Karen Wells – VP of Strategy and Menu, McDonald's

Karen Wells

The higher you climb the ladder, the more you will work and the less life you will have, right? Nope.

By Taylor Mallory

This top McDonald’s exec turns off her cell phone (gasp!) as soon as she gets home from work. While she loves her job, she says her family and her faith are (gasp again!) more important.

As vice president of strategy and menu for the hamburger giant, Karen Wells is responsible for developing and communicating plans to drive long-term growth. With a staff of 45 execs and officers, marketers, food scientists and other professionals, her department also determines the menu that McDonald’s U.S.A. will serve its more than 25 million daily customers over the next three to 15 years – and how it will be served. “I love that. We have instant gratification,” Wells explains. “Those things that are successful are implemented nationwide. It’s an exhilarating, contagious, unbelievable feeling.”

Here’s how she keeps her life in balance while continuing to excel in and love her work.

PINK: What’s the most challenging experience you’ve had at work?
Karen Wells: After years working in a field job for McDonald’s, I was asked to come to the home office and start a new department that had failed three times under different leadership. That first year was the toughest I’ve ever had. I lived at the bottom of the learning curve a lot longer than I was comfortable with. A former college athlete, I like to win and to do it quick. Learning a new culture, trying to understand a new discipline while forming a whole department, making connections and building coalitions – that experience became invaluable to my career. It was tough, but I feel I can do most anything having survived that and done it successfully.

PINK: What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken in your career, and how did it pay off?
K.W.: I did marketing at McDonald’s for about five years before an exec asked me to go into operations. That meant quitting a “white-collar job” as marketing manager in charge of a $2 million budget for a “blue-collar job,” including some time behind the counter in a restaurant flipping fries and working the register. To get to vice president of operations, I’d have to learn every job all the way down to crew person. I did it with some trepidation and thought about it for a year before committing, working in restaurants one night a week to make sure I wanted to do it. I came from humble beginnings and knew the value of hard work, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to revisit that. On the other side, though, was a huge reward. It set the stage for my career – moving me from marketing to operations and giving me the tools I need to work now in strategy. It took both of those functions and skill sets to get me where I am, in a job that really gets me excited every day. Big rewards often require big risks, but they’re mostly worth it.

PINK: How do you balance life and work?
K.W.: Stay true to yourself, to your faith and to your family. I have two children, ages 10 and 7, and a wonderful husband. When I’m at home, I’m at home. The cell phone gets turned off when I open the garage door. My children will help me balance if I start to lose it. They will take the phone out of my hand and say, “You’re at home now.” I’ve asked them to keep me in line. When I was interviewing for my second officer role here, I was meeting with a high-ranking exec. We had negotiated the scope of the job, the salary and so on. My heart was beating a little fast as I finally said, “I am a mother of two small children, and there will be times when I’ll have to do what I need to do for my family. I need to know I will have that flexibility.” There was a pause and I got really worried about the risk I’d just taken. The response was, “Absolutely. I appreciate your bringing that up.” It may not work out for everyone that way, but it was important to put that on the table up front, versus trying to hide the fact that I’d need to take off for a PTA meeting. It set the stage for a smooth transition.

PINK: How do you define “success”?
K.W.: There are three roles I focus on daily under the umbrella of my Christian walk. My first role is that of a wife of 17 years. Without his coaching, encouragement and prayers, I wouldn’t be here – so I must do those things for him to be a successful wife. Then comes the role of mother. To succeed there, I need my children to have access to me at all times, to know they’re more important to me than any job will ever be and to always call me “mommy” and “mama.” The third role is executive – and success means being passionate about my work. At the end of the day, if I can fill those roles well, I have been a successful human being.

PINK: How do you de-stress and revive your spirit?
K.W.: I depend on God and prayer to make it through a lot of tough times – including some Bible reading, meditation, prayer and going to church. Also, every Friday night at our house is family fun night, no matter where we are. We blow up a mattress on the floor so the kids are in our room with us and have a movie marathon. We just watched Beverly Hills Chihuahua, Madagascar 2 and High School Musical 3. I periodically go out on dates with my husband. And if I get a chance, I love to read. I’m a big fan of the Kindle. I can go into a corner and spend an hour flipping through books and having private time.

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