Karen Feeney – KenCrest
It all started with a book club. As Karen Feeney tells it, she and her colleagues were just discussing “Turn the Ship Around” by David Marquet, who served as captain of the USS Santa Fe, the worst-performing ship in its fleet until Marquet took over and made some changes—chief among them a shift to what Marquet has dubbed the leader-leader model.
Reading the book in 2021 prompted a similar cultural mind shift at KenCrest, whose workforce quickly adopted Marquet’s idea, with help from Feeney and inspired by CEO Marian Baldini.
KenCrest is an early education provider for young children and a human services organization for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities that operates in three states. According to Feeney, Marquet’s model aligned perfectly with the company’s ethos of self-actualization—for both the people it serves and employs.
Put simply, in a healthy leader-leader culture, program and service providers across KenCrest help people live their best lives by proactively identifying and resolving problems even when left to their own devices. Instead of waiting to be told what to do, the company’s providers offer critical thinking to help shape solutions.
“One of our core values is inclusion; we want to make sure that, much like we do for external communities, we’re practicing the same way forward with our employees,” says Feeney, vice president of talent acquisition and development at KenCrest. “They’re our most valued resource. It’s something that we’re taking seriously.”
After the book club discussions, Baldini and Feeney introduced the leader-leader model to all employees through KenCrest’s weekly town halls to build awareness and readiness for adapting to the culture. Before long, KenCrest staffers were building content for self-paced modules on leader-leader principles as well as integrating guided discussions on applying leader-leader terminology to enable a common language for model adoption. Eventually, KenCrest worked leader-leader concepts into job descriptions and communication tools
“We wanted people to recognize leader-leader as embedded in our culture and accessible to all,” Feeney says. “We continue to explore how this structure helps frame the big picture of what we’re trying to accomplish—that people feel like they have a place to work where they want to stay and where they can thrive.”
Self-betterment as a cultural priority
For Feeney, leader-leader ties into a fundamental principle: Everyone should have the opportunity to lead, be it through routine tasks or special projects and initiatives.
And that principle is woven into the multiple initiatives launched under the direction of Feeney, who says that the overarching theme behind all the changes is giving back to the company’s workforce.
Feeney co-sponsored KenCrest’s 2022 rollout of the NADSP accreditation program for direct service professionals, allowing essential workers the opportunities to earn certification and recognition for exemplary work in supporting people with disabilities.
She also spearheaded the expansion and increased utilization of KenCrest’s learning management system content to allow access to other skill-building and certification programs. And she’s implemented cohort leadership development with coaching support for frontline supervisors, offering competency-based learning and self-awareness training—think unconscious bias and reflective practice.
“If you join us now, you’re coming in at a very good time because KenCrest is definitely committed to making good change and growth happen,” Feeney says.
Career pathing to boost retention
To aid retention efforts, Feeney has recently steered the development of an internal career pathing program: PathPASS. With its tagline, “You’ll go places with us,” the program aligns with KenCrest’s branding messaging of “Careers Grow Here,” she says.
“KenCrest supports employees to have that continuous feeling of forward career motion and new learning, or applying what you know in new ways,” Feeney says.
PathPASS, with a planned launch by the end of the year, will offer a standardized approach and resources for employees to digitally build and track progress toward career goals based on three path choices. While there is the more traditional way of ascending the career ladder and becoming a supervisor or a manager, not everyone wants to manage people, Feeney notes. So, another path is lateral movement. Finally, there is the subject matter expert path, in which one creates a senior-level tier for the job one already holds to recognize advanced progression and expertise in the role.
In preparation for launch, Feeney realized a need for a viable solution for supervisors and employees, as well as potential coaches and peers, to work with each other through the program. So, KenCrest agreed to participate as a pilot group for its employee management system provider, who is preparing for the release of their career pathing software solution with artificial intelligence.
Leading by example
After earning a degree in communications from Temple University, Feeney started her human resources career more than two decades ago as a career services director in the proprietary school industry. She proceeded to lead management development for six years at Commerce Bank, where she met Christopher Leady, a trusted HR advisor and friend who helped her hone HR leadership skills.
“He introduced me to HR in a refreshingly new way at the time, by emphasizing the importance of being your authentic self,” Feeney says.
During her seven-year tenure as the head of HR operations at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Feeney earned the Facilities Management Professional Certification as well as a master’s degree in HR development from Villanova. She also served as the HR liaison for opening the Roberts Center for Pediatric Research at CHOP and facilitated the centralization of contingent workforce management.
Feeney was recognized as Healthcare Talent Acquisition Leader of the Year in 2018 by HRO Today and gives much credit for this accomplishment and related HR executive career success to her then-supervisor and mentor, Rob Croner, former CHOP senior vice president and chief human resources officer.
“Rob quickly understood and supported my passion for leading and sustaining significant talent-oriented organizational change and provided progressive means for me to share it constructively with others,” Feeney says. “He helped me remain resilient and ready for opportunities, as well as recognize them once within reach.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Feeney was working as an HR executive at a global background check company, but business and personal priorities changed. By the end of 2020, she joined KenCrest, and in 2021 she was promoted to her current role.
“My own progressive leadership journey has taught me how rewarding it is to work where expressing gratitude is a norm and giving back is a standard practice,” Feeney says. “Working at KenCrest has given me the career gift of giving back in these ways to well-deserving staff.”
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