If it’s an early January morning, you’re likely to find Karen Sullivan in her kitchen in front of a hot cup of tea and an open journal. In the month’s early days, she’ll divide one page in the book into two columns—the left for personal goals and the right for her professional ambitions.
Sullivan knows there’s profound wisdom in the words of physicist Dennis Gabor, which are often misattributed to Abraham Lincoln. “The best way to predict the future is to create it,” Gabor said. That’s why she sets aside time to put pen to paper and then review the list each quarter. The ritual helps ground and guide her.
The habit started in 1997 when Sullivan took an interpersonal growth course as an employment lawyer at Dell Computer Corporation and it has continued to guide her throughout a winding path to the top of her field. In the past quarter century, she’s worked at large firms; counseled start-ups; and advised leading hardware, software, engineering, and technology companies; as well as healthcare and finance corporations on domestic and international employment matters. Today, Sullivan is a vice president and senior counsel in the legal department supporting human resources at Bank of the West, BNP Paribas.
Working as the only employment law counsel for an organization with more than six hundred branches and over ten thousand employees is a big task, and Sullivan admits that she had to complete some on-the-job learning. It’s something she’s been doing from the very start of her career. “I’ve always been willing to pick up new skills and seize opportunities that come along, and I’ve benefited from mentors who have believed in and supported me,” she says.
Sullivan, an outspoken defender of children’s rights, started her career in a firm where a partner encouraged her to apply her passion for people and problem solving to employment law. Soon, she was crafting policies, working on handbooks, and conducting research for lawsuits. When a family move took her to Texas, Sullivan went in-house by taking a job at Dell. While still a very junior attorney, her leaders worked with her to create year-over-year plans that would help her learn all aspects about the organization, its operations, people, culture, and risk profile, while also developing her knowledge of employment law and core skills as an in-house attorney. Each year, Sullivan sat down and developed a plan regarding how she would continue to learn, grow, and develop.
The practice continued through stops at Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, Sun Microsystems, Symantec Corporation, and McKesson. Sullivan joined Bank of the West in 2016. In her first quarter, she focused on learning the finance industry and the bank’s culture. Since she stepped into her role in a downturn, Sullivan also had to navigate reductions in force, offshoring, and geographic relocation of certain business functions.
After many steady years, more change is on the horizon. In late 2021, BMO Harris Bank announced its intentions to acquire Bank of the West for $16.3 billion. Sullivan is leveraging her knowledge and experience, and the relationships she’s built over the past six years to help executives determine how she and the human resource teams can support and facilitate the process while helping meet other business objectives along the way. Whether the merger wins regulatory approval or not, Sullivan expects to be busy managing litigation, implementing global HR policies and practices, and expanding important initiatives related to ESG and DEI.
As these endeavors move forward, Sullivan is guiding human resource professionals and champions young attorneys who are where she once was. Her advice for those and anyone considering a law degree is simple. “Do what you do on purpose,” she says. “Write down what you’re doing. Recognize it. Keep learning and know that it’s OK to pivot in a different direction as long as you know the reasons behind your move.”
Sullivan continues to practice what she preaches. Last January, she sat in her kitchen like she always does with her teacup and her notebook on the table in front of her. At first, the page was blank. But that’s how it’s supposed to be. An empty page represents an entire year full of opportunities to be found.