Karen Shaff is the highest ranking female officer at Principal Financial Group Inc. Male or female, you would suspect that anyone who climbs the corporate ladder to such a lofty position would have had set some firm goals early in life. Not so for Shaff.

“I remember when I graduated from college, I looked around and said, what now?” Shaff said.

Then she decided to go to law school, and the collective response from family and friends was “That’s what we always knew you were going to do.”

Shaff comes from a family of lawyers and public servants. Her father, David Shaff, served in the Iowa House of Representatives and Iowa state Senate from 1952 to 1966. He was the author of a controversial reapportionment plan that was rejected by voters.

He set the tone for her involvement in community affairs, which is extensive.

She is president of the Animal Rescue League of Iowa’s advisory council, led the fundraising efforts for the construction of the Science Center of Iowa and is a member of the Grinnell College board of trustees. She’s also involved with Bravo Greater Des Moines, Hospice of Central Iowa, Planned Parenthood of the Heartland and Winefest Des Moines. That is an abbreviated list.

“It is Karen’s advocacy and hard work in our community that compels me to endorse her nomination” for Women of Influence, said Scott Johnson, former regional president for Wells Fargo Bank, in a letter.

Mary O’Keefe, chief marketing officer at Principal, pointed out that Shaff also directs the charitable legal work provided by the company’s lawyers.

“I have known Karen for over 28 years and she has been a role model and mentor to me,” said Carol Griglione, president of the Animal Rescue League of Iowa board. “Karen stands for integrity, fairness and hard work. She lives what she believes – and she believes in making a difference in the community in which she works.”

Shaff started at Principal in 1982, when it was still known as Bankers Life Co. She doubts that at the time anyone had an idea that it would evolve into a Fortune 500 company with a hand in global financial matters.

She oversees Principal legal departments that are scattered over the globe, oversees 50 attorneys and also leads the company’s government relations activities.

Shaff credits others for her success at the company.

“I am very fortunate to work with a very talented group of individuals,” she said. “I may lead both departments, but they are the ones who deserve the credit for the great work done here as they do the heavy lifting, day in and out.”