Karyn Abrahamson is the chief marketing officer at the bottled-water company Essentia Water. She joined the Bothell-based company in 2015 as vice president of marketing and brand innovation and was promoted to the chief marketing position three years later.
Prior to joining Essentia, Abrahamson’s served in executive marketing roles with Microsoft, Starbucks, T-Mobile USA and Adidas. She grew up in Olympia and earned her bachelor’s degree in communication and media studies from the University of Washington.
As part of the latest Daring Woman interview, Abrahamson shares some insights about the barriers faced by women striving to achieve leadership roles and ways to overcome them, her views on mentors and networking, and she also offers some advice for the upcoming generation of female leaders.
What are the most important characteristics of a good leader and what leadership traits are overrated?
I believe the most important characteristics of a good leader are honesty and integrity, being a visionary and having strong communication skills to inspire the team and clearly let them know what success looks like. A good leader sets the “North Star” and builds a team of people who have the right experience and passion for the job. The latter is especially crucial because great leaders not only have heart for the business and have a vision, but also authentically empower, guide and trust their people to bring that vision to life.
For this reason, I think it’s overrated to assume that the leader has to be the smartest person in the room. If you’ve built a team of top talent, you have a group of subject-matter experts who bring deeper thinking and creativity into the mix. It’s important to encourage your team to speak up and contribute. After 30-plus years in marketing, I can assure you that leaders continue learning, alongside everyone else, every single day. That’s what keeps everything so interesting!
As a woman, what is the most significant barrier to becoming a leader?
Women bring specific leadership traits to the table that may not be recognized as strengths in every organization. Women have a strong sense of insightfulness, intuition and empathy ― skills that can be incredibly powerful in leaders, especially when working with others, but depending on the company, these “softer skills” may not be valued as much as they should be.
How can women achieve more prominent roles in their organizations?
I think it depends on the organization. I’d encourage women to do their homework when interviewing and assessing an opportunity. Among the questions to consider are the following:
- Who are the leaders currently?
- Is the environment progressive?
- Is there a mix of talent?
- Is the workforce diverse?
- Have women been promoted within the organization into senior leadership roles in strategic areas?
More companies are starting to publicly address diversity and inclusion, which is great, but it’s worth the extra step of verifying their track record to know if it’s simply PR, or a reality.
What key lessons did you learn from a woman who has inspired, mentored or sponsored you?
I have been inspired by so many women in my life, but I think it’s important to share that when it has come to my career, my No. 1 mentor has been myself. I knew what I wanted to do from an early age, and I did whatever I could to get there. I credit my grandfather for this work ethic. He was passionate, motivated and worked hard to achieve what he wanted to in his career. I worked incredibly hard to fuel my own resilience, tenacity and desire to excel in my career. I want women to know they can do the same ― find the power and confidence within themselves to achieve their goals.
What advice do you have for the next generation of female leaders?
Be strong. Empowering women is more top of mind than ever, but there will always be obstacles that get in the way. I advise the next generation of female trailblazers ― or overachievers, as we say here at Essentia ― to know what they want to do and be tenacious and resilient to get there.
How important is networking and how do you expand your contacts?
Networking is no doubt valuable, but at this stage in my career, I mainly expand my contacts through my job. There are weeks where I’m lucky to go home and see my husband and cat! I travel frequently and put my all into my work, so my Essentia team becomes a part of my family. I prioritize any free time for my immediate family and for myself too, which is important to maintain balance.
What would you do differently in your career?
I would have put more weight on identifying whether a company and its values were really the right fit for me. There were times that I took what looked like a great opportunity that ended up not aligning with my values or with my work ethic as much as I would have liked. Reflecting on the interviewing process, I now see that it’s not a one-way street. You are and should always be interviewing the company to make sure it fits you and what “you” want to accomplish.
I learned a tremendous amount of valuable lessons in all the environments I worked in, and each helped me to build the career I have today. By the time I joined Essentia, I knew exactly what I was looking for. I worked most of my career in huge, global corporations and I wanted the opportunity to be much more entrepreneurial and creative in my next move, to create a brand (for a product I believed in) from the ground up. Our founder and CEO, Ken Uptain, trusted me and empowered me to do that.
Where will we find you on a Saturday afternoon?
On an average day, trying to get my darn home remodeling done! I had a colleague tell me that I love remodeling as much as I do because that’s what I do for work ― remodel brands. This stuck with me because it’s so true. I love seeing the potential in something, whether it’s a company or a home, and bringing it to life and making it amazing.
During football season, killing it in my Fantasy Football League or at the Washington Huskies football games. Go, Dawgs!
What would be the title of your autobiography?
We’d love to hear from more women across all industries who are challenging the status quo. Does it sound like you? If it does, click here and fill out our questionnaire.
Daring Women Q&A responses have been edited and condensed.