Interview with Charlene Li

Photo of Charlene LiTo bring additional perspectives to the intersection of leadership and parenting, I interview talented professionals who are also parents. This month’s interview is with Charlene Li, founder of the Altimeter Group. She will now tell you more about herself and her views on leadership and parenting.

1) Welcome, Charlene! Please tell us about yourself.

I’m the founder of the Altimeter Group where I’m a consultant and independent thought leader on leadership, strategy, social technologies, interactive media, and marketing. Formerly, I was vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research and a consultant with Monitor Group. I was named one of the 100 most creative people in business by Fast Company in 2010 and one of the most influential women in technology in 2009.

I’m the author of The New York Times bestseller Open Leadership. I’m also the coauthor of the critically acclaimed, bestselling book Groundswell, which was named one of the best business books in 2008.

I graduated from Harvard Business School and received a magna cum laude degree from Harvard College. I serve on the Board of Directors of the Harvard Alumni Association, as well as The Poynter Institute.

My husband and I met in business school, and we’ve been married for almost 18 years. I agree with Sheryl Sandberg that your most important career decision is your choice of a life partner. In fact, when I wrote “Open Leadership”, I thanked my husband before anyone else in the acknowledgements. I couldn’t have written it without his support.

We have two children, a son who’s in 8th grade and a daughter in 7th grade. Partly because my son is dyslexic, I left Forrester Research (after 10 years) to look for new opportunities that would allow me to spend more time with him. While it was emotionally challenging to leave, I firmly believe you should evaluate your career every 18 months. I took this advice to heart, realizing that the worst thing that could happen would be having to ask for my job back. Instead, I became an independent contractor and then decided to start my own consulting business.

2) Your latest book, Open Leadership, is about how leaders must let go to succeed. What inspired you to write it? 

After I wrote my first book, Groundswell, many CEOs told me that while they understood the importance of giving up control, they didn’t want to. I would then ask them if they thought they really were in control. This idea can be traced back to Peter Drucker, who talked about breaking down hierarchy and getting away from a command and control approach to leadership. I decided to write “Open Leadership” to expand this dialog.

My primary audience for “Open Leadership” was business leaders, but I had two other audiences in mind as well: churches and families. In congregations, leadership control and hierarchy are shared between ordained leaders and lay people. They are tied by passion and belief. In families, you are tied by genetics. Regardless, the role of leadership is the same in all of these environments. You lead through the relationships you form. You have to remember that the people around you have choices; they aren’t forced to follow you.

(Karen’s two cents: With teenagers, who start looking to their peers for advice more than their parents, this idea is especially true. No one can force your kids to respect you, to listen to you, or to follow you. You need to have a solid relationship with your kids to “lead” them through their teenage years.)

3) As a parent, have you practiced a form of open leadership? Have you had to “let go” so that your children can reach their full potential? 

Absolutely! All the time! One concept in my book is the “sandbox covenant,” which is about delegating responsibility by defining how big the “sandbox” is and how high its walls are. In essence, it’s about creating a safe environment for employees to practice taking on risk. This concept was very much informed by my personal experience as a parent and through my research in companies. It’s all about how to encourage people to take risks so that they can grow. After all, grit and resilience in both families and organizations is important.

When my kids were little, it was important to give them a lot of structure. As they grew, I changed the structure so that they could have more opportunities to learn. For example, when my daughter was four years old, she hated brushing her teeth. One day, I saw her looking at her toothpaste and then at the liquid soap dispenser next to the sink. I told her, “I don’t think you should do that.” But, she didn’t listen to me, started brushing her teeth with the soap, and immediately spit it out. I didn’t stop her because I wanted her to learn (and I knew she wouldn’t hurt herself). To this day, we still talk about the time she washed her mouth out with soap.

I’ve also evolved the sandbox to accommodate online activities and electronic gear. I closely monitor my kids’ online games, and one time I was concerned that another player was going to try to scam gold coins from my daughter. I warned her about it, but let her decide what to do. Well, she ignored me and ended up losing all of her hard-earned gold. Since then, I’ve seen her be more careful and aware of the people she connects with online. Even so, we have a rule that she can only accept online friend requests from people that she already knows.

My favorite chapter in “Open Leadership” is about dealing with risk and failure (Chapter 9). At work, we need to encourage people to take appropriate risks. At home, the same is true. When my son was in 7th grade, he got Cs on his report card. This was a wake up call for him, and since then he has been an A student. I’m thankful this happened to him in 7th grade, when it wouldn’t have much of an impact on high school and his college choices.

We believe in giving our kids opportunities to try a lot of things, but there are always limits. For example, they each get one hour of computer time per day, and I monitor all their incoming email and their social media accounts. While my kids may not always agree with the rules, they comply. And they talk about how they appreciate the opportunities we give them.

4) What advice would you give about developing skills as both leaders and parents? Is there a person, a book, or a course that has particularly influenced you?

The ability to listen and communicate as a leader is so critical, especially in how you scale and do it all the time. Leaders think their primary job is to talk, but they need to get input from so many places (employees, customers). With kids, we often think our job is to tell them what to do. Really it is to understand where they are and to guide them. To understand my kids’ world, I play all their games, I use their apps, and we talk about new apps we’ve heard about. It’s a way to build relationship. It takes time, but it’s so worth it.

One tool that has influenced me is the Situation-Behavior-Impact (SBI) Feedback Model. I apply it at work and at home, especially for resolving conflict. One of its mantras is, “If you have a problem, you need to tell me about it.”  Recently, my daughter and I had a misunderstanding about her phone usage, and she lost her computer privilege because of it. She went off and thought about what she had done, and she came back with a written proposal for resolving the situation. She showed me that she understood my concerns, that she was committed to not repeating the situation, and what should happen if she did it again. This is an example of clearly communicating what we agreed to and who’s going to do what, which together build trust. And I firmly believe that both families and businesses are built on relationships and trust.

Thank you, Charlene, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us. I enjoyed hearing how you practice open leadership at home by providing a safe environment for your kids to take appropriate risks so that they can learn and grow. Your approach to parenting is filled with respect and strong communication, and your children must be learning valuable leadership skills that will serve them well in their academic and professional careers. How wonderful!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Interview with Rich Mironov

RichMironov-smTo bring additional perspectives to the intersection of leadership and parenting, I interview talented professionals who are also parents. This month’s interview is with Rich Mironov, author of The Art of Product Management, consultant to tech companies, blogger, husband, and father. He will now tell you more about himself and his views on leadership and parenting.

1) Tell us about yourself.

I’ve spent thirty years in Silicon Valley, mostly in software product management and B2B tech startups. Lately, I’m consult on software product management, agile and business models – splitting my time between startups and big companies.

Back in 2001, I started writing Product Bytes, a series of articles on software, start-ups, product strategies, Silicon Valley, and the inner life of product managers. I compiled my favorite Product Bytes from 2001-2008 into a book, “The Art of Product Management.

I also founded the first P-Camp, now spreading worldwide as Product Camps. These semi-unstructured get-togethers provide product managers and product marketers an opportunity to network, teach, learn and share.

I met my sweetheart at Stanford Business School, and we’ve taken turns on high-risk ventures (limit: one startup at a time per household!) – and being primary parent to our daughter.

2) You’ve been blogging for many years, and back in 2003 you wrote a great post titled, Parenting and the Art of Product Management. What inspired you to write this post?

My daughter (of whom I’m inordinately proud) was 12 and doing her first startup, and it had been obvious to me for a long time that managing grown-ups at the office was a lot like raising kids. In particular, that kids depend on their parents to plan for the long term (college), to insist on unpleasant but necessary things (vaccinations, homework), and to protect them from predictable disasters (toddling across the highway). Product management maps surprisingly well to this, since most functional contributors live in the very short term (sales reps, agile development teams).

3) What three adjectives do you think describe the best leaders? The best parents?

Leaders: inspiring, practical, humane

Parents: supportive, loving, honest

4) What skill or best practice have you used both as a leader and a parent? What challenge were you facing at the time, and what did you learn?

Anticipating and countering short-term thinking. At the office, this is the bad excuse (“just this once, let’s skip our normal QA/regression testing”) or precedent-setting one-off request (“I need this special discount to close an end-of-quarter deal with an important customer, but won’t ever ask you for special pricing again”) or magical thinking (“can’t we add one more thing onto the roadmap without delaying anyting?”) . At home, these sound like “I don’t feel like going to soccer practice today” or “I’ll eat my vegetables tomorrow” or “I re-e-e-eally need that new iPad.” Small decisions have consequences, and you have to decide which issues are worth standing your ground for.

5) Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

Raising a child has made me a better manager.  I try to identify my employees’ unique skills, support their aspirations while getting the immediate job done, and mentor them for long-term success. I feel parental pride when they go on to do great things elsewhere.

Thank you, Rich, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us! Dr. Madeline Levine, a child psychologist and author, also promotes the idea of taking a long term view of what’s right for children. Short-term thinking can have a negative impact on future goals, whether that is raising a healthy, successful child or exceeding that 3-year business plan. It’s great to see you taking the long term view, both at home and work.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Interview with Deborah Mills-Scofield

Photo of Deborah Mills-ScofieldTo bring additional perspectives to the intersection of leadership and parenting, I’ve started an interview series. Today, I’m thrilled to be interviewing Deborah Mills-Scofield, an innovation consultant, author, adjunct professor, wife, and mother of two. She will now tell you more about herself and her views on leadership and parenting.

1) Tell us about yourself, professionally and personally. 

I went to Brown University, where I helped start the Cognitive Science program. I graduated in three years (everyone said you can’t do it, so I did). I spent summers working at AT&T Bell Labs, and after graduating, I went to work there. I developed technology for speech recognition and messaging, started managing people, and spent a lot of time traveling globally to meet with customers. 

During that time I married my husband, who has left Basic Research at Bell Labs to teach Physics at Oberlin College.  Bell Labs/AT&T moved me to Ohio and flew me back and forth, weekly, to my NJ office and elsewhere in the world so I wouldn’t quit.  When I had my first child, I refused to travel and worked part-time from home, still retaining my management level but reducing my management role.  After my second child, it became hard to keep the enthusiasm going since AT&T was in a downward spiral, and I quit.

At that point, my career started growing in many interesting directions. I didn’t know many people in Ohio, so I reached out to the Brown alumni network and met lots of people, including the founding partner of the VC firm I’m a partner in. I started my consulting business and my blog about innovation, and I now write for Harvard Business Review’s blog twice/month. I also teach innovation and entrepreneurship at Oberlin College and Brown University. Working with students keeps me young, encourages me to continue challenging the status quo, and keeps me fresh for my clients whom I help with strategic and innovation planning. Of course, my two amazing, wonderful, incredible children also keep me young.

I’ve often thought, “Why the heck did AT&T let me manage people before I had kids?” I’ve learned so much about management from parenting! I think management books are great for parents, and parenting books are great for managers. I also believe children’s storybooks are the best books for innovation, and I often use them with my clients. One of my favorite series, Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt, helps people see that looking at the world in new ways isn’t so scary after all. You see, I believe we’ve lost the emphasis on storytelling as a teaching tool. Sure, stories are important for the first eight or so years of our lives, but after that they are deemphasized. I like stories because they let you identify with something outside of your experience. When you hear a story, you can interpret it in a way that is meaningful to you, and apply it to a challenge or goal you are facing. This is why I use children’s storybooks with my clients.

2) You are a recognized blogger on innovation. What is the goal of your blog? 

I started my blog to get people to think about innovation and see that it’s not formidable, it can be broken into bite-sized pieces, and you can learn from others. Over time, it’s evolved to less about the specific practice of innovation, and more a reflection of what I’m finding interesting that others seem to as well. I’ve also opened it to others to express their voices. I have clients write guest blogs about creating an innovative culture. I have students from Brown write about how they view entrepreneurship and society. With each post, I want my readers to think about how they can apply it, learn from it, or do things different for their company or community.

Moving forward, I’ll also be writing about how to use your network to make something happen. Regardless of how many people you know, you can and should count on people you know to help you achieve your goals.  One of my recent posts in Harvard Business Review on the power of the “Ask” seems to have a hit a chord!

3) What three adjectives do you think describe the best leaders? The best parents?


  • Visionary (helping you see the forest from the trees)
  • Humble & vulnerable
  • Trustworthy


  • Loving, unconditionally if possible.
  • Prudent, balancing the short and long term. I.e., Is what I’m doing now leading my child to be the person I think they should become, a person of integrity, character and someone who can make and keep a commitment?
  • Authentic, using actions, not just words, to be a role model. Don’t tell your kids one thing and then do something else. Help them to build trust in others.

4) What skill or best practice have you used both as a leader and as a parent? What challenge were you facing at the time, and what did you learn?

I’ve learned how to try to motivate people to do what’s best for them (not for me) so they can come to it themselves and learn how to keep doing it. I’ve also learned that what motivated someone two weeks ago may not work again today, and just because it worked for one kid or employee, it may not work for another person. It takes time to know what motivates an individual, which includes balancing short and long term.

I’ve also learned to motivate from the heart, both at work and home. I look at the relationships I had at AT&T Bell Labs, and I look at my clients today. Someone commented recently that everyone hugs and kisses me. I feel a genuine affection for my clients. Love has such power, but we have demeaned it in the workplace to a sexual definition, not in an Agape or Philos way. As a Jew who is also a Christian, I believe that my kids are a gift from God, and that I have been chosen to raise them on His behalf. With God’s help, my ultimate hope for my kids is that they will bring Him joy.

5) Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

Because of the generation of women who worked before us, it’s easier for us to apply parenting lessons to the workplace. We don’t necessarily need to keep our personal and professional lives separate. There is an ability to carry the lessons back and forth. The next generation should be even better.

Are those bosses who are more enlightened managers better parents and vice versa? I’d like to see research done in this area!

Thank you, Deb, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us! If anyone knows about research on the positive effects of parenting on leadership, please let us know in the comments. We’d like to hear from you.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.