Reflecting on the post-pandemic work environment, Karen provides insights into overcoming isolation in remote settings and suggests ways to maintain connection and community despite physical distances.
- Guidance for Today's Business Landscape: The interview offers invaluable advice for navigating the intersections of technology, leadership, and mentorship. Karen's thoughts provide actionable insights for shaping a dynamic, inclusive business world.
Join me in exploring Karen Base's impactful perspectives, a guiding light in today's business environment. Your thoughts and feedback are welcome in the comments or by email.
To your forward-thinking life & great success!
Shaping Leaders of Tomorrow | Driving Innovation & Transformation in Professional Growth & Workplace Excellence
Q1: How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Karen: I love that question, and this is a very forward-thinking question. There is value in learning from our past to create forward-thinking workplaces. Something I've seen work well dates back decades when I was just a young professional venturing into the real world. What worked well in that environment was an apprentice model, where every single individual has a connection with a mentor or teacher, somebody who is aligned with their values and skill set — somebody who's been there, done that, who will help them learn the skills and cultural awareness needed to succeed.
This concept is not new, but we ought to consider the approach's strengths and modernize it for current and future adaptations, leveraging available technologies to increase its effectiveness. McKinsey & Company published an excellent piece on this topic several years ago.
Speaking from my personal experience, I’ve seen the apprentice model work well because you can gain so much from being an apprentice to somebody you admire and connect with at multiple levels.
There's a skill set, a professional level, and a very personal level. I've been assigned mentors I didn't work with because I couldn't connect with them personally. And so the pairing of apprentice to mentor should be well thought out. I think you need to take into account not just skills, not just I want to grow up to be like that person, but some core values play into it because those are the things that stick, that make it effective and makes it fun, quite frankly, for both parties.
So, the apprenticeship model allows everybody to get that personalized attention, and they don't mind getting it. It doesn't come across as somebody's micromanaging me. It comes across as somebody's helping me and helping me avert issues that may be damaging or accelerate my learning.
And so your state of mind shifts from perhaps anxiety to something more positive, seeing work as fun, which naturally leads to a feeling of safety that enables you to be more engaged, valued, and heard. Having this comfort level helps you wake up and look forward to beginning your day because you know somebody's got your back. I don’t want to give the impression that it cannot be scaled effectively in a larger organization. It’s an interconnected web if you zoom out and look at the possibilities of pairings if the culture is such that everyone is expected to learn and mentor/teach. I may be an apprentice to somebody from a skill set perspective, and we're having fun, we're co-creating, and I'm learning a lot from her. I might lean on somebody else about what it takes to think differently than myself. In turn, I would help someone with a product or situation that they are struggling with.
These days, it's easier to connect with a mentor or apprentice. After the pandemic and after we've all been isolated and physically separated, it has become very natural to connect with anybody in the world. We can create virtual workplaces that are quite effective and that allow people to be happy and feel safe, and therefore create an environment for innovation — innovation of process, technology, methodologies, innovation from multiple angles, in multiple areas.
Q2: What do people really lack and long for at work?
Karen: That is a great question for where we are today in history — post-pandemic, in the age of ubiquitous and rapid technology availability. We're continuing to learn to adjust to post-pandemic living and working. How do we operate as a society? How do we show up at work in an effective, productive way that makes us all happier and more balanced?
What I'm seeing, just anecdotally talking to my network, colleagues, friends, and family, seems to be a longing for closeness and interaction.
We're very close to our families in our pods. But now that the world has opened up, some of the problems we must tackle as a society and as a planet require us to work together more closely but from afar.
It's easy to be out of sight, out of mind. It's very real. Managers of people tend to focus on the work and forget about time with the staff. It’s easy to forget the caring and nurturing of the staff they're responsible for growing, advising, and connecting with. So, I feel that connection is lacking for many people up the chain.
There used to be a saying that “It's lonely at the top”. Right now, it's lonely at every level. And so, how do we tackle that? It's about addressing this out-of-sight, out-of-mind mentality, having processes in place, and a culture where you incentivize connections. And it doesn't have to be real-time. It could be a quick text. It could be a message on any social texting or communication collaboration platform to check in on people.
The rate of depression has skyrocketed, I think, as a result of this. It's very convenient to work from home, wherever you are, wherever you want. It is very convenient, but it also creates loneliness. People lack that level of closeness, yet they want the convenience of not having to drive to work every day. Some people like the hybrid model as a way to ease into physical connections again. I do because that helps get me out of the house and talking to people face to face, getting together, elbow to elbow with somebody, with a group, and collaborating and co-creating and doing something meaningful. The bottom line is there's a sense of loneliness, even though we may not feel it as directly all the time, but that is what's missing here.
Q3: Karen, can you explain what a fractional CTO is for those unfamiliar with the term and how it differs from a traditional full-time CTO role?
Karen: So this concept of fractional executive refers to a model that allows a company to hire an experienced chief [fill in the blank] officer on a project basis, part-time basis. You can tap into a network of C-suites for hire for a fraction of the time and a fraction of the cost of a full-time hire. It is such a powerful concept that I started KB Catalyst, LLC, a company to provide this offering.
Let’s take a CTO example… a full-time CTO is on your payroll year-round and is usually responsible for many things internal and external to the organization. Internal operational concerns may involve addressing the following: what are our IT systems doing that’s not optimized? Do we have the right talent to upkeep our infrastructure, prevent and respond to cyber threats, etc.? She or he may be responsible for the company's strategic concerns.
Other responsibilities may also include advising the Board of Directors on technology-driven or enabled growth strategies, educating their peers about technology trends, and addressing areas like how we can be more competitive and differentiated in the market. A full-time CTO would cover all of that for a company. And they focus their time and energy on many different things year-round, year after year. On the other hand, a fractional CTO tends to come in and address a specific thing, a specific area, that a company needs help with.
A scenario could be a fractional CTO hired to help a company that needs to define its growth strategy from a technology perspective. They may be asking themselves:
- How can I leverage my current capabilities more effectively?
- How can I meet my target growth ambitions for my company more creatively?
- What can I do from a technology advancements perspective that I'm not doing today?
So you would hire a fractional CTO — in and out type of an arrangement — to come in for a consulting assignment, to help you see yourself clearly from an outsider's viewpoint, see the organization/the company in a very clear manner without bias, and be able to bring some different perspectives and ideas, create a roadmap to meet or exceed your growth ambitions.
That is an example of how you'd use a fractional CTO. You would hire them for a few weeks or months, get executive-level experience to deliver on something important, and let them go without ongoing commitment. However, a fractional CTO could also be more than project-based. If the company’s need is more continuous, it could also consider an arrangement where a fractional CxO would work a fraction of the time throughout the year on a retainer basis.
Q4: In what scenarios do companies benefit most from hiring a fractional CTO rather than a full-time CTO?
Karen: Small and medium-sized businesses are prime cases for hiring a fractional rather than a full-time CTO. These companies may not have the money to hire an expensive executive yet. They're still working on some basic things to stabilize their business. Yet they have a lot of great ideas, and they have challenges in getting big company thinking and big company experience to help them meet their big aspirations. They need their investment funds to produce maximum ROI and likely do not have enough work for a full-time CTO to do.
The answer is to hire a fractional CTO to guide the strategic planning to ensure its content is in the realm of possibilities.
There may be companies that have a CIO (Chief Information Officer) that tend to be a very good liaison between your infrastructure and your technologies and the business but they've been there for a long time. In that situation you might bring in an outsider CTO for a short period of time to balance out the legacy leadership’s thinking and get more diversity in thought from an outsider. Those are two of many scenarios where a small or mid-sized business would leverage a fractional CTO.
Where we are today with the global economic challenges, even big companies aren't hiring executives, but they still need the work done. They still need the input. They still need that thought leadership. And so the economical way to do it is to hire a fractional CTO and still get work done and achieve forward momentum without the heavy commitment of a full-time executive — you don't have to pay for the fringe benefits of an executive. Think of the big bonuses, paying for all those nice perks that can be saved. Going the fractional route is much more economical, lower risk, and just as effective.
Q5: What inspired you to become a fractional CTO? And how did you transition into this role?
Karen: I've been a technology enthusiast and practitioner my whole life. As you know, I started as a practitioner, becoming more of a strategist these days, constantly getting a deeper understanding of emerging technologies and how they can be applied to solve problems and make this a better world. One of my mentors suggested I try Wharton's CTO program. I spent last year going through the program and loved learning about all the aspects of technology leadership. It was a top-notch program, and I highly recommend it. Going through that program while I performed as a CTO at my job solidified my interest in this path. However, coming from a consulting background where I got exposure to many different clients and domains and leveraged many different solution sets, I needed more variety. When I interviewed for CTO jobs, it felt unfulfilling because, where I am in my life, in my professional journey, I want to do many different interesting things instead of being anchored down with any one organization.
I thought about what it would be like to work for many different organizations and be able to go back to my consulting roots, doing a lot more high-impact work for many different clients, and I really miss those good old days. I have a lot of friends who own small companies, and I started working with them while I was on my sabbatical this year, exploring what I want to do professionally. And I found a lot of joy in working for small companies, for my friends, colleagues, and people I've known for decades. I realized that I had more interest and skin in the game, helping these wonderful companies that have noble missions and want to do good things, want to create great work environments, want to be the best place that people want to work for, and so on. Working for those folks brought me a lot of joy and satisfaction, helping a small company get stronger and having a chance at competing or working in a big ocean of larger companies.
So what inspired me was that my friends and old colleagues were doing great things already and just needed a boost I could offer.
Seeing the impact I could have on people I cared about felt amazing.
So many people are running companies, trying to do good work, and operating in a “family style” type of culture that resonated with me and aligned with my core values.
Q6: The tech world is ever-evolving. How do you stay updated with the latest technologies and trends?
Karen: The tech world is definitely challenging to keep up with at today’s rate. The way I keep up is every day I carve out some time where I scan interesting sources of information — whether it's LinkedIn articles or maybe Wall Street Journal articles or whatever sources there are out there, and just kind of look for highlights, what's going on in the world of tech, what's going on in the world of innovation? I think it’s fun to see what the leaders in their field talk about, what their perspectives are, and how they view certain emerging technologies, answering questions like: What are the challenges? What are the gotchas? There are so many people out there worthy of following and learning from.
I try to do some hands-on experimentation as time allows, like playing with code snippets or AI tools and applications. I think that's a very effective way to stay relevant and understand what works well and not so well.
I also attend conferences. I just came back from Ted AI in San Francisco, where big names from AI offered thought-provoking perspectives from many different industries and lenses, solving a variety of challenges from policies to ensure responsible AI to predicting protein structures for precision medicine. If you pick the right conference, you can learn so much in a short period of time. There are so many interesting things that happen at conferences outside of sessions too. You run into old friends, colleagues, and clients — all of whom want to talk about the technology’s application to their world, so more learning goes on!
Between reading articles, taking micro-learning training, trying to keep up with certifications here and there, getting out there, and conversing with peers and experts, I get a good dose of continuous knowledge upkeep.
In the end, it's really about seeking opportunities to learn something new every day and, just as important, reinforcing what you’ve learned through practice and knowledge retention methods.
Q7: Was there anything surprising at the TED AI that came up for you?
There were so many “Wow!” moments that were unexpected. A retired poker player, Liv Boeree, talked about the Moloch Trap, conveying the dangers of competing for the wrong reasons and allowing the race to dominate and take away something more precious along the way. She talked about how competition for the sake of competition moves very rapidly at the cost of perhaps unintended consequences of things that we might destroy, possibly resulting in a lesser world when we all lose.
I thought it was interesting to see so many speakers ahead of her talking about how fast things are going and how we all need to keep up. Yet here is somebody who is saying maybe we slow down a bit and be thoughtful of the intense competition and its consequences.
Stephen Wolfram’s talk about computation as it relates to AI was mind-blowing. He talked about a computational language that can help conceptualize anything in the universe. This talk was so magnificently complex that I was just in awe. This guy spent decades of work on this amazingly powerful development, which AI can now leverage to convey a vast amount of concepts very effectively. He received a much-deserved standing ovation.
What I learned in Rob Toews’ talk about the semiconductor industry was shocking. His quote, “The entire field of artificial intelligence faces a single point of failure in Taiwan.” was a rude awakening for me and many people in the audience. I haven’t paid much attention to the world of semiconductors, so I was shocked at how delicate the situation is with AI technology’s dependency on TSMC, the Taiwanese company with manufacturing capabilities far, far ahead of the second and third largest companies in the world: Samsung and Intel. Given the geopolitical tensions between China and Taiwan in that region, one can only imagine the impact on AI dependent applications if something should happen to impair TSMC’s production. I always knew that Taiwan was the biggest manufacturer of chips that Nvidia, AWS, and other companies design, but I certainly didn't realize how far ahead they were with precision and the ability to create these chips at scale.
Q8: How is AI going to impact what you do?
Karen: AI is a tool. No matter what your role is, whether you're a CTO, a developer, a life sciences researcher, a teacher, or a medical doctor, AI is going to be ubiquitous and, ultimately, your friend if used properly. AI is here to stay, and it will only get smarter.
I am excited about leveraging AI technologies to enhance my personal life and make me a more productive professional.
As a CTO, I can use AI as a tool in many ways. The most obvious one is leveraging it to summarize large volumes of information. If there are loads and loads of documents that a company would provide to me, such as model proposals used to win work, AI could be used to summarize what it was about those proposals that made them exemplary. What are the prevalent patterns in all those documents can help me understand what this company does well and its tendencies.
In this case, AI helps sift through a lot of data and a lot of information and brings pretty accurate information to inform me as a fractional CTO to be able to advise and come up with a roadmap pretty quickly, saving my clients money in the form of hours spent on understanding their status quo. I see AI as an enabler, as a very useful tool. It doesn't (at least currently) replace the effectiveness of me personally validating the findings through stakeholder interviews and developing the content of the deliverables.
Another way I use AI is to “beautify” my deliverables. I tend not to be the best at creating PowerPoint decks, but that skill is no longer a crutch. We now have these tools that can create nice-looking decks, with your rough content as input, that can be a starting point for further tweaking. This can help someone like me quickly create a polished presentation at the quality level I would be proud to submit. These are just a couple of simple examples, but the possibility of using AI tools to assist in my productivity is very exciting.
On a personal level, I have enjoyed playing with AI photo enhancers to bring damaged pictures of my grandparents back to life. My experience with these tools is they still have a ways to go to get to the point of precision that is advertised. And so the technology evolution continues until it reaches its full potential.