A lot can be gleaned about leaders by identifying the people they admire. Karen Tripp is no different. When asked to name other leaders she admires, one response stood out: Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. A 12th-century ruler, Eleanor challenged common orthodoxy for women, survived imprisonment, and was considered by many to have been the most powerful and enlightened woman of her time.
“She pretty much took anybody who got in her way and dealt with them…she was a master of managing situations, preparations, defending her kingdom, her children…it’s a fascinating story.”
Like Eleanor, Tripp is a powerful trailblazer. Shortly after college, when the opportunities for women to become commercial or military pilots were practically non-existent, Tripp didn’t waver from her dream.
She is a licensed pilot and also an instructor. For her career, she taps another personal passion as a leader in communication and public affairs, currently for clean energy company Enviva. Prior to Enviva, Tripp also held executive positions at Rockwell Collins, General Electric (GE) and Phillips 66.
Tripp’s career is marked by her rare ability to command a seat at the executive table as a leader in male-dominated fields including engineering and energy. She identified three key philosophies for her success: accountability, preparedness and trust.
Tripp credits her accountability discipline to the tutelage of Dave Calhoun, former vice chairman and leader of GE Infrastructure. Tripp adopts a global mindset in the work environment. She is constantly focused on absorbing everything she can about the companies she serves. Knowing the ins and outs of an organization beyond her own area of expertise provides Tripp with a broad perspective with which to anticipate and weigh the consequences of every decision.
“Being aware of everything going on in a company is critical to making decisions…the consequences of decisions made in one quarter of the company will affect the other three quarters of the company.”
Tripp also knows her success is measured by the success of the team around her. With this in mind, she prioritizes expectation-setting and direct feedback with her team. For Tripp, ambiguity has no place in the work environment—nor, generally speaking, in any part of one’s life. Ambiguity leads to uncertainty and speculation. Tripp prides herself on being thoughtfully direct with her team.
“The hardest thing in any setting is often direct feedback…but that’s how you set up the case for success. You have to be able to earn people’s trust…[by] being direct, to-the-point, and always positive.”
Along with accountability, Tripp values preparedness in everything she does. At work, she approaches decision-making by first having an established goal and plan for success, as well as a contingency plan for potential “what ifs.” Tripp believes the more prepared leaders are for any scenario, the more quickly they can change course and apply new learnings.
This type of thinking led to Tripp’s first patent. Following the attacks of September 11, 2001, she spent time with the engineers at Rockwell Collins discussing ways to identify technology that would have prevented or mitigated the takeover of airplanes. It led to her patent for an electronic system that would alert Air Traffic Control immediately when an aircraft is not flying within standard parameters.
Tripp believes preparedness is an absolute necessity not only for leaders, but for everyone who supports them. The executive position requires delegation of responsibilities, and for Tripp, she must be able to trust that her team is thoroughly prepared, to ensure the company’s success as well as each individual’s growth. Tripp views trust as the linchpin that sustains any successful organization. She abhors making assumptions about the behavior and thought-processes of others. Finding common ground with peers and being genuinely open and empathetic with her team are some of the ways Tripp works to engender trust.
“You have to keep talking to each other every day, every moment, in order to be informed…which translates into doing your job much better.”
Tripp also fosters an environment that honors individual contributors. Every voice must be heard, and in doing so, others naturally reciprocate trust and collaboration.
While a gender gap still exists in executive leadership positions, Tripp hopes to become less of an anomaly. She encourages women to support and elevate strong leaders and reject stereotypes by demonstrating to everyone in the room how well informed and experienced they are. Finally, Tripp stresses the importance of balancing strategic vision with tactical execution. It’s all well and good for a company to have a lofty vision, but being sure to implement the right tactical building blocks are critical to achieving it.
“Always be curious. Read as much as you can and ask lots of questions about everything. The best lessons and ideas for leadership often come from unexpected sources.”