Your Throw Sucks

Photo of a baseballThis past weekend, a friend posted the following on her Facebook page:

Our house backs up to a baseball field. Today has seen a progression of dads with their sons practicing for baseball season. In the 11:45am slot we have the a-hole dad of the day: “Your throw sucks. Throw the damn ball at my glove.” Waits. Ball passes about 4 inches outside – dad stands still. “You suck.” I can see this kid. He needs some coaching, but he’s strong – if deflated. All I can do not to march across the field and pull him back into my house.

What she witnessed is heartbreaking. Is this representative of all parents? No, thank goodness. But, I bet we’ve all witnessed a parenting put-down or two somewhere in our community: on a playground, in a grocery store, or at a sports event.

This is one intersection between parenting and leadership that I wish didn’t exist. Leaders can also use put-downs, publicly or privately, to humiliate or embarrass someone.

The problem is that put-downs rarely lead to improved performance. Criticism needs to be constructive, delivered in a way that gives the person a clue about what to do differently and the confidence that they can get there.

And what about my friend? She says she’s going to buy a bullhorn to give positive encouragement to the kids: “Stop telling your kid he sucks!”, “How about a little positive encouragement?”, “He takes after his father.” I don’t think she’s serious, but she definitely made me smile just thinking about her goal to change the world, one parent at a time.

–Karen

Image courtesy of hin255 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

© 2014 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

The true goal of leadership and parenting

Picture of an empty bird's nestMy husband and I have had a few practice runs at empty-nesting. Stretches in the summer when our kids visited my family on the East Coast, and my husband and I stayed in California for our jobs. While we missed our children a lot, we have to admit it was a nice change. No milk in the fridge? No worries. Decide to go on a date night at the last minute? Sure! Life without our kids around for a few weeks had its benefits.

As we look ahead to empty-nesting for real, we hope that our children are prepared for life, are set up for success in whatever they choose to do, and are happy. Isn’t this the true goal for any parent?

Making them successful and happy is also the true goal for any leader. It’s our responsibility to ensure that our employees are successful in their careers, guiding them to deliver on business needs while learning new skills to stay relevant and grow their careers. We want them to be happy and engaged with what they are doing so they can do their best work.

Often, the challenge is identifying the next skill someone needs to master. Because everyone is unique and there are external factors to consider, there’s no playbook to follow. Once you’ve taught your kids to do their laundry, is cooking next? Or financial literacy? What’s going to best meet personal and family needs? With employees, do they next need to learn a technical skill or a management skill? And what skill will best serve your company’s objectives?

My advice? Set aside time on a regular basis to reflect on how you’re going to meet the true goal. And look ahead to empty-nesting, whether that means having your children become independent and move out of your home, or delegating areas of responsibility to your team so that you have bandwidth to learn new things yourself.

–Karen

© 2014 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

(Photo credit: BigStock.com)

Alone, but Never Alone

Woman looking out of a windowWhen my kids were infants, I remember rocking them back to sleep in the middle of the night, looking out of our living room windows across a canyon. Seeing the lights in the other hillside houses helped me realize there must be dozens of parents nearby who were awake just like me: nursing babies, consoling kids after nightmares, taking temperatures, giving hugs. I wasn’t the only person not getting a good night’s sleep, and it was strangely reassuring.

I was similarly comforted as a startup CEO. How many other entrepreneurs were out there choosing just the right words for a pitch deck, searching for talent to join their small team, balancing new product ideas with the need to focus, or second guessing their business model when a new competitor comes on the scene? The uncertainty of it all was overwhelming at times, but I knew I wasn’t alone. Others were on the same journey.

“It’s lonely at the top” is a well-known adage in leadership circles, and there are plenty of strategies for dealing with the isolation. You can reach out to other leaders to get advice and support. You can work with an executive coach. You can have a trusted mentor. You can read leadership books and blogs. I’ve used all of these strategies over my career, and they’ve definitely helped.

During my maternity leaves, I used similar approaches to deal with the same feeling of isolation. I joined mothers groups and took exercise classes with other new moms. I read parenting books. All were helpful.

Yet, there were still times, as a leader and as a parent, that I was alone. Alone with my thoughts, the decisions I faced, the positive smile I would have to put on when I opened the door to that next meeting or that next family meal. Knowing that others were going through similar challenges and surviving, possibly thriving, made all the difference in the world.

How about you? How do you deal with the sense of loneliness as a leader or as a parent? I’d like to hear from you!

–Karen

© 2014 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

(Photo credit: BigStock.com)

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.

–Karen

© 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?

–Karen

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!

–Karen

© 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.

–Karen

© 2014 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

(Photo credit: BigStock.com)