Career Advice Working Women

Consuming passion

Karen Fifer brings a love of her profession to her role at Heidrick & Struggles

Karen Fifer sweeps into the room with a surge of positive energy, a broad smile, a firm handshake and direct eye contact.  She is following her own advice about the best way to make a good impression.

“That rule – I form an opinion about you in the first 15 seconds – holds so true,” she says. “Your handshake, the impression you make, your demeanour, your hair – the whole package impacts. And it does affect your marketability.”

Fifer has honed such truths over a 26-year career in executive search, which culminated in her appointment in August as global managing partner of the consumer markets practice at leading professional services firm, Heidrick & Struggles.

She specialises in finding C-suite-level candidates for consumer-facing industries such as retail, luxury, consumer packaged goods, hospitality and entertainment.

Her promotion to the highest echelons of the industry means not just a change of tasks, but also working with a different peer group and dealing with increased expectations.

After a few weeks in the job, things are going well. “So far, no one’s complained – that’s always a good sign. But it’s still early days,” she says.

That note of caution has not been a signature of  her career. Typically, she says, she has plunged into the unknown, buoyed at times by the confidence in her abilities expressed by those around her. This includes former bosses and, in particular, her husband, who she describes as “hugely supportive”.

Fifer has found that most successful women have the support of helpful partners – or at least partners who don’t stand in their way.

“I had a lot of people who would say, ‘Karen, you can do this. Go for it,’” she says. “Just like this job I just accepted – my former boss basically said to me, ‘I want you to do this, so you should do this.’ So I said okay.”

Her entry into the world of executive search came almost by chance. A third-generation Eurasian, fluent in English and Cantonese, she studied at the Diocesan Girls’ School, then did a business studies degree at Cass Business School in London.

Inspired by her mother, who worked hard to build a career in the fashion industry, Fifer says she always planned a career for herself. “I really wanted to be a journalist, but my mother said, ‘Wait – there’s no money in journalism.’ So I didn’t,” she says.

Instead, she took a job with Sun Hung Kai Securities, first in London and then in Hong Kong, where she worked for former Legco legislator Choy So-yuk. “[Choy] was very inspirational for me,” Fifer recalls. “She gave me a lot of opportunities and encouragement.”

Fifer then worked for a time organising conferences and exhibitions in China, but after having her son, she decided she wanted a job that involved less travel.

After attending interviews at recruitment firms, several of them suggested that she should consider a career in the recruitment industry. She eventually took their advice. It proved to be a good decision and she says she loves the profession.

“My husband once told me, ‘You are very lucky because you love what you do.’ I’ve always remembered that, because he said a lot of people don’t feel that way about what they do. I’ve loved this profession since I started,” she says.

“I love the diversity of what I do. Every day brings something new and I get to meet accomplished people. I’ve interviewed literally thousands of executives, shared their stories, and understood what makes them happy and successful.”

The most important lesson she has learned is never to burn bridges when dealing with people. She paid a price for making that mistake early in her career and it left a deep impression on her.

“I now have a motto that I treat everyone I deal with, at all levels, with respect. I live by that,” she says.

After years in roles that have demanded an ability to “describe, interpret and investigate”, she has become a master at encouraging others. “I always say to people, you’re so good at what you do, make sure you don’t sell yourself short by not managing your career. Make a list of what’s important to you, what you would like to do, what companies you’d like to work for, and why. Then actively manage your career,” she says.

To balance the work she does searching for some of the highest-paid people in consumer industries, she occasionally does pro-bono searches for NGOs and not-for-profit organisations, and plans to do more of this when she eventually retires. “I learn a lot from talking to people whose sole motive is not money and career progression,” she says. “They really are a group of people who give of themselves to others and I find that very refreshing.”

Her other interest outside of work is travel – preferably to exotic destinations. She and her husband recently made a trip to Botswana and are planning a visit to Scandinavia next.

“I’m already doing my bucket list, because I don’t want to wait until I’m dying,” she says.


Karen Fifer offers some high-level tips for adapting to global retail trends
Get creative “The overriding focus for retailers going forward will be the customer shopping experience. The retailers who thrive will be those who innovate and differentiate their products and formats.”
Listen to your customers “Understand them, what they want and how they shop.”
Embrace technology “Communicate with customers online, offline, through blogs and social networks.”