Karen Walker is a consultant, author, and advisor to CEOs and senior leaders. She helps her clients grow their companies with successful outcomes that include IPOs, acquisitions, market share increases, and significant leadership development. Her clients include Inc. 500 start-ups and Fortune 500 firms. Her work helps senior leaders create internal strategies that support their organizations’ external growth; and she is the author of the recently published book, No Dumbing Down – A No-nonsense Guide for CEOs on Organization Growth. Prior to launching her consultancy, Karen was employee #104 at Compaq Computer – then the fastest growing company in America and fastest to $1billion in revenue. She resides in Jupiter, Florida, although she can most often be found aloft in seat 2C.
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NO DUMBING DOWN
Karla Nelson: And welcome to The People Catalysts podcast, Karen Walker.
Karen Walker: Happy to be here, Karla. Thanks for having me.
Karla Nelson: You got it. I’m excited about today’s podcast today with you, Karen, and kind of to talk about, we had a little bit of a time before we started the podcast, to talk about my first personal computer and my laptop was a Compaq, so that was kind of fun when I was reading through your personal history.
Karen Walker: Yes.
Karla Nelson: But how did you get from there to here?
Karen Walker: Well, it was not a preplanned journey, I can say that. It’s sort of the same way that I got from where I was to Compaq. I actually noticed people leaving the Fortune 100 company that I was at and going to a startup and I was very curious about what was going on. I was 25. I had a lot that I wanted to do in my life that I wasn’t sure I could do in the current situation, so I joined Compaq based really on the people that were there because they hadn’t announced any products yet. Then when I left, some 14 years later, we were about, I don’t know, 17,000 people I think, by that point.
Karla Nelson: Wow.
Karen Walker: About $15 billion in revenue. Yes, quite the journey. We could do a whole podcast on that, but I was so busy that I couldn’t find time for myself or make time for myself to really figure out what I wanted to do next, so I spent a little bit of time on that prior to leaving. But I basically gave myself a sabbatical to figure out what I wanted to do next.
Karla Nelson: It’s so true. We always, it’s what do we want to be when we grow up, right?
Karen Walker: Right.
Karla Nelson: It’s a never-ending journey.
Karen Walker: Right and when you’re in the middle of this 24/7 job, at least for me, I knew that there were good possibilities that I would not see, just because my box could be limited. You know, the box of things that I could look at, so I moved. I moved from Texas to New York City. I took classes at Columbia. I went to a lot of different conferences that looked interesting. I read a lot of books. I met a lot of people and eventually, in about a course of maybe two years, I started narrow down on consulting and what I really missed doing which was really working with teams of people to help them at a senior level, make sure they’re clear about what they’re doing and why and then helping them execute on that because I’m a problem solver by background. I was a member of the senior leadership team that got a lot done, obviously, and I’m an engineer by degree, so sort of getting that problem solving from the abstract down into something that’s real is very important to me.
About that time, I met my now husband who became my business partner, who’s a PhD psychologist. So his psychology perspective and my engineering insight, getting it done perspective, although it was a little like making sausage at times, we provided this great 360 view to our CEO clients. That’s really how this business got launched and it’s the work I’ve been doing now for the last couple of decades.
Karla Nelson: That’s awesome and Karen, I love how you say that you went from this Fortune 500 situation to a startup and you went there because the people that were there. I just think that is so critical in so many different ways of you know, it doesn’t even matter what problem you’re trying to solve, or you know, you putting your dent on the universe. When you’ve got great people, that really is the core of a great venture.
Karen Walker: Yes.
Karla Nelson: So can we hear just a little bit about that ’cause I just think that’s-
Karen Walker: Of course.
Karla Nelson: Really interesting and also the number one thing that people say, “Hey, it was because of who it was,” right?
Karen Walker: Yep, so there’s no substitute for a great product market fit and we have to be really clear about that up front. If you don’t have a product market fit and you have good people, that’ll be interesting, but it may not be, if you’re as achievement oriented as I am, most of my clients are, it may not quite fit the bill. But if you have a good product market fit and you have an amazing team, I think there’s little to stop you and that’s really what we found at Compaq. I had so much respect for the people that I worked with. There was so much assumption of good intent whenever things came up that looked like they could be conflictual, we were able to deal with those conflicts because we respected the people we worked with and we knew they were coming from a place of trying to solve the problem.
I think that’s one of the things that I see in corporations that are growing fast is that once you reach a certain size and you don’t all know each other anymore, those are the kinds of things that get lost. And once they’re lost, they’re really hard to get back and you know, I can understand. People come to large corporations with all kinds of different experiences, some of which have been positive and some of which have not, and it’s hard to trust people that you don’t know if you had bad experience with that before. It’s hard to follow someone through a change process if you had bad experience before.
Karla Nelson: That definitely speaks to that trust, right?
Karen Walker: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Karla Nelson: It’s easier to trust when it’s five individuals that you know that you’re going to a startup versus that startup grows to 5,000, right, individuals and based off of your history as well. I just watched this incredible documentary on Pixar. It was incredible and I can’t remember, is the CEO, I think it’s John Lasseter is his name, and it was so interesting because of course Pixar went through so many iterations. Everybody thinks they’re the staple, yeah, the 20-year overnight success, like it typically is, right? Wow, that’s just amazing, right?
It’s Pixar and one of the things that John Lasseter said that I thought was brilliant was that he realized after maybe 10 or 15 years that it wasn’t the idea, it was the team. It was the team that was critical. It could be the best idea in the world, but if you don’t have an incredible team, right, then you’re not going to make it happen anyway. I thought, gosh, that’s so brilliant to think about somebody who is so creative, right? When you think about Pixar, they did the first, what, 3D film? They did Toy Story. I think the first nine films that they came out with won incredible awards.
Karen Walker: Yeah, completely groundbreaking work and still, to this day, right, some place that’s known for its innovation.
Karla Nelson: Yeah, I think that’s super incredible and to have them realize it wasn’t the idea, it was the team. That’s when you look through their history, they would give a different individual an opportunity to make their idea come to life. I think at any great venture, right, at its core, is really, and Karen, you also said, you obviously have to have market fit, right? That one’s obvious, but to have this incredible team, how do you when you’re working with your clients, how do you boil that down to ensuring that they are nurturing that team because I think sometimes we jump over team and go straight to client.
Karen Walker: We also jump over team and just focus on the function, so I want to talk about that. I first have to give a plug for another great documentary called Silicon Cowboys, since you brought up the Pixar documentary. Silicon Cowboys is a documentary that was made maybe three or four years ago now, about the Compaq story based on our founder Rod Canion’s book Open. It was done by an Academy Award winning director and so it’s really, it’s great. It’ll take you back to the ’80s and ’90s in a split second and really it tells the story of how Compaq contributed to the open software era and why we’re able to have what we have on our iPhones today, so-
Karla Nelson: Yeah, well, and not only that, wow, open software. I mean, geez, that’s completely revolutionary, depending on when you’re looking at what you’re building and which methodology you’re going down, so that’s interesting. I’ll have to check that out.
Karen Walker: All right, so quick plug. Now, the whole, teams will not happen and will not happen well in an organization if they’re not important to the CEO because whatever the CEO and the senior team reward and what they model is what’s going to happen. So often, we skip over the idea of this senior leadership group working together as a team rather than just teaming within their functions and I think that’s one of the ways that we can get our own way. What happens is, our sales often, at least for the organizations that I’m working with, sales are usually in really good shape, all right. We have a good product market fit. We have a great sales team. They’re out getting results and then we have to deal with those sales internally.
We have to work cross-functionally to do that in an interdependent way and if those functions do not realize and act in a way that deals with that interdependence, we can’t be successful. So you’ll find that maybe your engineering and development team can’t quite deliver what sales has promised or sales has promised things that engineering team can’t deliver. Or maybe you have such great sales that your account management team and your customer success teams can’t take care of the promise that’s been made to those customers. You can’t deliver on it. So, I think this whole idea of interdependence at the team level is really important.
One of the ways that I work with my clients around doing that is this idea of not allowing dumbing down. That’s the title of a book that I recently released called No Dumbing Down. It’s one of the strategies that I think CEOs have to pay attention to and what happens with dumbing down is it’s something that we’ve all experienced. It’s, I think, one of the biggest reasons why an organization’s internal and external strategies really misalign and misfire and it’s what I think of as teamwork as usual. So, organizations will have this big all hands meeting, and they’ll kick off team work and there’s a facilitator and everybody gets t-shirts and hats. People are thinking, “Oh yeah, this time-
Karla Nelson: Oh my gosh, our podcast-
Karen Walker: Right, you’ve been there?
Karla Nelson: Yeah, our podcast last week was just about death by meeting and how to not do that.
Karen Walker: Exactly.
Karla Nelson: Our partners, we often get an invite to listen to these meetings. Sometimes they’re innovation or what not and we just basically sit in the corner and don’t say anything and then give a report. Interesting, it’s besides the t-shirts and the mugs that are handed out, it’s pretty much a waste of time.
Karen Walker: And worse than that, I think that it actually decreases performance because people expect things will be different and then things are not different, so people try-
Karla Nelson: Oh my gosh, Karen.
Karen Walker: Right, and then it just devolves.
Karla Nelson: This is what I call the sit tight, don’t make any sudden moves and nothing will change anyway.
Karen Walker: Yes, right? So, when you do that, you’re working in a dumbed down environment and your A players do not and will not put up with that, right? The team will become like a burn pit to them.
Karla Nelson: By the way, for very different reasons, so based off law of diffusion of innovations in the work we do, a shaker, if it’s not their idea of they don’t have their thumbprint on it, they’ll say no to it. If a prover is in the room and it hasn’t been thought through, it’s not going to work anyway. A maker doesn’t even want to hear it until you’ve figured out all the flaws and everything to where you can get to a checklist and audit the checklist. There’s only 15% of a population that will say yes to a new idea which is a mover, but if that meeting is not productive, then you can’t get them to buy into it because they just want to go get something done. So essentially that you’re absolutely right, is it not only is that dumbing down, it’s literally working against everything you’re trying to accomplish, right?
Karen Walker: Right, and who wants to pitch an idea where you have a 15% chance of one person in the room saying yes, right?
Karla Nelson: Yeah.
Karen Walker: So that’s for, I think, an untrained or unconscious population because we go into these meetings and these teams thinking that it’s the same skill set that made us successful as an individual contributor that will make us successful as a team member. And well the skill sets are not completely dissimilar, they are not the same. So just to understand, right, the concepts, for example, that you just spoke for, that people are different in their decision-making criteria. They are different in how they resolve conflict. They are different in their priorities and their alignment. If you know that going in, then you at least have a fighting chance of getting the team to be functional. I think this idea of a team becoming a tar pit, it’s really one of the things that’s hardest for me when I see, particularly big companies try to work through issues and solve problems using the team.
We all know that working through a team for most things, will get us better results because of the diversity of opinion, but we have to allow that diversity to be brought up, to be respected, and to be considered.
Karla Nelson: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah, I agree with you completely. There’s three words that we utilize frequently is people are different, right?
Karen Walker: Yes.
Karla Nelson: It’s interesting because when you take in information a certain way, we kind of have a bias then at that point that everybody’s like us, right, and they’re not.
Karen Walker: No, and that bias leads to giant blind spots, right?
Karla Nelson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Karen Walker: If everybody’s like me, which I thought they were when I was a young manager, just do it the way I’m doing it, we can get somethings done really well, but we have giant blind spots about how to get other things done well.
Karla Nelson: Yep, you got it. So can you share kind of a story that, and obviously we try not to identify specifics or a specific client, but just a story of when either you had a blind spot or you walked into a situation and someone else had a blind spot that you’re willing to help them and facilitate a solution to that because I think that’s a really big thing. One of my first mentors, well they were a trainer, but they were a very well paid trainer, that was my “mentor,” said, “Karla, your biggest challenge is that you think everybody is like you.” It was, “Whoa.” Then all of a sudden, I started thinking about it, I’m, “Yeah, my blind spot was the fact that I thought everybody responded and did things like I did.” To adjust that made a huge difference, number one, because my expectations were completely different, but number two because I could then see that I could differentiate the way that I would respond versus the way somebody else would respond and basically the difference in between, right?
Karen Walker: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Karla Nelson: So, you can identify that difference in between versus good, bad, right, wrong, right?
Karen Walker: Right.
Karla Nelson: It was just difference. It wasn’t anything else.
Karen Walker: Oh, so many stories.
Karla Nelson: Yeah, you got to pull out one. I can hear, you’re, “Stack, stack, stack.”
Karen Walker: Yeah, exactly. Well, I’ll give you a couple of brief examples. One is, and this is a current client who’s going through an enormous change in their organization and it is crystal clear, I mean, it is beyond crystal clear. It is amazingly clear to the founder and CEO what needs to happen. He literally can see the future. This guy is a visionary that people will follow off the cliff because he’s so clear and they can see that he is clear, and they trust him. He’s had remarkable success in the past. And what’s happening is that the idea and the vision is at such a high level, and it’s a big important change they’re making, so it needs to be large and all encompassing, but the specific level of detail, this step of the getting to what does this mean to me, hasn’t happened.
So, people want to do the right thing, they want to make the change in the organization. They want to make this big vision come to fruition, but they don’t know what to do. So as people do, they sort of sort out, okay, so I’m going to take these steps and see if this is it. But then they bump into somebody in another department who has a slightly different take on it or sometimes a radically different take on it and they bump into each other and then they get stuck. So translating from the big vision, which is sort of this big picture area that some of us like to live in, down to the what does this mean to me and what do I need to do so that what my work ties back to this big vision and helps move it along, is a step that people can see needs to happen, but don’t always know how to make it happen.
I’d say that’s definitely one thing. Another area I see a lot is where we get so caught up in content that we forget about process, or the reverse, right? I think of it as sort of my start up to grown up continuum, but we think about that as something that’s linear. We go from start up to grown up, but I argue and believe and have experienced, that you go both ways on that continuum. What you need to do is to react to the situation with what’s called for, so sometimes you need a lot of process. You need process for those things that are replicable and scalable and that you don’t want or need maturation in, but you don’t want to take that sort of process and apply it to something that requires more of a startup, sort of seat of the pants, response, right?
Karla Nelson: Yep, you’ve got it and that’s exactly the book Lean Startup. It’s, “Hey, let’s get to failure quick, right?” That’s mostly, probably a Silicon Valley, obviously the book came out of, I think it was Salt Lake City or something that the book actually came out of, but it goes against what we naturally, and I love what you’re saying with content and process because everyone … It’s the same thing as a 20-year overnight success, no, they were just responding. Their entire venture that we talked about earlier with Pixar, they were responding for 20 years and then all of a sudden, ta-da, right?
It was now you’re a success, so I agree that sometimes you do need more process and sometimes you need that content and that content might be just inspiration or it might just be the idea or it might just be in going back and forth between the two versus you kind of can choke out the brilliance of what it is you’re trying to accomplish by too much process, but my goodness, with Compaq you guys went to 17,000 people. Now all of a sudden, if you don’t have process, it’s just chaos. It’s going between chaos and process, you know?
Karen Walker: I think when you have too much process, what occurs is sort of a complacency that oh, we have a process, the process will take care of it. And again, we need process for somethings, but if you over apply it, you sort of dampen the vibrancy in the organization.
Karla Nelson: You know, that’s so interesting.
Karen Walker: That’s what companies tend to lose.
Karla Nelson: That’s interesting, Karen, especially working with, you know our work is primarily with the Fortune 500 companies, but look at the law of diffusion of innovations, right? You’ve got your early adopters and late adopters. It’s not good, bad, right, or wrong, but the early adopters tend to have the, oh, this is a new idea. This is a great idea. This is the shiny object kind of syndrome a little bit. Then you’ve got your later adopters that really enjoy process and they enjoy the checklist. They enjoy the things being step one, step two, step three and it’s just kind of interesting because a lot of the companies, we’ve had the opportunity to work with, that when they get to so later adopter, they’re not innovative anymore. You know?
Karen Walker: Yeah.
Karla Nelson: It’s interesting that they’re … It’s like this ebb and flow that happens between the two versus kind of a controlled ebb and flow.
Karen Walker: That’s why you need a CEO and a senior team that understand this and that pay attention to it because people will self-select into organizations that have the kind of culture that they want to work in. I think often times where we see “misfits” or where you have those late stage adopters come into a company that’s full of early stage adopters and the need for them is not respected or the reverse, right? I do a lot of work with mergers and acquisitions. I always say that a lot of people get rewarded for making the deal, but not so many people get rewarded for making it work, so we’re focused on making it work. But you want to make sure that when you do an acquisition that you get the value from it, that it is, and often what you’re acquiring are a lot of organization of people who are, in your terminology, early adopters. But you want them to become intrapreneurs where they have been entrepreneurs and that can be hard to do in an organization if it’s a big organization that values more process and less of this sort of startup mentality.
I have a story. My brother runs technology development and one of his companies was acquired by a much larger company and he was talking with me one day and he said, “Well, you know, we don’t really have an M and A department. We have an M and D department.” I said, “Oh, okay, so I’m hooked. Tell me what an M and D is.” And he said, “We merge and destroy. We buy these amazing companies and then we systematically suck the life out of them, and we destroy all the value that we bought, and we do that because we are overlaying so much process on them that they don’t have the room to do the work that we want them to do.”
Karla Nelson: Oh, they don’t have the room to the work that … I love that Karen. And truly, it’s just that they are different. If you’re going to acquire a type of business that has more early-adopter mentality in it, which is the movers and shakers, versus a company, you know, we were just working with another company, very late adopting insurance. It’s very cross the t’s, dot the i’s, not good, bad, right, or wrong. It’s just that the fact that that’s the type of individual that is going to be successful in each of those ventures and understanding it and allowing them to breathe because otherwise they’re going to leave or you’re going to choke the life out of it. It doesn’t matter on whichever end, right?
Karen Walker: That’s right.
Karla Nelson: It doesn’t matter if you’re on the cutting edge, bleeding edge of technology or if you’re at the point where you’re programming the zeros and the ones in the computer. You just have to understand what that is and respect the fact that people are different and that we need everyone. We just don’t need them all at the same time, typically, and to understand that it’s different and people are different.
Karen Walker: Yes, that brings up, I did work with one of the very large insurance companies with the CIO and he was I think the fourth CIO, maybe the third CIO, they’d had in two years and with working with people who have primarily been working at this insurance company for their careers, decades, decades. This was a population that was accustomed to failed change and so he came in, as had the other previous CIOs, with a mandate to change, to really transform the organization. What he found was a great deal of resistance. People just put their heads down and said, “This too will pass,” because it had before, right?
Karla Nelson: Let me tell you, don’t make any sudden moves and nothing will change anyways.
Karen Walker: That’s right. So, working with them on a sort of a whole scale large system process to help the organization see individually why they really needed to change. It wasn’t a question anymore. It wasn’t good to do. It was a must do and what each of them needed to do in order to make that happen. But it was overcoming that resistance and misunderstanding of how failed change really does harm the organization and it has to be dealt with.
Karla Nelson: Yep. It’s just the promise that doesn’t ever get resolved, right? Hey, we’re going to change. No, we’re not. We’re going to change. No, we’re not. You said you’re going to do this. This didn’t happen. It’s that culture and you see that so frequently, Karen, where it’s the false promises of what’s going to happen and at the root of everything, the biggest challenge with that is that’s your team, right? That bleeds into every other area of your business. Everyone wants to talk about the client, but if you don’t have a great team that’s working together, then you’re skipping ahead because great teams create great clients, happy clients. Then what we haven’t really touched on in this podcast is then the channel partner or everybody calls ’em different things, referral partner, promoter, right, is that it’s a natural progression, but if at the root your team is not trusting what you’re saying is going to happen, they’re kind of just sitting there and saying, “Okay, well, it’s same old, same old.”
I’m not sure if you saw, the Gallup Poll came out again. They do this every single year and look at the percentage of individuals that hate their jobs and it’s right around 70% of people in the United States. They’re not, not okay with it, it’s that they actually capital H, Hate what they do every day. Can you imagine when 70% of your people are absolutely not enjoying-
Karen Walker: Well we experience that every day. Every time, not every time, almost every time we have a poor customer experience, it’s somebody not liking their job. You contrast that with there’s a startup paper company, I ordered a notebook from, I go the wrong thing. I emailed them and say, “Hey, probably my mistake, must’ve ordered the wrong thing.” And they said, “Here’s a mailing label. Stick it back in the mail. I’ll personally make sure you get the right one.” This is not a large purchase. This was someone who liked their job. I got it and this wasn’t an email from some made up customer service person, right? It was somebody who likes their job and who wants to do the right thing. I think that we experience it all the time where people don’t like their jobs and I go from sad to angry about that, right? That both we have created corporate cultures where it’s possible for 70 people to hate their jobs and the corporation to still exist. Think what that could be like if only half of those people loved their jobs, right?
Karla Nelson: Yes.
Karen Walker: And why not, right? So that’s not only on the corporation, it is also on the individual. Hey, I get it. There are some people who need to show up at work for the benefits. Were I a mother of a large family and sole provider and all of that, I am sure I would do whatever it took to get food on the table and health insurance for my family. I have no question. I would do what it took and for most people, we have choices about where we work and what we do. So, once you find yourself in a position where you are not loving your job, never mind liking it, but you’ve gone all the way to hating it, I think it’s a horrible thing that that goes on and that people don’t take action to correct that for themselves as well as the organization.
One of the books I love, and I know we’re not going to talk about books today much, but is this idea of The Alliance, Reid Hoffman’s book where the CEO or the senior leader will have a chore of duty conversation with employees about why are you here? What do you need to get from us and here’s what we need to get from you and let’s make sure those are aligned over the next couple of years.
Karla Nelson: Yes. I love it. It is absolutely critical, and I think it’s one of the things that a lot of even small business owners, medium size, all the way up to Fortune 100 companies, is understanding that at the very DNA level, right, of your company, how much that means to everything else. Your strategies great, but at the end of the day, you have to have a strategy that somebody’s willing to embrace, right? Just how you actually went to Compaq, right? It was the people and what they were planning to do and what dent they wanted to put on the universe but understanding that you were a part of something greater than yourself. I love that’s one of the biggest things that Simon Sinek talks about is start with why. I think he said probably, I think it was 85 times, people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it and understanding that little piece and sharing that with your team is absolutely critical.
I think we just skip that step. I know I did in my early stage in businesses that I had launched is that getting people will work so hard with their time and their talent and their energy if you share that vision with them. I think you spoke about that earlier, is what does this vision mean to me, right? So, going from the big vision down to specifically, what does this mean to me and being so clear that if you meet somebody in the elevator and they said, “Well I thought this.” And then somebody else says, “Well I thought that.” Well, being so clear to the fact that they can agree on-
Karen Walker: Yes, and if they don’t, that they feel a responsibility to clear it up, right?
Karla Nelson: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Karen Walker: That actually was one of the core tenants at Compaq was if there’s a problem, you own it until you get it solved. That doesn’t mean you have to solve it, but you have to run it to ground.
Karla Nelson: Yeah, got to raise your hand.
Karen Walker: You cannot leave that misunderstanding, that misalignment, on the elevator when you get off.
Karla Nelson: Awesome.
Karen Walker: Because if you do, it’s going to come back in ways that will harm you and will harm the organization and will harm your clients and your customers and that’s not okay.
Karla Nelson: Absolutely. I love it. Okay, so Karen, how can our listeners find your book and find you?
Karen Walker: Yeah, thank you. Well, the book, No Dumbing Down, which is a primer, it’s A No-Nonsense Guide for CEOs on Organization Growth, can be if you go to NoDumbingDown.com, that will lead you to the page on my website where you can see more about the book. You can also order it from all the places we order books from now.
Karla Nelson: Which is amazing.
Karen Walker: Which are shrinking.
Karla Nelson: Remember though Karen, we used to be able to just go to the store. I don’t think I’ve seen a Barnes and Noble for quite some time. There’s one more that exists in our town, but …
Karen Walker: I have one, it’s, I don’t know, 40 minutes away. I miss the independent bookstore.
Karla Nelson: I do too. I miss browsing, but I have to tell you, I do like the fact that I can get on my Kindle a book like that.
Karen Walker: Just more ways to read, right? I’m good with all of it as long as I have access. So anyway, that’s the book. My website is KarenWalker.us and that’s all traditional spelling. K-A-R-E-N-W-A-L-K-E-R, so KarenWalker.us will take you to my website and on all the social media sites, I am Karen Walker, US.
Karla Nelson: We’ll make sure we have all of those links put in the notes as well. So, thank you so much for your time today, Karen.
Karen Walker: Enjoyed it. Thanks for the interesting questions and the dialogue.
Karla Nelson: Fantastic. We’ll see you soon.
Karen Walker: Bye.