Risk? What risk?

Photo of a young woman in front of three doors About a year ago, with our daughter entering the second half of her junior year in high school, many of our family dinner conversations began to touch on college planning. What colleges to visit? When to sign up for standardized tests? When was the next meeting with the college counselor?

During one of these conversations, my daughter asked me how I chose which college to attend. Before I tell you what I said next, you have to understand something about me: I grew up in a small town, in the same small town where my father was raised, and where his father was raised. I don’t exactly come from adventurous stock. So, at age 17, when deciding where to go to college, I chose the best school within a 50 mile radius of my home. Fortunately, it was an ivy league university, and to this day, I’m thankful they accepted me.

Back then, I evaluated opportunities by thinking of things that could go wrong, the potential downsides. What if I went far away to college, got sick and needed my mom? What if I didn’t have enough money to travel home for Christmas? Would I find a safe place to store my things over the summer break? You get the picture.

However, I’ve changed since then. Over the course of my career, I’ve seen the positives that can come from risk, and I now evaluate opportunities by looking at all the things that could go right. And I’ve found myself saying yes to things that my younger self would have talked herself out of. One example from the past year? Joining Athentica, an early-stage startup, as the CEO. When I was being recruited, I looked at the impact we could have with our first product, the business we could build, what I would learn, and the ways I would grow my network. Sure, there was the risk that we wouldn’t be successful, but I didn’t let myself focus on that. Instead, I looked at the upside and said yes.

Well, it turns out things didn’t go according to plan; I recently made the difficult decision to leave the startup. Did I fail? That’s not how I’m looking at it. I learned a lot about early-stage startups. I made strong connections with the venture capital community and with people working to improve online education. I led the development of the initial product offering. I worked with great people. So much good came from it.

Perhaps most importantly, my kids saw me take this professional risk. And, they know I’m doing just fine, even though it didn’t work out. I hope they’ll think back on this time when they need to evaluate options in their future careers. I want them to be able to take a risk—to take on a stretch assignment, to move internationally, to switch jobs—and not be held back by the fear of all the things that could go wrong.

In other words, I want them to be able to transform risks into opportunities.


© 2014 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

(Photo credit: BigStock.com)

Doesn’t everyone feel like an impostor, at some point?

Photo of a newborn baby with hospital ID braceletAfter I gave birth to our daughter, I remember sitting in the back seat of our car as my husband drove us home from the hospital. As I kept watch over our tiny baby, my husband commented that it seemed strange that we didn’t need a license to prove we had the basic skills for taking care of a baby and a safe place to raise her. All we needed was an infant car seat and matching wrist identification bracelets.

This was the first time I was aware that my husband could feel the Impostor Syndrome, a situation where capable people are plagued by self-doubt. Where they ask themselves, “When are they going to find out I’m not qualified?” When they hold themselves back from taking on additional responsibility because they haven’t yet learned to do that kind of work. When they don’t have confidence in their abilities.

Research on the Impostor Syndrome shows that women tend to feel it more intensely and be more limited by it than men. That’s certainly consistent with my experience.

In fact, I have a friend who asked a panel of male leaders about the Impostor Syndrome. In front of an audience of women, she asked the men about their careers; one of her questions was, “Tell me about a time you experienced the impostor syndrome.” When they looked at her quizzically, she realized she needed to explain it: “You know, a time when you didn’t think you were capable of doing the job. How did you handle it?” They still didn’t grok the question. They ended up sharing stories about proud moments of their career, when they surpassed goals or did the impossible. My friend turned to the audience of women and said, “They don’t get it. They’ve never experienced the impostor syndrome.” She couldn’t believe it.

I started wondering about their personal lives. Maybe they had never felt like impostors at work, but what about as dads? Did they ever feel unqualified to bathe their infant or take care of their sick child? And, is the opposite true for working moms? Do women tend to feel highly qualified to raise children, yet have an inner critic shouting at them all day at work?

All of this makes me wonder…Can women leverage their confidence in parenting to overcome feeling like an impostor at work?

I’d like to hear from you, my readers. Have you felt the Impostor Syndrome at work? As a parent? What’s similar or different between these experiences?


Interested in the research on the Impostor Syndrome? See the summary in Sheryl Sanberg’s “Lean In“, page 193.

© 2014 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

(Photo credit: BigStock.com)

Get ’em out of the cave

Photo of a cave“I’m sure the first caveman who went over the hill to see what was on the other side—I don’t think he went there wholly out of curiosity. He went there because he wanted to get his son out of the cave.” — Studs Turkel, “Working”

I love this quote. I heard it for the first time when my 16-year old was in his school’s performance of “Working.” This musical, based on Stud Turkel’s novel of the same name, is a collection of interviews with the working class in America. My son played a steel worker, who described his desire to make things better for his kid, to get him out of the cave. Such is the case for many parents. We want to raise our children in a different, often better environment than our parents could offer to us.

It got me thinking about leadership and getting employees “out of the cave” when they’re stuck in ruts. With a change in environment, job responsibilities, or even daily routine, employees can gain new perspectives, be more innovative, combat burnout, and become more engaged with the company and its mission.

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m surrounded by parents who seek enrichment activities for their kids. But, I can’t say the same for all the executives I’ve worked with over my career in the software industry. Sure, some have been great at identifying development opportunities for their employees, but others seem to get caught up in the business at hand and never seem to think about enrichment for their teams.

As inspiration for all of us, here are some tried-and-true approaches from parenting that I’ve seen successfully applied to the workplace:

Parenting Leadership
Exchange programs
Just like you might encourage your teens and college students to explore student exchange programs or mission trips, ideally in a different country… Look for opportunities for your employees to work from another office for a short period of time, ideally in a different geography.
Shadow days
Just like you might ask a co-worker to take your kids to a meeting or lunch on “Bring your kids to work day”… Match a top performer with an executive in another area of your business, and have him or her shadow the executive for a day.
Summer camps and sabbaticals
Just like you give your kids time to do something different when they’re not in school, such as camps, travel, or just unstructured time during the summer… Give your employees a 5-day “sabbatical” each year to work on whatever experimental or research project they chose, just so long as it might benefit the team or the company.
Temporary jobs
Just like you might help your kids find part-time jobs or internships… Identify rotation assignments for your employees. Could they step into a new position until you can hire the full-time person? Or fill in on another team who is looking for temporary contracting help?

With each of these approaches, kids and employees are exposed to different cultures, ideas, opportunities, and challenges. The overall impact? Improved happiness, confidence, engagement, innovation, and productivity.

I’d love to hear your approaches to getting your your kids or employees “out of their caves.” Please leave a comment!


© 2014 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

(Photo credit: BigStock.com)

I could’ve done more…or not?

Photo of girls' feet in a tap dance classMy daughter is in her final year of high school and will be off to college in the fall. Eight months to go, and I’m already mentally preparing myself, curious about how our lives will change.

Only eight months left of her childhood. I find myself wondering if I could’ve done more for her over the years. I wonder if she should have gone on an exchange program or overnight camp. I wonder if she should have had more dance lessons or gone to more concerts and plays. The list goes on.

Yet, there were only so many hours in the day and a budget to stick to. As a result, I set priorities. And while I’m proud of the daughter that my husband and I have raised, the feelings of guilt—that I could’ve done more—keep creeping into my mind.

This morning, I came across an interesting blog post: How Leaders Can Avoid Shiny Objects, Black Holes, Fire Drills and Other Dangerous Distractions. Terry “Starbucker” St. Marie writes that one of the greatest challenges of leadership is managing time. He explains the need to spend this limited resource on the most important issues, and to avoid the distractions that can jeopardize projects, teams, and entire companies. I appreciated how he described the three most dangerous distractions: bright shiny objects, black holes, and fire drills.

What I find interesting is that each of these distractions can also show up in parenting:

Leadership* Parenting
The Bright Shiny Object
A new product, project, or partner that’s generating a lot of buzz. The problem is, it’s not really right for the company, or it’s a long shot.  But it’s really cool!  Should you devote time to it, at the expense of other, more viable and profitable things? The latest and greatest after-school activity. The problem is, your child is already pretty busy. But, you’re concerned that your child will not get into insert the name of your favorite college unless they do this activity. Should you figure out how to pay for it, juggle the schedule, and organize carpools to fit it in?
The Black Hole
The company has approved an expensive project, but about 25% of the way in you know you’re going to be over budget. Do you pull the plug now, or ask for more money and trudge on? You enrolled your child in a new sports program, but they’re disappointed because they aren’t as strong as the other players. Do you pull the plug now, or invest in private coaching?
The Fire Drill
Your boss saw a complaint from an unhappy customer. It was a bad one, but when you dug into it the day before it appeared to be an isolated case that could be routinely handled by  customer service, following the protocol for cases exactly like this one. Your boss sees it as a complete breakdown of customer service. Should you start the fire drill – two days of phone calls, e-mails, and meetings involving all of your team, devoted to that single complaint? Your child has known about a school project for over a week, and the night before it’s due she panics because she doesn’t have all the needed craft materials. You’re not too worried because you can think of other things she can use. She sees it differently. Should you start the fire drill of running around town to pick up the supplies?
* Many thanks to Terry “Starbucker” St. Marie for these leadership examples.

It’s not easy to avoid these distractions. It takes courage to say “no”, to be the bad cop, to step back and not get swept up in it all. But, by avoiding them, parents and leaders can spend their time and money on the things that really matter.

So, as my daughter heads off to college, I’m not going to allow myself to feel guilt over the things I could’ve done as a parent. Most would have distracted me from more important activities. Instead, I’m going to feel good about the things I did that made an impact and helped her become an incredible young woman.


© 2014 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

(Photo credit: BigStock.com)

The Quest for Perfection

My husband and I just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. Over the years, we’ve often quoted my father-in-law, who said the following as part of a larger speech wishing us all the best at our wedding ceremony:

A couple was having a fight. It was getting pretty heated, and one of them said to the other, “The problem with our marriage is that I’m a perfectionist and you’re not.” To which the other person replied, “That’s why I married you and you married me.”

Makes you think, right? 

While the perfectionist could have been either the husband or the wife in that story, I do believe that working moms who are perfectionists are setting themselves up for failure. There is no such thing as perfect leadership or perfect parenting, and it’s the imperfections that help build resiliency in our teams and in our kids.

I was recently contacted by an assistant to the President of Barnard College, Debora Spar. She saw a strong connection between my blog, my support of women in leadership, and Debora Spar’s new book “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.” Here’s a brief snippet, from Debora’s blog:

“Today, women are regularly trapped in an astounding set of contradicting expectations:  to be the perfect mother and manager, the comforting spouse and competent boss. Not only do we strive to be the perfect person, and the perfect leader, but we blithely assume we will achieve it all.  And when, inevitably, we don’t, we don’t blame the media, or our mothers, or the clamoring voices of others.  We blame ourselves.”

Individually, parenting and leadership are immense responsibilities. Now imagine doing both at the same time, along with the goal of being perfect. The results aren’t going to be, well, perfect. 

You can read more about Debora and her book on WonderWomen.com


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

A Surprising Twist of Events

Each week, Startup Edition poses a single question to a group of bloggers from the startup community. This week’s question is “Why are you working on your startup?” Karen’s answer? To multiply my efforts to help women in the tech industry. And the dudes as well.

Logo for AthenticaYou may have noticed that I’ve been writing less frequently for “Use Your Inside Voice.” While I wish I could post at least weekly, I simply don’t have the bandwidth. Why? I’ve gone through a significant and unexpected career pivot. I’ve joined Athentica, an early-stage startup.

Before Athentica, I was a leadership coach, speaker, and blogger focused on helping women have great careers in the software industry. And I wrote regularly about the intersection of leadership and parenting for my blog. I was doing what I loved, and I was happy. I wasn’t looking to make a career change.

Yet I did. Earlier this year, a friend invited me to lunch to discuss a business idea he had. Over the next six months, we met every so often, and I saw his business idea grow into what it is today—a social learning site that helps online learners identify and complete a curriculum of online courses to meet their career goals. Along the way, I started seeing connections between his idea and women I met through my speaking engagements.  These women were taking online classes to improve their technical skills. Many told me that they liked online classes because they could fit them into their busy lives, but they didn’t think they were learning enough to apply to a real-world programming need. They knew they needed to take more classes and get more experience building software, but they struggled with next steps. As a result, I knew my friend was on to something.

In a surprising twist of events, my friend asked me to be the CEO of his company. I wasn’t looking for this kind of role, but I decided to consider it seriously. As I evaluated the opportunity, I became really excited. I realized that, by joining the startup, I could help more women than I ever could as an individual. With the support of my husband and kids, I decided to lean into my career once again. I’m now the CEO of Athentica. And I’m having the time of my life.

Will I continue writing “Use Your Inside Voice?” Absolutely. Just not at the same frequency as before. If you have suggestions for parenting and leadership topics you’d like me to explore, please leave a comment below. I look forward to hearing from you!


NOTE: This post is part of Startup Edition, weekly wisdom from founders, hackers, and designers who answer a single question each week. Click here to see other answers to this week’s question: ”Why are you working on your startup?

© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Quiet: The missing chapter

Quiet book jacketLast month, I wrote a post asking readers if they had a favorite book for parenting AND leadership. Many thanks to Donna, who suggested Susan Cain’s bestselling book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking.” What a great read! It’s chock full of tips for parents of introverted children and for leaders of introverted employees. I can see why Donna recommended it.

However, I feel the book is missing something. Since over half of the population is extroverted, chances are there will be some in every group you lead. Where’s the chapter on how to thrive as an introverted leader?

As an introvert myself, I make a conscious effort to engage, motivate, and reward extroverts every day. Here are some strategies I’ve found helpful:

1) Deputize someone to plan social activities. Extroverts are energized by social interaction. Yet, organizing lunches or other social events has never been a priority for me as an introverted leader. To counterbalance my natural tendencies, I ask someone on my team be in charge of fun things to do. I look for someone who enjoys getting the team together for meals, planning office parties, or organizing other events that involve hanging around with team members. I give them a goal (e.g., an activity every month), and a reasonable budget, if possible. And then I show up for at least part of the event, even if I’d rather recharge by being by myself. The extroverts need me there.

2) Shine the spotlight when giving kudos. Generally speaking, extroverts love having the spotlight shown on them when they’ve hit a milestone or accomplished something great. I’ve done things like giving a shout-out at an all-hands meeting, asking them to stand for everyone to see. I’ve sent an email to a large distribution list to congratulate them on a job well done. There are many ways to acknowledge their accomplishments publicly, just be sure not to just default to how you like to be acknowledged. For many introverts, this is in a one-on-one, personal sort of way.

3) Schedule hang-out time during long meetings. Sure, we all know that breaks are needed during all-day meetings, and I tend to use breaks to catch up on email and be alone with my thoughts. By contrast, extroverts need space to hang out, exchange thoughts, and continue discussions. By doing so, they’ll return to the meeting energized with new ideas.

4) Put ’em in charge of the schmoozing. Have you ever noticed that when the phone rings, introverts tend to think “why is someone bothering me now” where extroverts can’t wait to answer it? Something similar happens with meetings with customers, partners, and the like. Introverts don’t want to bother these people with small talk when first introduced, but extroverts look forward to connecting with them and forging bonds that might help with future business needs. Ask the extroverts on your team to take a lead in making introductions and schmoozing at the start of such business meetings.

While these tips are geared towards leadership, they can also be applied to parenting. Ask your extroverted child for ideas for family outings. Embrace the after school activities that let your extroverted kids continue interacting with their friends. Put your extroverted child in charge of answering the telephone, once their old enough for this responsibility. Not only do these strategies help your extroverted children, they can be a welcome relief to an introverted parent!

Do you have additional tips for introverts who want to be good leaders or parents for the extroverts in their lives? Please share them by leaving a comment. I look forward to hearing from you.


p.s. Even if you don’t have time to read “Quiet,” be sure to check out Susan Cain’s TED talk.

© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Use your words!

How often do you share your thought process when you’re asked a question? If you’re like me, and in a permanent state of feeling pressed for time, you don’t do so nearly enough. What’s the downside? Your kids and your employees miss out on a chance to learn from you. And you might not discover that you missed key information when forming your decision. So, use your words at every opportunity!

A few weeks ago, my teenage son and I were in my car on our way to a nearby town. He was behind the wheel, taking advantage of the opportunity to practice driving. When he asked me if we had enough gas to get to our destination, I glanced over at the fuel gauge, saw that we had about 1/4 of a tank, and replied with a quick “Yes.”

I don’t know why, but I didn’t share my thought process with him. That I estimated it was 10-15 miles to the town. That my fuel gauge displays a warning when there is only one gallon left. And that, since my car gets about 25 miles to the gallon and we had more than a gallon left, we had plenty of gas for our trip. Instead, I just told him yes, we’d be fine.

A few minutes down the road, I started to think about what would happen if my son was driving by himself and was wondering if he had enough gas to get somewhere. Realizing I’d missed out on a teaching moment, I turned to him and explained my thought process. His response was a surprise: “But Mom, the reason I asked in the first place was because the fuel gauge warning light came on!” I had to laugh at myself; I hadn’t seen the light! Fortunately, we made our way to a gas station before hitting empty.

As you can tell from my story, sharing your thought process not only teaches others how you break down problems, but can also help avoid surprises. And it’s equally applicable to parenting as well as leadership.

Starting today, I’m making a personal pledge to share my thought process whenever I answer a question. How about you?


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Ask the Readers: Do you have a favorite book for parenting AND leadership?

Ask the readers

I’m always thrilled to come across leadership books that give me ideas for being a better parent, and parenting books that I can use professionally to make me a better leader. I’d love to read more of them. Do you have one to recommend?

Earlier this week, I visited Hackbright Academy to help with a workshop on interviewing skills. Poornima, my partner at Femgineer, taught the workshop, and at one point she mentioned that I have a blog about the intersection of leadership and parenting. Her comment led one of the students to approach me at a break to find out more about my blog. She shared with me that she has two children, and that, for years, she’s been noticing overlaps in parenting and leadership. In fact, there was a single book that had a huge influence on her both her parenting and leadership styles. It’s called “Mindset” by Carol Dweck. I’ve added it to my list to read!

I bet there are many more books that cross-over between parenting and leadership. Chances are they were written for one audience or the other, but the advice is applicable to both home and work.

Do you have one to recommend? A parenting book that gave you ideas or inspiration to be a better leader? A leadership book that helped you with a parenting challenge you were experiencing? Please leave a comment to tell me about your favorite books. I’d love to read them.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Embrace the Gap

Many people have taken breaks during their careers and wonder how to explain the gap in their experience. My suggestion: embrace it, just like students do with a gap year. 

Photo of a pink floppy disk
Image courtesy of nuttakit / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Last week, I caught up with a friend Ann, a stay-at-home mom who is thinking about returning to the workforce. She shared with me a dirty little secret: her latest resume is on a floppy disk. I had to laugh. Not only has she not updated her resume in almost 20 years, she wasn’t even able to open it.

As you can imagine, Ann wasn’t sure where to begin creating a new resume. She had done plenty of volunteer work as a stay-at-home mom, but she wondered if it was significant enough to list on her resume or LinkedIn profile. She didn’t necessarily remember the dates of her jobs earlier in her career. She was spinning her wheels, not sure how to proceed.

Does this sound familiar? Perhaps you don’t have a 20 year gap, but instead took off a year, or two or three, for personal reasons? If so, you may be asking yourself how you can prove you can still do the job. You may be wondering how to fill your resume with something, anything, to show you were productive during those years.

My suggestion is to embrace the gap you have in your professional experience. Don’t conceal it; instead, emphasize what you learned, how you grew, and how you changed. Think like a student who takes a gap year before going to college. As long as they aren’t sitting on their parents’ couches watching TV all year, they tend to gain valuable experience by traveling, working, or volunteering. There’s no stigma, no reason to hide what they’ve done.

As my friend Ann started writing a new resume, she tried to hide her years at home by emphasizing her earlier career in marketing. However, through volunteer activities, Ann had discovered her passion for helping the elderly. She enjoyed spending time with older people, helping them with errands, and bringing them to doctors appointments. So, I encouraged her to describe her volunteer work in a way that showcased her passion for helping older people, and to be clear that she was looking for a similar role as a paid employee. Her next draft was spot on and ready to start sending to potential employers.

While emphasizing volunteer activities is a great way to embrace a gap in your career, here are some overall strategies to consider:

Show that you know how to stay relevant. As you begin your return to work, read respected news sites and blogs for your field. Join relevant groups and follow Influencers on LinkedIn. Write comments on articles posted by these influencers. Read a best selling business book published this year (or two!). And, as you network and start interviewing, ask others for their favorite sources for industry news. Not only is it a great way to start a conversation, you also may discover trends or influential people that missed your radar because of your gap.

Identify transferrable skills. Take the skills that you learned during your gap and describe them in a way that will resonate with potential employers. If you started a blog, talk about how you became a better writer or photographer. If you organized volunteers, talk about how you mastered delegation. However, be careful to not take the analogy too far. No one becomes a supply chain expert by packing lunches for their family every morning, or a CFO by balancing their personal checkbook.

Highlight what you learned about yourself. What did you learn about yourself or do that you were surprised by? Just as Ann discovered she loved working with older people, what did you learn about yourself that would be of interest to a hiring manager? If you had the opportunity to travel to new destinations, what surprised you about the experience? If you took on an internship to learn new skills before looking for a full-time job, did you find something you wanted to look for (or stay away from) moving forward?

Make yourself unforgettable. Breaks from a typical career path can become the fuel for an interesting personal story. What’s your story? Write it, practice it, share it with friends, and then tell it to potential employers. Hopefully, your story will be unforgettable, and they’ll bring you in for a second round of interviews.

Do you have a gap on your resume? Or do you know a young person who is taking a gap year before college? What additional strategies would you recommend for embracing it, and not concealing it? I look forward to hearing from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

(Photo credit: BigStock.com)