Karen Carlton

Karen Carlton

Karen Carlton

Karen is a founding member of the Broadcast Equality and Training Regulator and a member of the board of Trustees of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland.


In addition, Karen is a member of the selection panel for the BBC Scotland’s Audience Council. Karen’s career spans both the private and public sectors, in the UK and abroad.

Prior to taking up her role as Commissioner, Karen was Managing Director of a firm of management and organisation development consultants, part of a global group, and was the first Executive Director of Investors in People Scotland.

If, like me, you hadn’t really given public appointments much consideration during your career and had a vague idea that public appointments were jobs for the boys, then think again.

Karen Carlton, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, does have a prestigious St. Andrews Square address but the offices are not situated in one of the grander buildings on the square but in modern offices above a Sainsburys local store.

And Karen herself is not at all what I had expected; jobs for the boys this most certainly isn’t.

I started by asking Karen to describe her path to this position.
“It’s not so much a path as crazy paving!”

“I took a degree in languages followed by a post graduate qualification in human resources. My first job on leaving university was to join the HR Department of Grampian Health Board, then the lure of Edinburgh took me to a similar position in Lothian Health Board. After a while, if I’m honest, I found the job a little boring and I fancied something a little more ‘glamorous‘ so I decided to look elsewhere. Working in 5 star hotels struck me as being really glamorous and I took a job with the British Transport Hotels group and spent my time organising training courses in fabulous hotels like Turnberry and Gleneagles! While there I was encouraged to apply for a position on the hospitality industry training board, acting as a training advisor assessing the quality of training across the industry. I enjoyed the job but after a few years I decided that I was ready for a change from the hospitality industry.”

So where next?
“I emigrated to Melbourne and took a job with the Victoria Chamber of Manufactures. This is a little like our Chamber of Commerce but for manufacturing industries. The role was to travel around the state of Victoria to deliver and assess training programmes across the manufacturing sector, including very large brands such as SPC of tined fruit fame.”

This sounds like a really interesting job in a fantastic place. What brought you back to Scotland?
“Yes, the job was great but I hadn’t settled completely in Melbourne and decided that Edinburgh had as much, if not more, to offer and so I came back. I was in my early thirties and starting over again. At that time the Sheraton Hotel was being built in the heart of the city and I took a job as personnel manager, overseeing the recruitment and launch of this flagshIiP hotel. After a couple of years the duty manager element of the role had started to become really onerous, with very long shifts, especially during the festival, so I decided that the hospitality industry was no longer for me and I looked for a fresh challenge.”

“This came with a job as training manager with John Menzies. At that time the group included the major high street stores, the wholesale division and several companies which were part of the group, such as the Early Learning Centre. After around 3 years with John Menzies I introduced a programme of assertiveness training and confidence building for female employees. The rationale for this was that while 90% of the staff were female 90% of the management were male. My aim was to redress this imbalance and to encourage women to believe that they could take on senior positions within the company.”

“I contracted Taylor Clark to deliver the programme and found Roz Taylor’s presentations to be so valuable that I attended most of them myself. Roz picked up on this and invited me to join the business and so I moved into consultancy. At that time Investors in People (IiP) was being introduced and we won the contract to trial the programme. Since I was the HR partner within Taylor Clark it was me that worked most closely on the IiP project. Throughout the trial I was keen to ensure that the IiP programme was properly and continually assessed. There is little point implementing a development programme such as IiP without having proper means to measure outcomes. When the position of Chief Assessor of Investors in People Scotland was advertised I applied and got the post. I worked for 6 years establishing and running the company responsible for assessment and recognition against the IiP framework.””

And have you been in the public sector since then?
“Actually, No. I was head hunted by an international management consultancy who wanted to establish offices in Scotland. I thoroughly enjoyed the job and worked with many blue-chip companies but, with my husband approaching retirement age, I was looking for flexibility in my work life. I offered many options to my (male) boss, all of which were rejected as he insisted that it would be impossible to work as a part time MD. We were unable to agree and so I left and set up my own consultancy in order to achieve the flexibility that I needed. We parted on good terms and kept in touch, and I continued to carry out some of their consultancy work in Scotland.”

So how did you find yourself in this post?
“Because of the links that I had had with IiP Scotland I think I was associated with assessment more generally, so when the Scottish Executive was looking for independent assessors for the public appointments process I was asked to apply. I was interviewed by senior members of the Scottish Executive and Baroness Fritchie, who was Commissioner for Public Appointments in the UK and was appointed to work with Baroness Fritchie and the team of assessors.. When the Scottish Parliament decided that it wanted to appoint a Commissioner for Scotland the role was widely publicised. I thought I might have a chance, so applied, and here I am.”

Quite a career path!
“Yes, I did say that it was more like crazy paving!”
“When I was at Investors in People Scotland I took part in a board mentor programme and was mentored by Professor Ian Percy. He was, at that time, Chairman of the Accounts Commission and was chairing a corporate governance committee working out of New York, which I thought was very glamorous! Ian said something that has stayed with me throughout my career. When I confessed that I thought I should have mapped out a career path, he said, “You don’t need a career path – the trick is when a door opens you need to know if it’s one you want to go through.” Each decision I made was perfectly right for me at the time I took it. For example, I may never have settled so happily in Edinburgh if I hadn’t been to Melbourne. And Ian’s words are just as relevant to me today. I am a board member of the Broadcast Equality and Training Regulator and of the Royal Zoological Society, both of which have given my opportunities to learn about different sectors.”

The3rdi magazine will be working with Karen later in the year to get insights into what it is like to work on the board of a public organisation from female chairs and non-executive directors. In the meantime Karen’s office has made available a number of interesting publications to allow you to learn more about public appointments and how and why you should get involved.

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