Karen Wilson Thissen: Uniting Purpose With Action

Karen Wilson Thissen
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When you meet Karen Wilson Thissen, executive vice president and assistant general counsel of Ameriprise Financial, mother of three, wife of prominent political figure Paul Thissen, community advocate and world traveler, one of the first questions that comes to mind is, “How does she do it all?”

The answer is a fairly simple one. Wilson Thissen is clear about who she is and what her priorities are, and she has used that knowledge to craft a life that authentically integrates her personal values, social ideals and considerable professional talents. She proves that where there is harmony in purpose and action, the results can be extraordinary, and manageable.

“My husband and I have always shared the philosophy that our career choices are about making sure we are doing what we do to make a difference in the world,” Wilson Thissen said. “It has never really been about money.”

Wilson Thissen seized many opportunities to engage in community service while earning her undergraduate degree at Georgetown University. She also spent two years in Latin America, striving to help rural women achieve economic independence and working on human rights issues.

She met her husband while they were both attending law school at the University of Chicago. After graduation, they decided to start their legal careers in Minneapolis. “I’ve always been interested in public service. When choosing a law firm in Minnesota, I spoke to a number of firms. One of the primary reasons I chose Faegre Baker Daniels was that they were very committed to pro bono work and community service. I also thought a big firm offered an opportunity like no other place to work on a wide variety of complex matters with really smart colleagues, and to be well-trained as a trial lawyer.”

Wilson Thissen proved herself a gifted securities litigation lawyer, who advanced to partner at that firm. “I had a wonderful experience there, and had many great mentors who gave me opportunities and challenged me along the way,” she said. “I loved the intellectual and strategic challenges of winning a case. Every trial is truly a team effort; if you are not well-coordinated as a trial team, you simply can’t be successful.”

As one of the leaders of the firm’s recruiting committee, Wilson Thissen also had a hand in shaping the firm’s culture and diversity. “I made partner at about the same time I had our three children. Over the years, I had a chance to recruit and mentor a lot of women coming into the firm. I was able to be a role model for how to harmonize the wonderful chaos of being a parent and advancing your career. It was one of the most gratifying parts of my role there, and a great life lesson for me.”

One of Wilson Thissen’s favorite clients was Ameriprise Financial. “The company is built on the mission of helping clients achieve financial security. We advise people about how to save better, be smarter about money, plan for a secure retirement and provide an education for their children and grandchildren. Although I was very happy at the law firm, when I saw there was an opening at Ameriprise, I was attracted to the idea of being part of an organization that helps so many people.”

That “opening” was for an entry-level lawyer position, but she knew that in-house positions are hard to come by, and felt compelled to take advantage of the opportunity to use her legal talents for a mission that spoke to her.

A Company With Integrity

Shortly after her transition to Ameriprise, American Express announced that it would no longer be Ameriprise’s parent company, initiating what was then one of the largest spin offs in U.S. history. American Express took much of the company’s legal infrastructure with it, so Wilson Thissen was tasked with helping to build a new legal department. “The next year of my life was spent in this incredibly intense environment separating from this megaparent. What happens in any sort of crisis moment like that is that you get a lot of experience really fast. I was able to meet people across the company and gain an incredible amount of legal experience in an accelerated time frame. I had the honor of being able to recruit and hire many wonderful leaders, and to form teams that went far beyond my litigation experience.”

Just a few years into her tenure at Ameriprise, the financial services industry was rocked by the Great Recession. Ameriprise, however, was well positioned due to their conservative, balanced management. “We were one of the few financial services firms able to decline any government TARP support. And in fact, when one of the country’s oldest money market mutual funds was devalued, Ameriprise decided to voluntarily commit $33 million to mitigate client losses. People here didn’t even really debate that decision. Everyone gathered in a room and said, ‘We’re doing this.’ It really was one of the proudest moments I’ve had at this company. To this day, our advisers still talk about how proud they were to go out to our clients and tell them that Ameriprise was stepping forward to protect them.”

Beyond Lawyering

One of Wilson Thissen’s favorite things about being at a large company is that she is called upon to use aspects of her skillset that go well beyond lawyering. As she has moved up the ranks over the years, her role has become more focused on leadership. Wilson Thissen speaks to women both inside and outside the company, helping to create opportunities for advancement, develop new leaders, and aid women in harmonizing their professional and personal lives. “I am a keynote speaker for our women adviser conferences out in the field and do training for groups of leaders here at headquarters. I also go into law firms and speak to young women partners about how to serve clients best. It is so fulfilling to share the triumphs and challenges of maneuvering through a 20-plus year career while being really involved as a mother and in my non-professional life with a lot of political engagements.”

Work-Life Harmony

Wilson Thissen cautions against the belief that work-life balance can come simply from skilled multitasking. Rather, she advises that you must carefully prioritize the elements of work and non-work life that are truly important, and then delegate a lot of the other stuff or simply let go. “Ironically, the necessity of having to delegate has made me a better leader. I believe in making my team members more visible by elevating them and giving them the opportunities I otherwise might have taken for myself.” She jokes that she long ago let go of stressing over things like whether the house is perfectly clean. This allows her to focus on the issues that matter at work, as well as the things that keep her energized outside of work, like time with friends and family, travel, politics and live music.

“I’ve also learned never to apologize about my own schedule if a family conflict, or any conflict, arises. I am confident about the work I do, and everyone around me knows they can rely on me to get the work done. I think more women need to have that confidence.” Wilson Thissen is clear that having an intense career and a family is not always easy, but that if you pick a career you love and stay true to your priorities, it is incredibly gratifying.

Sometimes, uniting purpose with action takes courage. It means taking personal risks to pursue a calling that is greater than one’s self. “I’ve never been risk averse at all. I have to be able to look back and say that I’ve done the things I wanted to do.” In choosing a career at Ameriprise, Wilson Thissen has chosen a path where her risk has been well-rewarded. “In my 11 years with the company, I can honestly say that we have never made a decision that I felt was inconsistent with my values.”

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