Within reach podcast Celia Karam | Deloitte Insights

Celia Edwards Karam on her path to leadership Within reach: Conversations with leaders on the front lines of the financial services industry

18 March 2020

The road to the C-suite is different for everyone. For Capital One Chief Audit Officer Celia Edwards Karam, it involved embracing audacious challenges, learning to quiet her inner monologue, and finding joy in the "big, hairy, interesting" problems.

“When I think about some of the things that I bring to my day-to-day, there are definitely moments of frustration or moments when, in the juggling of the balls, one of them drops on the floor. Often, it’s a glass ball, but then it turns out to be a rubber one. And everything is going to be okay.”

—Celia Edwards Karam, chief audit officer, Capital One

Tanya Ott: How do you tackle big challenges? Today, we’re talking to one leader whose strategies come from the boardroom—and the kitchen table.

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I’m Tanya Ott, and we’re talking to women in the financial services industry to get a sense of how they navigate that space and where they draw their inspiration. Sometimes, it comes from some unusual places. Today, I’m talking to Celia Edwards Karam, the chief audit officer of Capital One. She’s had that job for about two years, and before that, she had a variety of different leadership roles.

Celia: Think general manager of one part of the company or another, largely in small business, consumer banking and the credit-card space. And when I’m not at work, I’m a mom to three small kids, who keep me pretty well occupied.

Tanya: Oh, my gosh. How old are your kids?

Celia: My kids are seven, nine, and eleven. Believe it or not.

Tanya: Oh, nice little stair steps there.

Celia: It is. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s way easier now than it was when they were five, three, and one.

Tanya: I have three daughters. The oldest is four years older than the next one. And the middle one is 18 months older than the youngest. And I worked from home with them as a reporter for a national network. It was quite fun when they were young … I’ll tell you what.

Celia: Oh, my gosh. You must have had your hands full.

Tanya: I could tell stories. I should write a book at some point. Haven’t gotten to that point yet. Don’t have the time. You will get through it. That’s what I’ll tell you. So how did you become the chief audit officer at Capital One?

Celia: That’s a great question. I’ve had, as I mentioned, a number of different roles here at Capitol One, and each one has given me an opportunity to learn something new, whether it was the credit side or the banking side or then working with small business customers—every single one has been an opportunity to learn something, which is where I get a lot of my motivation. And when the opportunity to become our chief audit officer came up, it was a really interesting place to learn the risk side of the business in a deeper way. It’s a role that has been packed with challenges. As chief auditor, I report directly to Capital One’s board and a dotted line to our CEO. So, a horizontal responsibility for the company.

People often ask me, huh? You were running lending businesses before and you decided to become a chief auditor. That’s an unusual career path. And the reason I took the role—as you might know, Capital One has been undergoing a digital transformation over the past several years, becoming a technology company that does banking. And as you think about the integration of innovative technologies and the tools that we bring to life for our customers, there’s so much exciting innovation and power to make people’s financial lives better, which is a big part of why I’ve stayed at the company. But if you think about that kind of innovation and the piece of technology that’s being brought to life for customers, along with that comes the question of risk. How do you think about the risks that come with that change, that come with that new tool? Are we doing our best to think about those risks in advance and mitigate them for our customers? So learning the risks side of the business when you’re in a tech-forward company that’s also dealing with people’s money, all of a sudden that becomes a really big and hairy and interesting problem, which is my favorite problem. It made the opportunity quite intriguing and has been a fantastic place to dig my heels in and learn something, and it really helped drive the business in terms of getting to our risk outcomes while also getting to our innovation outcomes.

Tanya: Some people will immediately run away from a, as you call it, big, hairy risk situation. But you said that you really love that. Why?

Celia: I’m a glutton for punishment.

Tanya: (laughs)

Celia: No, that’s probably not the answer.

Tanya: It’s an honest answer.

Celia: I signed up to be a mom of three, so there must have been something that was going through my mind. I’ll put it in a couple of contexts for you. One is, when I think about the things that give me joy in my work, the days and the moments where I walk away from the job and I have a pep in my step and I’m totally energized getting in that car to come home—those are days when I was wrestling with a challenge or a problem that had a lot of different facets to it. It had a, “What’s best for the customer and what does the customer need in this?” space. It had a P&L [profit and loss] aspect. At the end of the day, we are a company and a business that aims to thrive so we can be there for customers the next day. It had maybe an associate context: What are some of the choices we’re considering and how do we think about the impact this will have on our associate experience? And then last but not least, it has a risk impact, as we talked about. And the intersection of all of those different things—when you’re solving for one paradigm, the problem solving gets really quite straightforward and, for me, a little bit boring. But the intersection of those different facets, that’s where I find that you really got to bring a creative lens. You’ve got to bring some creativity to the problem solving. You probably also have to bring some different perspectives. How do you get other people in the room with you who don’t think the same as you to help really fuel that creativity? And that, for me, is where the magic comes from. And I am a little bit drawn to big, hairy problems. Fortunately, a bit of the Capital One motto is, we like to take on audacious challenges. I’ve had quite a few of them to work on over the years.

Tanya: You’re in the right place, then, right? You mentioned that you’re a mom of three. What does it mean to be a woman in leadership, and not just a woman in leadership but a mom in leadership?

Celia: That’s a great question. As I’ve thought about this one, a woman in leadership, it’s really complicated. It’s a complicated question, or maybe better said, it’s a complicated answer because I am a lot of things. I am a woman in the boardroom. I’m also a black woman in the boardroom. I was born in Jamaica and moved here when I was a young kid with my family. I’m a mom. And my experience as a leader has for sure shifted pre-parenting versus post-parenting. We can have a whole long conversation about that. All of those different identities impact both the way I lead and the way I experience leadership. It’s hard for me to narrow it down and say, what does it mean to me to be a woman leader? But I can tell you a little bit about how those identities all come together for me and maybe how they’ve shown up in my leadership.

One of the things I am cognizant of is when I walk into a room, oftentimes I don’t notice in the first 30 seconds, but usually at some point in the conversation, at some point in the meeting, I will take stock of how many other women are in the room or how many other people of color are in the room. It is not an unusual experience for me to sometimes be the only one or one of a small number. It’s not that that changes my behavior in the moment, but there is a noticing that has an interesting trend that goes with it. One of the things I started paying attention to—this was an insight I had last year—was in meetings where I was one of only a few, I didn’t speak up quite as much or quite as often and quite as quickly as in meetings where there was a much larger population. And it took me a little while to come to around that, that insight was a real insight for me and that wasn’t just small sample size, oddball things happening in a particular meeting. But it was a real experience for me. And I don’t know that it’s true for other women or other minorities, although there’s some research that backs up the idea that this may happen on average, but it’s definitely something I noticed it myself. It made me remember a piece of advice that a mentor gave me, a long time ago. I was very early in my career. I’m not going to date myself by saying how many years ago that was. But I was a consultant at the time and I was traveling, and I was sitting in an airport with two partners on this particular engagement, and one of the partners was chatting with me and said, “Hey, I want to tell you that you’re doing a fantastic job, but I actually need you to lower your batting average.” Now, I don’t follow a lot of sport.

Tanya: Give me a sports ball translation there.

Celia: Exactly! But I had enough insight to say, “I’m reasonably sure that the batting average is a thing that is supposed to go up, not down.” So why does he want me to lower it? It was a little bit of an oddball thing. And my quizzical expression encouraged him to continue. And he said, “When you speak up in client meetings, the things you contribute are fantastic. You move the thinking, you bring an idea that hasn’t been shared before. But you speak up so infrequently that you’re not having the kind of impact that you could have. So I actually need you to take more swings. You need to speak more often. And I know that not every comment is going to be that home-run that I’m used to seeing all the time. But that’s okay. It’s okay if your average goes down a little bit because your total impact will change when you bring your voice into the room more.” And as I said, I am a long way away from that piece of advice, but his voice plays in my head on a quite regular basis as I remember who am I trying to be in that boardroom and how do I bring that person out to really have the impact I want to have.

Tanya: When you first started bringing that person out, what did that feel like? When you were, you know, just taken a whiff at it.

Celia: It’s a great question. I’ve got to pluck up my courage. Right? I’ve got to think about why is it that I have an idea that I haven’t voiced yet? And usually it’s some version of, my idea might be dumb. And that’s a thing we all do—well, turns out some of us do it more than others. But there’s the questioning of myself that goes on through my mind: “How will I be perceived? Will my comment be perceived as smart?” Sometimes when I go to make a comment, I wonder how my comment will be perceived because I am a woman making that comment as opposed to a man. I run through this whole litany of dialog in my brain and then the conversations run away with me. I didn’t get to say my point because everybody has moved on while I was busy with my super interesting inner monologue. So the thing I remind myself in that moment is: You’ve done this 100 times. Quiet the monologue. It’s going to be fine. And it’s really important to start talking. Whether it’s a great, eloquent comment or not, if I can start those first three or five words out of my mouth, I’ll then keep going. But this sounds a little overdone—it’s like jumping off the diving board. I’m standing there at the end and I know it’s going to be great, I can do this, but that moment of jumping, you’ve got to take the step to do it. That’s what I feel like.

Tanya: It sounds like you’ve spent a lot of time doing self-reflection on you as an individual, on your role in the workplace. What is it that drives your work?

Celia: You’re right. I am fairly self-reflective. And that is partly about, as I come into my own as a leader, starting to define what is it I want to be as a leader and how do I keep moving and working toward that goal, which then requires both a lot of feedback, but also a lot of reflection. If I think about what drives my work, it’s very much in that zone of experimentation and learning. I consume a lot of books and reading material and information, but I honestly don’t truly learn until I start to try it out myself. I’m very much a learn-by-doing [person]. When I talk about this idea of experimentation, I can take you back to when I first took on this role and I came into a new leadership team with a team that had been operating with a leader before me. And they operated differently than how I did. Not good, bad, or indifferent, just different for my own leadership style. I had to spend a little bit of time both absorbing who is this team and how do they operate and what are the similarities and differences with how I operate. But then, the question I had to ask myself was, “I know that where I want to take them is somewhere different. How do I move this team forward from the way we operate today to more like something I envision?” And the path to that is a lot of experimentation. That’s a really interesting problem to solve. And it’s a combination of setting expectations: How do I define the culture that I wanted to have as a leadership team and then playing with how do I bring that culture to life for them? How do I role-model it? What kinds of things do I do and what kind of response do I get when I try out its tactics? How do I give recognition when I feel like the team is starting to operate in that space of the new vision? How do I remind people from an expectations perspective? But all of that is experimenting with different leadership tactics, different things that I do, different things I ask the team to do, and then really learning from that experimentation.

I’ve been in the role about a year and a half now, and someone on my team—one of my direct reports was speaking at an all-team that we had—and he said something along the lines of one of the things that he feels is most different is the level of integration and collaboration that exists across our audit leadership team and that we now function as a team rather than as a collection of talented individuals. And I tell you, I was grinning from ear to ear. You could have taken a picture of me and turned me into an emoji. I was that happy, because it was clarity for me that the thing I’d been experimenting on for 18 months, it was actually working. And when you’re trying to drive leadership-team change, sometimes you can’t see it in a week. You can’t see it in a month. It takes a longer track record, but all of that experimentation was actually paying off. That gives you a little bit of a sense of what gets me excited, what motivates.

Tanya: Are there leaders or leadership traits that you admire? Is there something that you particularly look at or someone you look at and say, that’s what I want to do?

Celia: Yeah, there are. And one of the things that has been interesting about my journey as a leader is thinking about all of the different places in which I can learn. Because sometimes the leadership traits that I’m examining were in leaders above me, particularly when I was more junior in my career, there were lots of role models to consider above me. As I’ve become more senior, I find that I’m learning also from my peers and many days from folks on my team, particularly about how they attack leadership and how they go about solving problems. I’ll get a new nugget and I really like how she did that? How can I incorporate that into what I do? So there are leadership traits that I find all over the map.

One of the examples that I’ll touch on here is what I’ll call possibilities thinking. When I look at myself, I think I’m fairly good at being creative and at thinking about the possibilities within the context of a problem that I’m trying to solve. I’m less good at working backwards from where something is going: What might something look like five years from now or 10 years from now and thinking backwards from that potential place and using that to solve my problem? I can generally see a series of problems and think about them in an integrated way and how they intersect, but [this is] also thinking about how that whole landscape could change. That’s a little bit of what I mean when I say possibility thinking. This is something that our CEO Rich Fairbank, is one of his biggest skills. He has the ability to think about issues and the broader environment in a way that nobody has thought about before and in a way that’s really future-oriented. That possibility thinking leads to really big ideas and can create tremendous value. It’s a trait that exists in a lot of entrepreneurs and it’s one that I very much admire.

I can think of one other trait that is really top of mind for me and it’s this idea of execution quality. If you only have big-ideas people and possibilities thinkers, nothing really happens. You talk, you analyze, you get the great idea, but then you get stuck and no customers get anything great on the other side. But when you pair big-ideas thinking with someone who has the ability to mobilize a team to think about what the execution path ought to be, to take the team from where they are today to that bold idea and lead them through the journey and, most importantly, adjust along the way, because often what you think is a big idea, as you start to get some feedback from your customers or your associates as it’s going along, you find you have to make pivots, right? So executing, while pivoting your strategy at the same time, that skill, that’s also pretty darn impressive and is another one that I find is both a thing I’m developing in my own skill set, but also a place where I’m often looking to others to think … how are they going about that? How do they bring about that execution quality? Those are maybe two big ones that I really admire.

Tanya: As you’re describing the second one, I’m thinking back earlier in our conversation, you mentioned you have three children and they’re all pretty close in age and they’re all young. And if there’s one thing that any parent does, whether it’s a mom or a dad, it’s having to pivot and strategize and work multiple angles at one time, but also be able to execute. There’s a lot of juggling that happens there. And I wonder if you might reflect a little bit for us on how these influences, like being a parent, that you have outside of work, have helped shape your leadership style?

Celia: When my oldest daughter was a kindergartener, maybe first grade, but think that young, spunky, sure-that-she-knows-what-the-right-thing-to-do-is age. That thing, although that feels like the life I’m living today, too ... but the five-year-old version of that (laughs). She was adamant that she was going to wear shorts every day, regardless of the temperature. I live in Virginia. In January, it starts [to get] pretty darn chilly. And we had these knock-down, drag-out arguments every morning. By the time she got to school and I got to work, I was a wreck. I was so exhausted from this extreme argument we were having about the shorts. Finally, after weeks and weeks of this, it occurred to me, I’m not sure why, to ask the question, “Honey, why is wearing the shorts so important? I don’t understand why it’s a big deal.” And she said, “Mom, nobody else wears shorts in the wintertime. People look at me and they think, ‘I can’t believe she could do that.’” People say that to her, “I can’t believe you could wear shorts in the winter.” I’m sure I said that.

You should have seen the light in her face! She was ... this was her moment of uniqueness and specialness and every morning I, her mother, was pulling that away and forcing her into pants like the rest of humanity. And I took that away and I thought, I suck. “F” for mom. You would think, how I would think about what she was telling me and how important this is to her and where might the compromise be? Before that, I was definitely not thinking about compromise. So we came up with a path that looks something like, 40 degrees and higher, you can put the shorts on. And at 40 degrees I’m still pretty uncomfortable with shorts, but 40 degrees or higher, you can put shorts on. If we tip into the thirties and below, I’m going to need you to wear pants. We shook hands. We agreed. The morning arguments were done. That also took me out of the position of being the decision-maker on whether or not she wore the shorts. It wasn’t mommy’s call. You’ve got to check the weather app and see what it tells you and then go from there. This brought a tremendous amount of light back into our relationship, but most importantly, it gave her the chance to be the person she was trying to be while also preserving my desire to feel like she wouldn’t freeze to death and stay healthy.

I tell that story because I think the parallels to work are obvious. When I’m thinking about my team, whether it’s my direct team or my broader function, and we’ve been trying to go in one direction and the things I say aren’t manifesting in the actions I might have expected, it’s a really good time to pause and say: Why is that? What don’t I know? What haven’t I asked? What don’t I understand about the motivations of the people around me? Is there a way to collectively solve for the problem rather than me dictating the answer to the problem? That is very much a pillar of my leadership style today—this notion of collaborative problem-solving. And I don’t think it started with that learning from my daughter, but it took a big jump forward because it lives in my mind in a really powerful way every time I run into that situation.

Tanya: A little bit earlier in our conversation, I asked you, what leaders you admire? But oftentimes leaders come from lots of different places. And I’m wondering if there’s someone, maybe in your personal life or outside of work, who really has been impactful in the way that you think about what you do.

Celia: You’re right. The impact on my life has come from many places. But about the biggest, it’s very much my mom and she is an incredible leader herself. I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation that my family and I immigrated from Jamaica to the U.S. when I was a little kid, I was probably five or six years old. My mom was an accomplished teacher with several degrees behind her. None of that counted when she got here. It’s like her experience was erased. And in starting over, I saw this incredible work ethic and persistence from my mom. I remember sitting as a little kid at the table, probably nine or 10 years old, doing homework at the table while my mom would be sitting with a pencil and paper and working through a bunch of numbers. I didn’t fully understand at the time what she was doing. But when I think back about it and about some of those moments of exasperation and frustration, what she was trying to work through was, how is she going to make it all work? She had three kids she was trying to cover for, she knew what she was doing and what my dad was doing. How was it all going to come together? This idea that we juggle priorities that we face, challenging choices that we have to make for our families and ourselves. As a mom now, I feel I live that day in and day out. And one of the things I remember is that my mom was a creative problem-solver long before I started bringing creativity to problem-solving. She was a juggler long before I started juggling. And she had this work ethic and persistence. It’s not that she always did it with a smile, but she did it with a sense of purpose. She knew she was here for it.

When I think about some of the things that I bring to my day-to-day, there are definitely moments of frustration or moments when the juggling of the balls, one of them drops on the floor. Often it’s a glass ball, but then it turns out to be a rubber one, and everything is going to be okay. But reminding myself that all of that effort, all of that problem-solving, is for a greater purpose. And that same purpose fuels my-day-to-day work. If I think about the innovation that I get to be a part of here at Capital One, one of the big things that’s kept me here is this notion that we are trying to figure out how to provide solutions and tools that help people’s financial lives to be better, that help them to be in a better place than they were in yesterday, or for their families to be in a better place. In the moments when I’m getting really frustrated, it’s reminding myself of that purpose, reminding myself of what I’m building for my kids, and maybe for a greater society. That purpose is definitely a big source of my fuel and it tends to show up in the form of my mom, because she’s the epitome of working with purpose. And in the many ways she’s had an impact on me, that’s probably the biggest.

Tanya: Celia, it’s been wonderful talking to you today. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

Celia: Tanya, thank you for having me, and for creating this opportunity for people like me to share our stories. I can only hope that they’ll be helpful.

Tanya: Celia Edwards Karam is the chief audit officer of Capital One. She’s one of several women in leadership roles in the financial services industry that we’re talking with on the show. You can find more of the interviews on our website, deloitte.com/insights. You’ll also find reports and videos and all kinds of resources.

The Press Room podcast is available where you get your podcasts online at deloitteinsights.com and on Twitter at @DeloitteInsight. I’m on Twitter at @tanyaott1. Thanks for joining us today. I’m Tanya Ott and we’ll be back here again in two weeks.

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