Receptionist To CEO, Ad Exec Karen Kaplan Spills Secrets

A receptionist to CEO career trajectory may not seem very achievable, but successful ad exec Karen Kaplan managed just that — and described how she managed to climb from the position of unskilled secretary to the company’s top spot.

Kaplan’s receptionist to CEO journey began back in 1982, after she’d just graduated college with a concentration in French. The then-unemployed future exec moved back home with her parents and managed to get her in at the company through a recruiter despite a lack of then-standard shorthand and typing skills — but she didn’t get a warm welcome from other administrative workers.

The receptionist turned CEO remembers the slightly higher ranking switchboard operators hazing her right away, recalling:

“They come on my second day, and they stand in front of my desk … They’re looming over me with hands on their hips with their little headbands, and I remember they were like, ‘Just so you know, just because you’re out here and everyone can see you, you are still on the bottom of the totem pole. You are below us, you are below the guy in the mail room, you’re below the guy who delivers the packages.’ ”

Three decades later, Kaplan’s receptionist to CEO transformation is complete — and the exec reflected upon her journey at Hill Holliday in a recent Business Insiderpiece. Kaplan, whose firm raked in $180 million plus last year, joked that the flowers she’d received for her most recent successes made her office feel a bit funereal:

“It looks like a funeral home in here … An art director came in my office and he said, ‘There are only two times you get this many flowers, and one of them you aren’t there to enjoy it.’ ”

Kaplan credits treating her humble beginnings seriously for her career success, saying:

“You can make your mark in every single job … I still run into people today who remember me from when I was a receptionist who say, ‘You were the best damn receptionist in the history of receptionists.'”

Do you think everyone can achieve receptionist to CEO success like Karen Kaplan?