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.

When was the last time you made someone feel smart?

drawing of a light bulb
Image courtesy of bplanet / 

Are there some people you enjoy spending time with because they make you feel good about yourself? My husband and I know an older couple who have a knack for asking questions that make us feel like we are the most interesting people in the world. (Believe me, we’re not.) This couple refers to conversations we had years earlier, complimenting us on our achievements since then and encouraging us to stretch ourselves in new ways. Given their advanced years, I’m pretty sure they must keep a diary of their activities, and read it before seeing us to be able to remember what we’ve told them. Whether this is their secret or not, they make us feel great every time we visit them.

I thought of these friends when I read “7 Tips for Making Other People Feel Smart and Insightful,” a blog post by Gretchen Rubin. (Gretchen is the author of the best-selling books “Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home.”) She writes

We all want to get along well with other people, and one way to do this is to help people feel good about themselves. If you make a person feel smart and insightful, that person will enjoy your company. The point is not to be manipulative, but to help other people feel good about their contributions to a conversation.

She goes on to share some suggestions, including taking notes about what others are saying, referring back to comments that they made earlier in a conversation, and asking someone to finish a thought if they got side-tracked. Each allows you to show respect for their ideas and their experience, and that you are paying attention to what they’re saying.  My favorite is asking for advice and acting on it. As Gretchen points out, we all love to give advice, and we feel smart when someone seeks our counsel. We may even feel brilliant when that person follows our recommendations.

Not only will Gretchen Rubin’s tips help you make others feel good about themselves, they can also help drive engagement. Are you a leader who wants to increase  employee engagement with your company’s mission and future? Or, perhaps you are a parent who wants to  improve your teen’s engagement with your family? Think about making them feel good about the contributions they’re making to any conversation, and making them feel insightful when you seek their advice.

Professionally, I ask others for advice frequently. I’m a collaborative person, and I appreciate learning from others and including people in my decision making process. But, do I do this at home? Turns out not nearly enough.

When I asked my kids if I looked to them for advice, they both shook their heads “no.” Whether they realize it or not, I learn from them all the time. Yet, learning from someone is different than asking them for input. When we seek advice, we’re trying to sort something out; we’re gathering perspectives to help us understand a broader picture. By default, we reach out to people whose opinions we respect and trust, and this, in turn, makes them feel smart and insightful. With teens who are still developing a sense of who they are and the adults they will become, seeking their advice gives them the opportunity to practice sharing their ideas and to develop confidence in their opinions. Chances are, they’ll also teach us a thing or two.

So, I’m making a resolution to include my kids in my decision-making process more often. Please share your ideas, or your stories about when you’ve sought your kids’ advice. I’d love to hear from you.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Going extreme with questions

Picture of the book, Occasionally, I come across parenting advice in a leadership book. When this happens, I smile and do a little cheer under my breath. It’s validating to see someone else writing about the intersection of parenting and leadership. 

One such example is in the book “Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter” by Liz Wiseman, with Greg McKeown. From the book jacket,

“We’ve all had experience with two dramatically different types of leaders. The first type drains intelligence, energy, and capability from the people around them and always needs to be the smartest person in the room. These are the idea killers, the energy sappers, the diminishers of talent and commitment. On the other side of the spectrum are leaders who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of the people around them. When these leaders walk into a room, light bulbs go off over people’s heads; ideas flow and problems get solved. These are the leaders who inspire employees to stretch themselves to deliver results that surpass expectations. These are the Multipliers. And the world needs more of them, especially now when leaders are expected to do more with less.”

The book is full of stories of both kinds of leaders, and provides practical ideas for how to become a stronger “multiplier.” I enjoyed reading about how to develop a key trait of Multipliers – being a “challenger” vs a “know-it-all.” Most leaders spend their days answering a barrage of questions, and it’s tempting to stay in answer mode and be the boss. But, Multipliers know to stop answering questions and begin asking them.

Easier said than done? It was for the author, Liz Wiseman, who shared a story about how she had become horribly bossy with her young children, barking orders when it was time for bed: put on your pajamas, brush your teeth, pick up your toys, and so on. When she told a colleague how frustrated she was by it, he challenged her to ask only questions that night at home. No orders, just questions. She agreed to give it a try, and that evening she asked things like, “What time is it?” Her kids answered, “bedtime”. “What do we do at bedtime? They responded with, “We get on our pajamas and we brush our teeth.” Liz stood in shock as her kids then scampered to get ready for bed.

Are you up for the Extreme Question Challenge? Start by asking 100% questions, at home or in a meeting at work. The next day, adjust your approach to find a comfortable balance of asking and answering questions. You may be surprised by what your family or your employees already know. You may find you’re transformed as a parent or a leader, just as Liz Wiseman was.

Do you know of other leadership books that also provide parenting advice? Please share them in the comments. I’d like to read them!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

I haven’t learned that yet

When my son was about six years old, a family friend who was visiting us sat down to do math puzzles with him. At one point, our friend asked my son to multiply two numbers, and my son answered, “I haven’t learned that yet.” It was the perfect response! He owned the fact that he didn’t know something, yet he didn’t make any excuses. I was impressed.

I heard this phrase again this past weekend at the She++ Conference at Stanford University. The goal of She++ is to inspire women to embrace computer science. Given my daughter’s interest in studying CS, she and I decided to attend the event.

As part of the conference, a panel of Stanford Computer Science (CS) undergraduates, all of whom were women, shared their experiences. A recurring theme was that, while CS is a challenging degree program, it can lead to empowering, potentially world-changing, career opportunities. Many of the panelists shared stories of struggling with assignments and not getting great grades on an exam or two. Most of them had not done any programming until they entered Stanford, and understandably they felt intimidated by other students who had been programming since they were 9 or 10 years old. One of the panelists emphasized that it’s okay to say to yourself or others, “I haven’t learned that yet.” You can and will learn it! I couldn’t agree more.

As parents and as leaders, we can encourage others to be comfortable with the phrase “I haven’t learned that yet.” When we see someone looking perplexed, or struggling to get something done, we can ask, “Have you learned how to do that?” It’s our job to make it safe to ask for help and embrace learning new things, whether it’s simple multiplication or advanced computer algorithms.

I’d love to hear from readers about how they make it safe to ask for help or how they support others who might feel vulnerable because they don’t know something.  Please reply with a comment. I look forward to reading about your experience.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Writing “Tweet First”

Karen Catlin at Twitter HeadquartersI visited Twitter headquarters today to talk about programs for their female employees. During my visit, I confessed to my host that I’m relatively new to the tweeting game.  I’m comfortable with lots of other social media, but I’d never bothered with Twitter. Well, until I started blogging and realized I needed to tweet about my posts and use Twitter to help build my brand.

Initially, I set up my WordPress blog to automatically tweet the title of the blog post along with a shortened URL. Check! I could definitely say I was now using Twitter.

However, I started paying attention to the tweets that caught my eye, the ones that I clicked on to read more. Those tweets were a whole lot more interesting than mine. They hooked me in and summarized the article at the same time. They were the ultimate executive summary, in 140 characters or less!

So, a few weeks ago, I started writing my blog posts “tweet first.” I figure out the message I want to convey, and write the tweet across the top of the article I’m working on. That tweet becomes a guiding light as I write and make revisions. I refer to it often to stay true to the message I want to convey. When I’m ready to publish the post, the tweet is ready to go live at the same time.

When I told my husband about my approach, he mentioned that John Irving writes the last sentence of a novel first. Sure enough, I found the following on John Irving’s blog: “”I always begin with a last sentence; then I work my way backwards, through the plot, to where the story should begin.” Nifty!

Do you have a Twitter strategy? Please reply with a comment. I’d like to learn from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

You know how I am

My friend Liz started laughing as she read her email. Another friend had sent her a screen shot of text messages where she asked her son where he was going after school. He wasn’t happy having to keep her in the loop, but he did it. And her text back to him? “Thanks. You know how I am.”

Liz chuckled at the phrase “You know how I am” because it showed her friend being honest with her son, and having the self-awareness to realize that wanting to know his whereabouts was her concern, not his. “You know how I am” is a firm message delivered in a self-deprecating wrapper. Liz’s friend realized her son might poke fun at her for using those words, but they made it clear that she needed to know where he was going. She wasn’t going to change just because it might be inconvenient for her son.

Assuming your kids listen, they may even remember “how you are” even when you don’t explicitly say so. A few days ago, my daughter went to a cafe with a friend after school. She sent me a text message saying where she was, along with “I know you like to know where I am.” I responded with a “You know how I am. Thanks :)” I was definitely smiling.

I think this phrase is equally useful in a professional setting. Imagine working with your team on an important presentation. You might insist on numerous rehearsals before the big day, even though your team feels they can manage without them. Or you might ask your team to submit expenses a few days before the deadline so that you have time to review them. Delivering these messages with a “You know how I am” firmly states your expectations while acknowledging that you are asking them to do something because of the values or concerns you have.

The next time you need to share values or change behaviors, would using “You know how I am” help deliver the message? I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

When you can’t discipline in private

Photo of young girl in trouble with motherPraise publicly, discipline privately. A great mantra for both leaders and parents! But, what about those times when discipline is called for and there is no privacy to be found? Perhaps it’s because your child made a driving mistake and you want to point it out immediately, even though a best friend is in the back seat. Or, you pull aside an employee to give him feedback in private, but his team members know exactly what’s happening. While you try to deliver the message in a thoughtful, respectful way, you’re still doing it in front of their peers or friends. It can be humiliating!

Even worse, imagine how humiliated you’d feel in this scenario:

You’re attending a parent education talk at a local school, along with hundreds of other parents.

About half-way through the talk, the host interrupts the speaker to announce that there is a dog locked in a car, the windows are rolled up, and the police are going to break the window if the owner doesn’t open up the car in the next 10 minutes. You gasp as you realize it’s your car, and you completely forgot that your dog hopped in the backseat when you left the house that morning. 

You’re going to have to stand up, make your way past dozens of parents sitting in your row, deal with the stares from everyone in the auditorium, and run to the nearest door. 

You’re going to feel humiliated.

But then, a miracle happens. Before you even stand up, the speaker asks everyone to stand, stretch, and say hello to the person in the next seat. He causes a diversion, letting you deal with your mistake without being the subject of everyone’s stares. In your mind, he just became the most gracious person in the world. 

While this person wasn’t me, I was at that talk. Boy, was I impressed that the speaker, Shawn Achor, thought of doing this. Not that he was disciplining her, but hundreds of people were about to cast judgement. He created privacy for that parent in the crowded auditorium. It was the perfect thing to do.

Sure, we should try to wait until we have privacy to discipline, but it’s not always an option. Have you created privacy when you’ve needed to, as a parent or a leader? I’d like to hear your ideas!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

(Photo credit:

Say thank you, and then stop

Last weekend, my children went to a semi-formal dance held by their high school.  My husband and I hosted a pre-dance party for my daughter and her friends to put the finishing touches on their hair and make-up together and for the parents to snap some photos. When my son came downstairs dressed for the dance, someone said that they liked his tie. He said, “Thank you.” And, then he added a bit sheepishly, “It’s my Dad’s.” One of the moms kindly suggested, when he gets another compliment on it, to say just “Thank you.” There’s no need to let anyone know you borrowed it.

A few days after the dance, I happened to watch a keynote from the 2012 Grace Hopper Celebration, an annual conference for women in computing. The speaker was Nora Denzel, a talented computer scientist, well-respected executive, and engaging public speaker. Towards the end of her presentation, she shared some career advice, including control your career PR by not disclosing your faults or limitations. Nora told a story where she complemented a woman after she gave an outstanding presentation at a customer briefing. The woman replied by talking about the mistakes she had made, how she was up half the night with her sick son so it wasn’t her best work, and even that she didn’t think she wore the right dress. Nora’s advice is to say thank you, and then stop. Don’t share your inner critic’s voice!

Just like that woman, my inner critic’s voice can be much too loud. I remember a time when I was responsible for managing the localizations of the company’s software portfolio so that we could sell them in other countries. Just two weeks after I joined the company, the CEO asked me to give him an overview of all the localization projects. I had barely figured out what I was supposed to be doing, and the CEO wanted to hear from me! Well, I met with him and presented each project, the risks, and next steps. At the end of the meeting, he told me he was impressed with how I presented the information and that he was confident I would see each project through to completion. Instead of just saying thank you, I told him that all I had done was some formatting of the information that my manager had given me. To this day, I don’t know what I was thinking.

As a leader and as a parent, I’m going to look for coachable moments when people should say thank you and then stop. How about you?


p.s. While I highly recommend all of Nora’s keynote, I understand your time may be limited. Her career advice about saying thank you and then stopping begins about 36 minutes into the video.

© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

The Ultimate Compliment

I once worked for a software company that was acquired by a larger company. In the first few months following the acquisition, I noticed something interesting. My new manager, who had been at the larger company for many years, started saying things in meetings along the lines of, “What I learned from Karen is the following…” What he then said resembled something I had shared with him, yet translated into the language of the new company. It sounded so much more impressive than what I had originally told him.

By rephrasing my words, this manager taught me to how to speak more effectively, using the right lingo and phrases to tie my thoughts into the strategic direction of the company, its culture and values, and its past successful initiatives. What a gift!

He also demonstrated a great deal of respect for me in front of my new colleagues. The simple phrase of “What I learned from Karen” made me feel great; who wouldn’t want to be recognized for teaching their more experienced manager something new. I think it was the ultimate compliment.

Since then, I’ve done my best to use that simple phrase in my leadership and parenting. For example, I recently exchanged email with someone I worked with a long time ago. In my email, I wrote,

One thing I learned from you is the importance of prioritization. At the time, you were a product manager who received more voice mail than you could possibly return. You told me how you strategically decided which messages to answer. To this day, I still think of you whenever I consciously decide not to do something. Thank you for inspiring and enabling me to do so!

As you might imagine, she was touched and wrote back,

I remember you absolutely and what a tremendous compliment you shared with your memory of me. I’m honored.

I learn from people around me every day, and I’m so grateful to be surrounded by talented family, friends, and professional contacts. I should thank them and compliment them more than I do. So, one of my resolutions for 2013 is to use the phrase, “What I learned from so-and-so is….” at least twice a week, either at home or at work. I’m hoping it will then become a life-long habit.

Have you made resolutions that apply to both parenting and leadership? I’d love to hear from you.

Wishing you all a happy and healthy 2013,


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Thank You, Plus One

When my daughter was in middle school, I enrolled her in a cotillion program to learn social skills, manners, and formal dance etiquette. She was already a polite young woman, but shy, and I thought this program would help her gain confidence in social settings. While I am not sure how much my daughter learned from the classes, I do remember being impressed with their “thank you, plus one” approach. Basically, when you thank someone in person or in writing, you should thank them and add one specific, personal thought. For example, “Thank you for inviting me to the party. I really liked the cupcakes you served.”

This morning, I sent a holiday tip to our newspaper carrier. I jotted a quick “thank you for delivering our paper” and then decided to add “and for double-bagging on rainy days.” It felt good to thank them for how they deliver the paper.

As leaders, we can thank people in many ways: in casual conversations, during meetings, in emails, in performance evaluations, with formal recognition programs, and so on. Each time, we also have the opportunity to add a “plus one” about how the work was accomplished. E.g., “Thank you for writing an article for this month’s newsletter. I especially appreciated that you included quotes from customers to make your points.” With the “thank you, plus one” approach, you:

  • Demonstrate that you are paying attention not just to what your employees are doing, but also how they are accomplishing their work.
  • Deliver a more meaningful thank you, and
  • Reinforce the behaviors you want to see again.

How do you like to thank the people around you? What was the most memorable thank you that you ever received? I’d like to hear from you!


© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.