On Holistic Leadership
Carren O’Keefe is Executive Creative Director at AnalogFolk
Carren’s Top Values
How I know Carren
I was connected to Carren through a network of female American expats living in Amsterdam. Her professional accomplishments alone blew me away initially: she is an Executive Creative Director working with clients like Nike, she has opened two offices with her company, and this year she will be a judge at the Cannes Lions. But what impresses me the most about Carren is her commitment to authenticity. The Carren you get at work is the same on off-hours. She is openly caring, spiritual, and growth-minded. She doesn’t shy away from being too “woo-woo” – in fact, she owns it. In this interview, I catch Carren fresh out of a 5-week self-funded sabbatical. She speaks about her mission to leave the world a little better than we find it and about the importance of embracing holistic leadership.
Q: You just got back from a 5-week sabbatical. Tell me more about it!
It was so enriching. I call it my “Restore, Discover, Recover” break (a play on “Eat, Pray, Love”):
1- “Restore”: Ayurveda retreat – Getting my health back to baseline.
2- “Discover”: Sri Lanka adventures – Surrendering to a new culture.
3- “Recover”: Maldives bougie retreat – The wind-down.
My body needed a break after a 7-year sprint at my company (living in 3 cities, opening 2 of the offices, and navigating the pandemic). I knew I was overdue for a sabbatical to take an extended break. Self-work is so important but also so difficult. Taking time off to travel solo allowed me to create the space I needed to get back to me.
Q: What were the biggest insights that came to you during the sabbatical?
A big one around Surrender. When I was in Sri Lanka, there was a country-wide social media lockdown, including WhatsApp. There was a lot of social unrest around me, and I was wondering if I should call the whole trip off at that point. And then I remembered this quote from “The Power of Now” by Eckhart Tolle: “Accept — then act. Whatever the present moment contains, accept it as if you had chosen it. Always work with it, not against it. Make it your friend and ally, not your enemy. This will miraculously transform your whole life.” And I used this trip as an opportunity to practice being present for whatever was happening. And I ended up having an amazing trip!
Another one is that taking time for self-care doesn’t mean you jeopardize your success. I want to live what I preach to my team: to take time off when it’s needed, to be the best version of yourself without burnout. I make it a point to tell them: “You can take 5 weeks off and still judge the Cannes. You can do both!” I’m on a personal mission to dismantle the system in which I grew up, where I felt like my success had to come at a personal cost.
Q: What has it been like to be back in your natural habitat?
I was definitely ready to come back by the end of the trip. Initially I had a surge of guilt about taking so much time off. But I’ve re-framed that by focusing on long-term solutions so that no one has to feel guilty about taking time off when they need it… including things like: the team culture we foster, the support structure we have in place, and the values we establish as a company. I encourage my team to take time off when they need it as I did, with the right systematic support.
Q: In advertising, you guys are in a client-facing service job that often leads to long and intense work schedules. What’s your take on how to change that?
I think service looks different than what it used to. It’s less important what we do than why we do it, and ensuring that we are delivering genuine meaning to the work. And stress doesn’t have to be part of it. In fact, we HAVE to remove stress out of it. Because we are in a human business with human needs. I want to be an agent of change in the industry to show that you can have high-performance AND leave burnout at the door. We’re certainly not perfect at it, but we’re trying to improve each day and it’s really about progress over perfection.
Q: What advice would you give early careerists today?
To foster empathy for yourself and others early in your career. We are all human beings, even the senior leaders who may seem infallible. We are all fallible. There is an exercise that I heard about recently where it encourages you to see every person’s inner child because this allows you to see their true humanity. And it’s the same for yourself too – be kind to your inner child and be kind to others too.
The other advice is to not let people take your power. So many industries are ego-driven, where not knowing the answers is scary and making mistakes can feel unsafe. Start to trust yourself more, because when you’re junior what you don’t bring in years of experiences you make up for with your fresh perspective. Lean into the value that you bring, and when in doubt remember that even Michelle Obama has imposter syndrome. It’s okay to feel that way.
Q: Let’s talk about your woo-woo-ness. You are openly spiritual and carry a crystal with you to meetings. Do you ever feel out of place at work?
I decided early on that I can only be me, not somebody else, and I stopped putting on a face to be anyone different. I come from a conservative small town and often felt like I needed to hide my blue collar upbringing among my professional circles when I first moved to New York. But now I embrace who I am: I’m a writer who hates reading books and I’m a creative who loves trashy TV over foreign films. And yes, I am spiritual and carry a crystal around with me to meetings.
My spiritual journey started when I certified to be a yoga instructor. One of the things they teach is that bodies and minds open in increments – and for me, this has definitely been true. Spirituality is about belief, and I believe in love as a foundational principle that leads to empathy. I believe in woo-woo and I want to re-claim woo-woo as a non-negative thing. By showing up as my full self at work, I hope I’m making it more acceptable for someone else to do the same. We are all human beings who should feel safe to bring all of ourselves to work.
Thank you for sharing your wisdom, Carren!
Do you know any inspiring and values-driven leaders whom the world should know about? Shoot me an email if you’d like to nominate and introduce that person. You can reach me at email@example.com