Karen Karp & Partners celebrated 30 years in business this past May. Throughout the past year, we’ve marked the milestone by examining our work in the fields of healthy food and health care access, regional food economies, and supply chain sustainability. We’re also reflecting on how we can address the most pressing issues of our times, including creating more resilient supply chains to weather future crises and building more equity across agriculture, food and health innovation, policy, and business. Last year, founder Karen Karp spoke about the beginning of KK&P from 1990-1995 and from 1996-2000; later she spoke with Senior Consultant Shayna Cohen about when the local food movement really started happening. In this new, condensed, and edited interview, Karen and Vice President Dick Batten speak about the following five years and the beginning of KK&P’s Good People division.
Karen: We noticed a pattern emerging among our clients for whom we were doing feasibility studies, business plans, or business strategies. They were signing off on the strategies we created, raising sufficient money, and were eager to implement the recommendations, but experienced roadblocks as they started. It occurred to me that they might not be able to move forward because the organization itself, and its people, weren’t ready. Perhaps somebody needed to help them to look differently at their organizational structure, evaluate whether they had the right people to implement the strategy, and develop or hire better people.
Dick: I was born and raised in Amsterdam, The Netherlands and I came to the United States to get my Ph.D. at Boston College. My Ph.D. was on the impact of software on the shifting balance of power between management and unionized labor in the automobile industry in the US and global industry. In essence, government and policymakers as well as organizational decision make a choice to mitigate the loss of power of employees or not. After that, I was hired by Polaroid Corporation in Boston to reorganize a factory, creating better cross-functional teamwork, quality, participatory management, and productivity. They put me in the HR department because they did not think of another place for an organizational development role. In the 18 years that followed, I continued to focus on finding the right organizational structure and people to meet changing business and financial demands. Who were the best people to lead, who were the best people to develop and keep, and who were the people who needed to transition to other positions inside and outside the company?
Fast-forward to 2006, and a multitude of positions in the US and Europe, I was the head of human resources, but the company was shrinking, and my time was ending. I started to interview for other corporate jobs, and Karen said, ‘You know, I have a hunch that in order for KK&P’s clients to really excel, they might need help understanding how to get the right people in the right jobs. Are you interested in exploring this with me as part of our company?’
Karen: I started by calling a few clients to introduce the idea, and offering them an opportunity to meet Dick, with no obligations, to test the idea of the new business offering.
The first conversation, which turned into the most significant opportunity for Dick in the early years, was with City Harvest, NYC’s predominant food rescue organization. We had just finished a business plan for a complex multi-sector, place-based program for them that would require a very different set of skills to operate than anything they had done in the past. The more we progressed with the business plan, the more I realized that if they wanted to move forward, they would need different people to lead it. I introduced Dick to City Harvest’s then-new Executive Director, and that relationship has turned into one lasting more than 15 years.
In another example, there was a long-standing and highly regarded specialty food manufacturing business that was facing significant challenges while in a growth phase. Because of Dick’s experience with manufacturing, it felt like the right introduction to make. They accepted his help with not only the food production but also with the inter-personal business relationship of the partners.
Dick: One of the first assignments that I got from City Harvest was a so-called organizational assessment. An organizational assessment is, in essence, a diagnosis of the organization: what is going well, what’s not going well, and recommendations for an organization to be more effective. It’s not unlike a medical diagnosis. You do it by interviewing a cross-section of the organization — about 15% or 20% of the people, the senior team, supervisory management, and individual staff, and you review a wide range of documentation. Then, you make recommendations that need to be implementable. It cannot just be theory. Each set of recommendations is, in a way, custom-designed, even if the process of conducting the organizational assessment is more or less the same. The recommendations are not coming from an MBA deck. And what people continue to appreciate over all these years is that the recommendations were implementable for them and they have choices in how to go about them.
I worked with City Harvest for many, many years and became—on a part-time basis—their Vice President of Human Resources. As the organization had grown significantly, they needed a full-time HR person, and I helped them to recruit that person. But in October of 2019, when they needed an interim HR officer, they reached out to see if I could do it, and I became the Interim Chief HR Officer from November 2019 through May 2020 until we found a full-time leader of HR – during the height of the COVID pandemic in NYC when the need for food was souring. And that’s just one example of how clients come back to us.
Dick: Well, let’s talk about Open Door Family Medical Centers in Westchester, NY. I started there by doing an organizational assessment seven years ago. Their mission is to keep the people of Westchester and Putnam Counties healthy, regardless of their ability to pay. As we were in the middle of implementing our recommendations, The President and CEO was asked if she and I would do a presentation at the annual conference for the association of Federally Qualified Health Centers in NY, focused on the findings of the organizational assessment and which recommendations were implemented and how we went about it. To our surprise, or at least to my surprise, a hundred people showed up. An outcome of that conference was I started working with upstate community health centers—who normally do not have access in-person consulting advice—with their leaders and the lead HR people to increase their capacity in recruiting, performance management, smart goal setting, conflict management, and effective meetings and communications. I created long-term working relationships. And so that’s how it ended up being used by a much wider group of clients with a similar focus—to provide excellent primary care to people have do not have good access to such care, in essence, through recommendations.
Dick: In my experience, lead people who are very engaged in the food and health care system are also focused on the broader system and need. But when you deal with people-related issues, it is primarily about the internal dynamics. You need to start with yourself and with the organization itself because that’s actually most in their control, and there often is room for improvement in organizational effectiveness.
It’s an intimate process. We’re often working with the lead people in an organization. Let’s say our goal is not only to deliver a good product, whatever the agreement is, but we are often partners in implementation. People experience that as highly supportive.
Karen: For a very small company, which we are, we have very sophisticated internal processes, which people recognize, and which have definitely contributed to the strength of the company overall in terms of how we operate and our project management and our profitability and our retention.
Especially during these challenging times during Covid, our staff knows we will do whatever we can to support them. Our staff has very much been impacted by the pandemic. We’re all working remotely in quarantine and some have had to balance work with educating their kids at home. We figured those issues out together. And then on the client-side, there were some of our clients that needed to pivot or felt in limbo, and we were doing that strategy because we have such strong relationships with our clients, they trust us to counsel them, even in a crisis, on what is going to be the most strategically important.
Karen: In the months ahead, as the country and the economy pull out of the worst of the pandemic and the major disruption to how (and where) people work, there will be a huge need to think about how organizations are structured, where and how people work, new ways leadership will need to function, training across all levels of organizations and positions….There is a new era of work in front of us, and KK&P’s “Good People” practice is ready to help our clients approach the future for success.