Karen Rieck Knows the Power of “Yes”

How a three-letter word created opportunities for Karen Rieck to build a successful career and transform HR departments

Always say yes. That’s the philosophy of Karen Rieck, vice president of human resources for Farm Bureau Financial Services. “If you always say yes, you will have opportunities that you would never have dreamed of,” she explains.

Rieck had hoped to be a math teacher but, after a short tenure teaching, she knew it wasn’t what she thought it would be. While in college, she worked for a home healthcare agency assisting in payroll and staffing, and she realized working in that role there were opportunities for her outside of teaching.

Karen Rieck Farm Bureau Financial Services
Karen Rieck, Farm Bureau Financial ServicesPhoto by Beth Shelton

“I loved the numbers part of that job and working with people, so after I graduated, I took a payroll and benefits role,” she recounts. “After a few years in that role, the controller asked if I would be interested in starting a human resources function there, even though I didn’t know exactly what that was.”

Rieck said yes and prepared by taking a five-day training class designed to “teach you everything you need to know about HR.” That was twenty-eight years ago, and she’s been forging a successful HR career ever since.

One of her biggest stops was at the Iowa Bankers Association, where she spent more than ten years as vice president of human resources, planning, organizing, and managing all internal HR functions for the association and its affiliates.

“What was awesome about that was, with the membership association, I had the opportunity to do a significant amount of consulting work with the four hundred-plus member banks. I would get calls from their human resources leaders or CEOs asking questions and seeking advice on a variety of HR topics,” Rieck recalls. “During my last four years there, I ended up doing a lot of traveling, providing strategic planning facilitation services for community banks across the state.”

In 2012, she was offered a job at Farm Bureau Financial Services and, though she loved what she was doing, Rieck sought a better work-life balance. So she again said yes, taking the role of director of compensation and benefits before transitioning to her current position after two and a half years.

“I was tapped on the shoulder by the CEO, who knew human resources could be something different than the administrative-centric function it was,” she explains.

How to Transform Your HR Department

Five tips from HR expert Karen Rieck

  1. Identify the need. “Change starts with you. It’s not about changing for the sake of change but identifying the true need for change.”
  2. Create a vision. “If you don’t know where you want to go, you’ll never know if you’ve gotten there.”
  3. Communicate. “You can’t just create a vision and post it on the wall. You must communicate the message continually until it is ingrained in your team culture.”
  4. Hold yourself and your team accountable. “Never put something on a scorecard you can’t take action on. Know what you’re measuring and why.”
  5. Celebrate successes. “It’s important to review and take snapshots of the team’s successes. Take time at least once a year to see how far you’ve come and how much you have accomplished.”

The move was unusual because the leader she replaced stayed on as part of the HR leadership team. She took on the challenge and has since been instrumental in the strategic transformation of the HR department, in creating a recognition culture, and in advancing effective leadership development and succession planning programs within the organization.

“It was a very interesting opportunity to transform the human resources function with the previous long-term leader still part of the team,” she notes. “It helped me push myself and collaborate to bring the team together in strategic transformation. The team was full of great people, so we were able to make the transformation without changing team members, including the previous leader.”

Her top initiative was transforming the HR function into a proactive, business-centric function, which involved restructuring the team, creating an inspiring vision of “partners connecting people of strategy,” and setting a forward-looking strategy for the department.

“Whatever we do, we look at how it will drive business impact and then make sure we stay focused that,” she shares. “It absolutely changes how the function is seen inside the organization. When you go beyond simply fighting the daily fires that come with being human resources and set the vision to be a trusted strategic partner, you become an integral part of business success.”

Another big accomplishment was creating a culture of recognition through the You Earned It program, which has vastly improved the work environment. She’s also proud of the advances she’s made in succession planning and leadership development, where critical role successors are at the ready, learning from the leaders ahead of them.

Rieck believes her role as an HR leader is to be a trusted advisor. “My job is about developing leaders, so on a day-to-day basis I’m doing one-on-ones and helping support my team with our overarching human resources strategy,” she says. “It’s also about building relationships and supporting leaders across the organization. We are here for the employees, but the leaders are the direct line to employee experience, so we know how important they are.”

Whatever the challenge, it’s a good chance Rieck will say yes to getting the job done.