The value of a dollar

Dollar symbolWhen my kids were about 10 & 12 years old, they spent a week at my sister’s house. One night, when I called to talk with them, my brother-in-law answered the phone and told me he couldn’t believe what had happened that day. They had visited an aquarium, where he offered to buy them a souvenir from the gift shop. My kids, after walking around the shop, politely told him they didn’t need anything. This place was chock full of stuffed sea animals, books, t-shirts, and toys, and they didn’t want anything! To this day, my brother-in-law still can’t believe it.

By contrast, I wasn’t surprised. Over the years, when my husband and I took them to museums or zoos, we would tell them they could buy something from the gift store, but they need to spend their own money. Like many parents, we gave them a modest allowance to help them learn the value of a dollar. And it seemed to work. Sometimes they would buy something at a gift shop, but more often than not, they wouldn’t.

As you can imagine, hearing this story my children at the aquarium was a crowning moment for me as a parent. I was raising frugal kids who treated someone else’s money like it was their own. At the time, I gave myself a big pat on the back. And I silently thanked my friends and family who, by sharing their thoughts on allowances and spending money for kids, helped me figure out my approach.

In hindsight, I also realize how much I was influenced by a colleague, who spent hours and hours every week tracking the contractors in her department. She maintained a large spreadsheet, entering line items for each person’s hours and knowing, down to the penny, how much she could still spend each month. When her staff requested more hourly help, she would prioritize the request against the others she received, review the budget, and decide what they could afford. This system worked for her, but I vowed to never spend that kind of time on my work budget. Instead, I would delegate budget responsibility as much as possible.

As my professional responsibilities grew, so did my budget. But, keeping to my vow, I took every opportunity to push budget ownership to the mangers on my team. I’d make decisions each year about how much total budget we needed and how to divide it between my groups. But, once it was divided, I let my managers decide how to spend their budget.

Sure, my managers would come to me with expenses that they hadn’t anticipated, or opportunities that popped up that would require more budget. With each request, I’d prioritize it and see if I could support it. The requests were all reasonable, and only came to my attention when my team couldn’t figure out how to fund them from their budgets.

When my children move on to college, I want to push more budget responsibility to them. While they use their allowance today to pay for meals out, movies, gifts for friends, and so on, moving forward I want them to propose a budget for living expenses above and beyond tuition, room and board. I want them to think about their needs for books, clothing, over-the-counter medicine, and travel. I want to delegate managing this budget to them so that they learn this critical life skill. And, just like with my experience with budgeting at work, I expect that my kids will have unanticipated needs and will ask me for more money. Given their frugal experience early on, I have a feeling that these requests will all be reasonable.

I bet many of you have pushed budgeting to your teams or to your kids. Please share your strategies. I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

A simple yet powerful phrase

The simplest phrases are often the most powerful. I was thinking about this as I attended a chemical dependency seminar for parents at my children’s high school. The speakers shared statistics about teenage drug & alcohol use and told us about their first-hand experiences with addiction. They also recommended that we tell our kids, “My expectations are that you won’t do illegal drugs and that you won’t drink until you are 21, and then that you will do so responsibly.”

I felt like hitting myself on the side of the head. While I wanted my children to stay away from drugs and alcohol, I don’t think I had ever explicitly told them. At breakfast the next morning, I mentioned the seminar, and I replayed the exact phrase, “My expectations are…”

Will these words alone be enough to keep my kids from experimenting? Of course not. But, by saying them, I reinforced our family values in the context of drug use and underage drinking, and I felt I was doing so in a way that was respectful and demonstrated that I trusted them to make good choices.

It got me thinking about the equivalent in leadership, and how I could make use of the phrase, “My expectations are…” when I delegate projects, write performance reviews, and speak at employee meetings. Using these words, I could describe things in a way that would show my trust, motivate them, and perhaps even inspire them to achieve more than they thought they could. E.g., “My expectations for the budget proposal are that you will deliver an executive summary with a detailed spreadsheet, by the deadline, and that you will identify the right people to work with so that the proposal is accepted quickly.”

In thinking about how to use the phrase “My expectations are…” in a written performance evaluation, I decided to dust off some reviews I received in the past. In one, a manager gave me somewhat vague direction of what I should do to develop my career:

  • “Over the coming year it will be very helpful for you to continue your advocacy for your group and the collaboration with the business units…”
  • “I encourage you to focus more time on a longer term roadmap for your group…”
  • “I also encourage you to continue building out your thoughts on areas for you to have greater impact than you even do now at the company and where that may lead to developing skills further…”

Imagine how much more effective his guidance would have had if he had used the “My expectations are” phrase:

  • “Over the coming year, my expectations are that you will meet with all the key players in the business units, ensuring that there is excellent collaboration…”
  • “My expectations are that you will deliver a 3-year roadmap for your group…”
  • “My expectations are that you will identify two new service offerings, along with a plan for developing and rolling them out to the company.

If he had written them this way, I know I would have had more clarity about his expectations and would have felt empowered and motivated to deliver on them. However, as they were, I didn’t really understand what he was expecting.

We all know that kids and employees can’t read our minds. Do you have a favorite simple yet powerful phrase to convey values, rules, directives, or goals? I’d like to hear from you!


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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

When did you learn to drive the tractor?

Photo of a tractor
© Copyright Dave Fergusson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

I don’t know many farmers. But, when I meet someone who was raised on a farm, I like to ask how old they were when they learned to drive the tractor. Turns out it is a significant rite of passage—the day that they felt responsible for their family’s property and were expected to contribute to their family’s income.

Rites of passage take on many forms in different cultures: Bar and Bat Mitzvah rituals, quinceañera celebrations, religious confirmations, graduations, marriage ceremonies, drivers license tests, and so on. All of them mark a significant change, many come with increased responsibility, and they often include a celebration. We prepare our children for the rites of passage that are in keeping with our family’s values, religious traditions, and other cultural norms, and we are so very proud when they reach them.

In the workplace, rites of passage are often tied to promotions, increased responsibility, or changes in responsibility that come with lateral job moves. Just like parents, leaders play an important role in helping employees achieve these milestones. I love this quote by Jack Welch: Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.

However, growing others isn’t just making sure that employees can learn the skills and check off the accomplishments needed for promotion. In the companies I’ve worked for, there have always been more nuanced expectations. For example,

  • Does this person take initiative?
  • Do they take appropriate risks?
  • Do they mentor others?
  • Do they have what it takes to work with customers?
  • Do they care about the success of the company?

As leaders, we need to know about these unspoken qualifications and make sure our employees have opportunities to demonstrate them.  We need to coach them and ensure that they are prepared for the next steps in their careers. And, just like a proud parent, we should feel a sense of accomplishment when our employees achieve these corporate rites of passage.

I believe that all of us want to make a difference and feel that sense of responsibility that must come with learning to drive a tractor on a farm. What is the equivalent rite of passage in your family? In your organization?  What are you doing to help prepare your kids or your employees? I look forward to learning from you.


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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

The “Aha” Moment

As a mentor, I’m frequently asked for advice about delegation, a skill that many new managers find difficult to master. I firmly believe that delegation is difficult until the first time an employee surprises you by doing something better than you would have done yourself. That is the “aha” moment that changes everything.

At home, I had such “aha” moments as I’ve watched my children do their chores over the years. When they were young and just starting to help prepare meals, I remember asking them to get strawberries for lunch. If I had done this myself, I would have washed the berries, removed the hulls, and cut them into bite sized pieces. My children “streamlined” the process by washing the berries and putting them directly on their plates. Call them lazy or call them clever, but they knew they could get away without cutting the berries because they could nibble around the hulls.

A more recent “aha” moment happened as I watched my teenagers divvy-up household tasks. When I asked them to clean up after dinner, they figured out how to split the work of loading the dishwasher, putting away left-overs, and scrubbing the pots. If I were the task master, I’m sure I would hear cries of, “That’s not fair” or “I had to wash the pots last night.” Instead, they worked it out without any help from me.

With all due respect to my children, the “aha” moments I’ve had at work are more significant. I’ve been impressed over and over again with how my staff approaches tasks, utilizes their network of colleagues to brainstorm solutions, and creates top-notch deliverables. They get more done than I could possibly do myself, and they do it well.

Whether as a parent or as a leader, I see three reasons to delegate:

  • Delegation frees me to do higher-level tasks. At work, this means I can spend time thinking strategically about an opportunity. At home, I can spend time on a hobby or paying bills.
  • Delegation teaches new skills to my team or my children. My employees need to know how to talk to customers, write executive summaries, and prioritize work. My kids need to know how to tidy their rooms, use the microwave, do laundry, and clean a toilet.
  • Delegation involves others to create better ways of doing something or thinking about something. Co-workers often identify better approaches to get something done. Teens might play their favorite music to make a chore fun.

However, I realize that delegation can be difficult to do well. Imagine when I ask my children to tidy their rooms. In my mind, a clean room has certain characteristics: the bed is made, clean clothes are put away, and dirty clothes are in a laundry basket or, better yet, in the washing machine. Not surprisingly, my children may have a different definition of a clean room. It may mean everything that was on the floor is now piled on their desk, or that the basket of clean laundry is tucked away in the closet, out of sight. The potential for misunderstanding is huge.

There are so many reasons why delegation can fail, at home or at work, including:

  • No clear definition of success. “I’ll know it when I see it” doesn’t work when delegating. I need to describe what a finished work deliverable will contain or what a clean room will look like. I regularly remind myself that my employees and my children can’t read my mind.
  • No context of why a task needs to be done. “Because I said so” doesn’t work well over the long term either as a parent or as a leader. I need to explain the consequences of not doing the chore or the work assignment. Will I take away a privilege from my child? Will our department be denied a budget request if the proposal isn’t completed? By being specific, I try to motivate my staff or my children to do the task.
  • No timeframe for completion. We all tend to be excellent procrastinators. However, if I want my kids to clear their backpacks from the family room before guests come to dinner, I need to be clear about the deadline.
  • Relegation, not delegation. I don’t ask my kids or my staff to do something that I wouldn’t do myself. If there is undesirable, dirty work to be done, I take turns doing it.
  • Micromanagement. While I may share suggestions for tackling a project, or check in every so often on larger projects, I try not to micromanage. This is often challenging because I am a bit of a control freak. But, I try to let my child or my employee make decisions about how to get a project done. Otherwise, they will learn only from the way I have done things before and the mistakes I have made, which, in turn, influence how I do things. They need to experience their own challenges, make mistakes, and figure out approaches that work best for them.

So, whether I am asking my kids to help with housework or asking an employee to take on a new project, I follow this simple best practice:

  1. Describe the task
  2. Explain why the task is important
  3. Specify what success will look like
  4. Identify when the task must be completed
  5. Step away
  6. Observe and learn by how the task gets done

By following this best practice, I’ve had many “aha” moments. I look forward to hearing about your experiences, and I hope that your “aha” moments start rolling in.


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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.