Karen Kwong is the CEO and founder of RenOC. RenOC’s edge is in combining very real experience and knowledge together with psychology-based insights to help individuals take their performance to higher levels and for organisations to be a greater success. Karen is an Executive Coach and Organisational Psychologist.
Tell us about yourself and what you do.
I’m Karen Kwong; I am ethnically Chinese. Born in Malaysia but have lived in the UK for the majority of my life. I do lots of things, but professionally, I focus on helping individuals and businesses perform better and be happier at work. As titles go, I am an Executive Coach and Organisational Psychologist and have been doing this for 7+ years. Before that, I worked in fund management for nearly 20 years. It seemed that observing how different personalities worked (or not), how people behaved with themselves and with others, what motivated them, and how leadership and culture were crucial influencers of performance. This is what led me to, during what was I’m sure, my first mid-life crisis, my Masters in Organisational Psychology.
I am a trustee of an amazing charitable foundation called Shackleton Foundation – we seed fund early-stage charities and social enterprises which focus on disadvantaged youth. The laser-focused mission and their vision for a better and more hopeful future for underprivileged youth in the UK are quite phenomenal and awe-inspiring. These people are the hope for our future – people who want better for others. We call them Leaders – and that’s what they are, determined, resilient pioneers for the betterment of others.
Aside from that, I enjoy spending time with friends and family. I walk a lot, practice yoga (and am still as inflexible as I was on the first day), I travel, I watch movies, read avidly, like finding new recipes but don’t actually cook or bake much. I follow numerous dog sites on Instagram as well as hear about the antics of my family’s various pets. I try and practice what I preach, but it isn’t always easy, and I certainly don’t want to be a sanctimonious coach or a bore!
What inspires you?
One of the main inspirations in my life is seeing people who have the drive, energy, and dedication to do whatever it takes to help others, unconsciously making sure that their ‘mission’ isn’t an ego trip.
The reality is that for so long, we’ve been led to believe that one can’t do good and make money. I believe that is a fallacy. There are so many more of these socially entrepreneurial businesses out there today, and in my mind, we should be looking at them to lead the way.
As an aside, I am not sure how Jacinda Ardern fares in other areas of her PM responsibilities, but to me, her response to the attacks earlier this month showed true leadership – courage, empathy, respect, a clear and articulate mission, and a genuine desire to effect change for the better for, the broader community, not just a select few.
What are the books that have greatly influenced your life?
Reading is one of life’s greatest pleasures and learning tools. It needs to be encouraged. The Iliad by Homer is my favourite book of all time. Although a lengthy and at times, incredibly tedious book in certain areas, its characterisation of the protagonists; the description of culture and politics during warfare; its observation of society, human nature, ego, and beliefs – all make for fascinating and thought-provoking reading. The book observes how the gods treat humans as slaves to their egos, while the humans do the same – often bringing about their own downfalls as well of those of others. We observe how, despite being fated to die, the warrior Achilles brings this moment forward in his quest for revenge.
A non-fiction book that really slapped me sideways was Half the Sky by Kristof and WuDunn. It tells the extraordinary tales of many remarkably strong women in Asia and Africa who have struggled and probably still are against horrific circumstances – usually at the hands of men and even more disappointingly other women. It made me really grateful for all that I am, all that I have and those around me who support me. It also added fuel to my desire to want to do something to help others, even in my own small and insignificant way.
What purchase of £100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months?
This is probably too vain an answer for such a highbrow readership but… Mac’s Ruby Woo lipstick and lip pencil. Although I have always loved the colour red, I tended to use less ‘in your face’ colours to not draw attention to myself. Then I walked past the Mac counter one day, fell in love with the colour and have used it every day since. I barely wear any makeup. Usually, just some moisturiser and lipstick if I have meetings. Wearing this new lipstick – I feel more alive, energised, and ready to take on the world. Who knew that lipstick had super powers??
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure” of yours?
In life, you will come across several conversations surrounding failure and how there is no such thing as a failure except for learning from those setbacks and performing better thanks to them. Something which I resonate with is a book called ‘Black Box Thinking’ by Matthew Syed. I find that the book for me reaffirms these notions surrounding the concept of failure.
After I left fund management, I enjoyed a year off. It was my first. However, during that time, even though I was 100% certain that I didn’t want to make any lateral moves nor have a job too similar to my last, I kept going for interviews in similar roles, and I was rejected a couple of times. For some reason, I took those rejections really personal. It was stupid. I categorically did not want those jobs. I actively did not like those firms. But my pride got in the way of my objectives. And after some real soul searching where I asked myself why I left my last job, why I thought I wanted those roles and what I foresaw for myself in the future – I realised that I had betrayed myself. I did not honour my decision to leave my last job. I let my ego, fear, and irrational thoughts make decisions for me instead of listening to what I knew was right for me.
This realisation has stood me in good stead. Yes, the path to starting one’s own business, in a world where (at least in my generation and older) totally switching careers (not jobs but careers) is seen as madness and unfathomable, and I was doing it. Naysayers and well-meaning friends advised me against leaving a well-paid and steady job.
Why would I choose uncertainty and almost definitely a pay cut to start all over again? In all honesty, why would anyone? The reality was that I was unfulfilled in my role. I loved the job, the team, and the firm, but I was left to fill empty, so I had to be selfish and leave for ME.
Failure and setbacks are there to remind you to learn from them, to do better, and to follow what you’re meant to be doing. It is what has kept me going!!
If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it — metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why? It could be a few words or a paragraph.
I wish I were great at little punchy quotes, like daily messages at the tube station. Sadly, that talent has passed me by.
“Always choose kindness – whether it’s to others, the planet & its inhabitants or to yourself.”
We live in a magical world filled with great beauty externally and within. I think that if more people practiced kindness to others, planet earth and its inhabitants, the world would flourish and be even brighter. By practising kindness to oneself, one might find oneself to be less selfish, rude, fearful, angry, sad, and cruel.
In the last 2 years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life?
For years, I believed that the only exercise that I could do was really active, hardcore workouts. I tend to favour high intensity, adrenaline pumping type exercises – yang types. I attempted pilates, VERY BORING, I tried yoga, VERY SLOW and found that more often than none, it was just packed full of Type As in overdrive – the antithesis of yoga. However, due to my continuous injuries sustained while running, my body and mind finally came to the joint conclusion that I had to do something to help conquer those injuries. My younger sister gifted me with membership to a yoga studio for a month. I have not looked back since.
To be clear, the yoga styles I practise now tend to be yang types too, but I figured that it was still a way of slowing down, practising mindfulness, focusing on my breathing and stretching my mind and body, to counter the high impact exercises.
I am now in absolute awe of people who have been practicing for years. Their physical and mental strength is phenomenal. Physically, their flexibility is out of this world, their strength is outstanding (have you seen the muscles on yogis??) and their ability to do the coolest things is not just entertaining but also sensational. Mentally, yoga has taught me to be less judgmental of myself (and by default others), to keep practising and persevering (yes, I have to because touching my toes after two years is still nowhere in sight) and to breathe through any challenges. Although I practise mindfulness regularly, yoga has really contributed to that practice. I am more aware of my thoughts, emotions, and physical being than I ever have been before and in turn, this has made me a more attentive and effective coach for my clients.
What advice would you give to a smart, driven student about to enter the “real world? What advice should they ignore?
My one piece of advice for someone about to step into the real world is; know who you are, what your strengths are, what motivates you, and what you have to offer. If you don’t know yourself and what you stand for, then you won’t be able to market yourself well, be it for a new job, a new relationship, or funding for your venture.
Those are constants that are yours and yours only. Yes, you may develop and grow (I hope you do, especially if you are young and have so much more to learn), but they are your unique contributors. Even if you change jobs or careers, which is really likely, you’re still you. So be the very best version of YOU.
It’s hard to advise anyone to ignore well-meaning friends and family, but what I would say, is if you don’t want to do something because you know that it is not what you want for yourself, then don’t do it. Trust and believe in yourself. In Asian families especially, this is particularly difficult to manage and for all you Asian parents out there, I mean well but I’m not sorry. If your parents want you to be a doctor, but you don’t want to be a doctor, then don’t be a doctor. Yes, you may be bright enough, and you may be brilliant at it, but if you don’t have the heart for it, you will be more likely to lead a really miserable professional life and that, in turn, will impact your personal life. Your life is your own. The hopes and dreams of well-meaning advisors are theirs, not yours. The main thing to remember is that you and only you are responsible for your life – all the good and bad decisions.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do?
If it’s in the evening – a glass of wine or three or maybe even the bottle… but jokes aside, I tend to go for a long walk, breathe, practise some mindfulness and then think my thoughts and emotions through on the walk. Sometimes I look a little crazy in the park as I hold ‘impassioned conversations’ with myself, but I find it’s a great way of clearing one’s head and mind, as well as inviting fresh blood into the system to clear out the emotional & mental baggage.
The questions I tend to ask myself are coaching ones, which I may ask my clients. They encourage some self-reflection and a non-judgemental curious mind to the issue at hand. The objective isn’t to solve but to understand. Here are some of them:
• How are you feeling?
• What is going on?
• Why are you feeling, thinking, and reacting this way?
• Is what you are thinking true? Is it really true? Do you know that to be true?
• What can you change? What can’t you change?
• How is this affecting you? Why is it affecting you?
I then try and let it digest for a bit. If I can’t, I’ll write down my thoughts and feelings, and that usually helps the immediate agitation. I tend to find a good night’s sleep helps the trauma of it all.
Tell us something that would surprise us about you?
Laugh if you must, I am allergic to onions. Very weird I know…. To be more precise, raw onions but frankly French Onion soup or Onion Bhajis have the same effect, so I’m guessing it’s not just raw onions but also onions in quantity. It’s a shame because I am missing out on a lot of amazing food but suffice to say, I’m not wasting away !
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve overcome?
I had a situation in my last job where for various reasons, I was pitted against a star contributor. Suffice to say, after a long and protracted ‘battle’ I came out the loser in that situation. It took me a while to get over the sense of betrayal and hurt, but I learned a lot from that experience; I learned a lot about ethics, values, perceptions, politics, communication, business drivers, leadership and culture. Some people stood out and showed themselves to be shining examples of what good leadership looks like. Others were disappointing, and to me, portrayed weak leadership. I now see that what happened was a win for me, and although I would not wish some of what happened to me on others, as learning curves go, it was a steep one.
What would be your message to the AWMB community?
I would ask all the talented, strong, intelligent and accomplished Asian women to be who you are, use your strengths to the fullest, be emotionally intelligent and aware of what derails you and to not be afraid to fight for what you want. You should always be proud of how far you have come and how much richer all our lives will be with you contributing to it. The UK is a diverse country that is all the better for that diversity, despite the B**x*t chaos. Don’t let anyone put you down and tell you that you have nothing to contribute. Rise above, shine, and succeed; Only the insecure feeling that they have to belittle others. Together, we can really make a difference, and it will be awe-inspiring!