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CEO Horting Achieves Long-Term, Mission-Focused Success

Karen HortingTwenty years ago, Karen Horting, CAE, was tapped as a promising job candidate by Tuft & Associates’ Founder Mary Ann Tuft and our late colleague Kathleen Henrichs, who were leading an executive search for the Society of Women Engineers in Chicago. Horting was soon selected and joined SWE as Director of Fund Development in 2004. Just two years later, she was named SWE’s Deputy Executive Director and became Executive Director and CEO in 2014.

Over her 20-year career, Horting says that both SWE and her own work kept changing and evolving. Staying with one organization, she says, does not mean staying in the same place.

The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) is a not-for-profit educational and service organization that empowers women to succeed and advance in engineering and be recognized for their life-changing contributions as engineers and leaders. Founded in 1950, today SWE has more than 46,000 individual collegiate and professional members.

Tuft & Associates has welcomed opportunities to partner with Horting to develop and grow her staff. As Horting marks her 20-year milestone with SWE, we asked her to reflect on her philosophy and strategies to both advance SWE and define her own career.

Staying with one organization for 20 years is not as typical these days. What has kept you at SWE for two decades?

Honestly, I never thought I would be here for 20 years. But I fell in love with the mission. And the organization kept growing and evolving. I feel a bit of pride when I say it is not the same organization it was 20 years ago–it’s so much more! I tell folks who are early in their careers to consider association work. Because for me, increasing shareholder return could never compete with advancing the mission of an organization that has such a positive impact on people’s lives.

You’ve been in SWE leadership roles since 2004: What’s the key to ensuring that an organization continues to welcome and embrace change?

I think there are a couple of things. First, hire the right people. I am so proud of the team at SWE and how they have such an entrepreneurial spirit. They are always focused on the mission and how we can better serve our members and stakeholders. Second, keep the focus on the mission. Keep asking: If it’s not helping us advance our mission, why are we doing it?

Serving as ED & CEO through the pandemic has likely been one of your greatest challenges: What did you learn—and practice—so you and SWE could thrive and succeed?

I learned to rely on my team and trust my gut. Decisions had to be made quickly and often with little information. My executive team would have tough conversations with me and they weren’t afraid to push or tell me what I didn’t want to hear. Fortunately, I had built a lot of trust with my Board, so they supported the recommendations from HQ. And I am proud to say we are stronger and larger post-pandemic than we were pre-pandemic. But as we came out of the pandemic, I felt very depleted as a leader. So, I hired an executive coach. She was fantastic! She helped me work through the imposter syndrome feelings I was having and helped me understand that not all feedback requires action.

What other advice do you have for early career professionals who hope to move into leadership roles in the future?

Take risks and don’t wait to be asked. Many associations run lean and mean. Jump in and take ownership of the things that need to be done. I love those people in my organization who come with solutions or see a need and get the job done without being asked and take on the “other duties as assigned.” And, be sure to build your own network.