Kara Penn: An interview by Bob Morris


Kara Penn is cofounder and principal consultant at Mission Spark, a management consulting firm dedicated to organizational change and improvement in complex and often resource-constrained settings. In guiding her clients’ thinking, planning, and action, Kara focuses on best practice and implementation, an approach that puts her at the front lines of practical management in varied domains. Kara has fifteen years of experience in senior leadership positions, including as founder, director, chair, coach and board member. She’s led award-winning community collaboratives; designed, managed, and evaluated multiyear social change initiatives; and provided in-depth consulting services to more than seventy social enterprises, corporations, and foundations.

Kara graduated from Colorado College, where she was a Boettcher Scholar. She completed her MPP as a Harris Fellow at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy and her MBA at the MIT Sloan School of Management. MIT Sloan recognized Kara with the Seley Award, the highest honor given to a graduating student. Kara has also been awarded several national fellowships, including the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, which supports independent, purposeful travel to foster fellows’ effective participation in the world community, the Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs to develop principled public leaders, and the Forté Fellowship to promote women leaders in business.

Kara co-authored Fail Better: Design Smart Mistakes and Succeed Sooner with Anjali Sastry. It was published by Harvard Business Review Press (November 2014).

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Morris: Before discussing Fail Better, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Penn: The greatest influence on my personal growth stemmed not from a “who” but a “what.” When I was 22, I spent a year engaged in independent travel abroad. I grappled with loneliness, failure and taking risks. I was away from my very supportive network of family and friends, and I confronted setback after setback. After several months of grappling with what was missing, an immense sense of possibility, personal accountability and self-direction emerged that has continued to grow and guide me. I became keenly aware that I could welcome, benefit from, and create room for the unexpected. I learned to be truly alone with myself and be at ease, and I learned that at all times I could be a student of what others had to teach. The experience was immensely freeing and powerful.

Morris: The greatest impact on your professional development? How so?

Penn: I’ve often asked myself which professional development experiences I’ve had have been the most impactful. The answer always comes down to immersion experiences, where I had opportunity to put learning into action with protected time to reflect and embed new insights. Though I’ve completed two graduate degrees through traditional learning institutions, my time as a Coro Fellow was the most influential professional development investment I’ve made.

The Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs is a national, nine-month program modeled off of a medical residency, where each fellow works in intensive six-week rotations in organizations representing different sectors of society. At the same time, fellows focus on developing leadership, public speaking, civic engagement, project management, media and other professional skills. Coro is basically a leadership and experiential learning boot camp. As a fellow, I worked on high-level projects for an airline, a union, a government agency, a hospital, and a nonprofit. I worked on a political campaign for an elected official.

Other fellows were doing the same, for different organizations within the same sector. We’d come back together after long days working to compare notes and create a snapshot of that sector, and relate it to others we had already worked within. By the end of nine months, we emerged with a much more integrated and realistic view of how things get done within complex systems. And through a process of intensive 360-degree feedback, self- reflection, creating new habits, and skill building, I developed into a more effective change agent.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Penn: I’ve always been a mission-driven person, who cares deeply about positive social impact, and social and environmental justice. My personal life and career reflect a desire to serve and to focus on pressing social and environmental issues. Though I can remember this calling as always being a strong force in my life, the Gulf War Oil Spill in 1991, when I was 15, was one of the first periods of my life when I took on the role of activist and organizer. I can remember finding some like-minded collaborators, and together we planned an environmental education summit for our community because it was what I could think of to do at the time.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Penn: My formal education experiences have opened up invaluable networks of colleagues and friends, and allowed intense and protected periods of time to learn, experiment and explore. My time at MIT was particularly valuable as I had opportunity to work with a multi-disciplinary group of students on effecting change within the MIT system relating to embracing principles of social, economic, and environmental sustainability. My time working with them and the results our efforts produced, are among the highlights of my educational experience.

Morris: In recent years, there has been criticism, sometimes-severe criticism of M.B.A. programs, even those offered by the most prestigious business schools. In your opinion, in which area is there the greatest need for immediate improvement? Any suggestions?

Penn: The move to providing more action learning experiences seems to be a positive direction for business school curricula, but there seems to be room for tighter feedback loops, iteration of ideas over the course of a project, and the embedding and sharing of lessons learned to help students develop and grow their professional and personal skills. In some ways, my co-author, Anal Satyr and I developed the method that underpins Fail Better to address some of those needs. Of course, these are not challenges only MBA students face as they carry out multi-faceted projects, but MBA programs seem uniquely suited to design curricula and experiences in such a way that students have a “safe sandbox” in which to experiment, make mistakes, test assumptions, develop rigorous habits of reflection and improvement, and share what they’ve learned.

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Kara cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Fail Better link

Mission Spark link

Groundwork MIT link

Facebook link

Twitter links



Fail Better

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