By Geoff Campbell of Round Table Companies
PAR Technology Corp. needed a disruption in 2009. They were facing challenging times as new competitors entered the market, and all while the company was going through a leadership transition.
Karen Sammon had worked for years at the company her father founded, when she made the painful realization that what was best for the company at the time was that she leave PAR to gain outside experience. Current leadership encouraged her transition, which, while well-intentioned, in some ways made it more painful.
It was a difficult decision; she didn’t want to leave.
“Eventually I understood that leaving was the right thing for me, too,” she said.
Understanding didn’t make the reality any easier to accept. Sammon, currently chief of staff and strategy for PAR Technology Corp. and incoming Conscious Capitalism Inc. (CCI) board member, described this period as a time of searching and seeking.
“I admit I was a bit entitled,” Sammon said softly. “I thought I had the answers.”
She found a coach and set out to own what was hers and to embrace what she couldn’t control. It was the inflection point that sent her on the road toward Conscious Leadership and Conscious Capitalism. But Sammon’s Conscious Capitalism journey has been anything but linear.
She had attended law school with the idea of being a human rights lawyer or working in the philanthropic community. Instead, she eventually joined PAR to become corporate counsel and director of investor relations.
Sammon wasn’t satisfied, though, wanting to—as she put it—“push the business forward.” So she took a ground-floor job in sales with PAR. The move required her to learn the company’s products inside out. An important by-product was that she also developed an appreciation for customers as company stakeholders.
Still later she moved up to a product management role in which she served as a negotiator between product developers and customers, which drove home the importance of employees as stakeholders.
That’s when she decided she needed a new perspective in a different organization.
Sammon ended up spending four years at an established technology company, which exposed her to an impressive level of corporate maturity, organization, and leadership. It was here that she solemnly dedicated herself to being a great leader.
Then, Sammon received a surprise call from PAR asking her to return as president of the restaurant retail business, and she accepted the challenge. The business was in need of a turnaround and experiencing a status quo that inhibited growth.
PAR was then primarily a hardware company with a great product but facing increasing competition. And Sammon was concerned that the competitive trends were only accelerating.
“The point-of-sale was changing to wherever the customer is,” Sammon said. “Restaurants were going to go to the cloud and they’d have a cloud-based software need.”
Part of the problem at the time was that there was tension around the common vision of PAR’s future. So Sammon proposed investing $10 million in a software platform and convinced PAR’s board. “We bet our future on it,” she said.
Around this time, Sammon also decided to find out how Wegmans, a regional private grocer headquartered in Rochester, NY, consistently ranked among the best places to work.
“That’s what we needed to become—a great place to work,” she said.
She paused, adding with her matter-of-fact audacity, “I realized, ‘All I’ve got to do is change the culture.’ So I decided to give them a call!”
Sammon met with Wegmans executives, gaining insights into the consciousness with which the supermarket chain was run.
Her curiosity now thoroughly piqued, Sammon was hungry to learn more about Conscious Capitalism. The universe responded with an invitation to CCI’s CEO Summit.
She recalled she was honored by the gesture. But even though she then employed about 750 people, she was not entirely convinced she was worthy of the $5,000 ticket price.
“There was no way I could justify my company spending that kind of money on me,” she said. But the company supported her attendance and she ultimately relented.
“It was an out-of-body experience with angels singing,” she said. “I found my tribe.”
More than that, she found inspiration and a swirling creative energy within herself to bring greater consciousness to her company.
It was common knowledge that Wall Street didn’t place a value on running a business with principles of consciousness. For years, Sammon had heard sad stories about the difficulties Conscious Capitalists had when they became public companies.
But because PAR had been public for some time, Sammon already understood the need to honor shareholders as stakeholders. There was something about being among other Conscious Leaders that made her audacious enough to think it was possible to be both public and conscious.
“I came out of that summit energized and with a framework for creating a Conscious Culture,” she said.
Sammon is an engaging and disarming blend of confidence and humility, a polarity dance with such a sense of presence, she fills a room—even on the phone.
One moment she’ll recall the time she bet PAR’s future on the $10 million software platform, a steely-eyed play underpinned by her beliefs about where the market was heading. The next, she’ll confess she felt out of place in a room of business leaders.
At her first session of the Stagen Integral Leadership Program (ILP), she felt herself shrink. What am I doing here with these leaders who are so accomplished, so together?
But she quickly came to see the experience as an essential part of her journey to Conscious Leadership and Conscious Capitalism.
“Stagen helped me find my voice,” she said of the ILP. “And it opened up a network that is more true to my values—people I’ve grown close to and who have added value to my life. Every leader I talked to there was vulnerable and willing to share in a way that was empowering, instructive, and comforting.”
Early in 2017, Sammon brought in fellow Conscious Capitalist Corey Blake to support her leadership team in defining new company values. Their individual stories emerged into a combined mosaic that resulted in the following:
Authenticity—We make the conscious choice to be who we are, stand up for what is right, and embrace the conversation that demands we speak our truth.
People—We do not build the business, we build the people who build the business. We focus on quality interactions, respect the humanity in all of us, and show up for the person to the left and the right of us.
Perseverance—We rise to challenges and, with a deep breath, take the next step together.
Dreaming—Our dreams are the intangible brightness that, when executed through creativity and discipline, bind us together. Imagine what is possible…
Awareness—We chase clarity through presence with ourselves and each other during our human moments—births, deaths, marriages, divorce, and personal struggles—so that we remain open to opportunities, appreciate the journey, and focus on what is most important.
Later in 2017, Karen asked Rand Stagen to support the articulation of the company’s purpose, from which emerged: Our purpose is to recognize and unleash possibilities… for good.
The Conscious Capitalism seeds Sammon has planted within PAR are taking root. She sees it in the ways employees are willing to lean in and speak their minds. She recalls talking about implementing a new process and having an employee ask, “How does that support our value of authenticity?”
Sammon said she knows it’s important to get shareholders the returns they desire, and she knows that with the right time horizon, everything is possible.
“They’re stakeholders, too,” she said. “And the board understands that the business isn’t a one-month activity, it’s a forever activity. If we take a short-term view, we can double profits now but not make it to next year.”
Sammon paused. “I am at a public company,” she said. “I respect the needs of all stakeholders, and together we will achieve the results we want.”