Persistence alone is not enough

Lately, I’ve been pretty frustrated with my son’s elbows, especially when they appear on the dinner table every night. He’s a teenager, and I’ve been reminding him to keep his elbows off the table since he was a toddler. It’s gotten to the point that all I have to do is say his name, glance a certain way, and he gets the message. But, his elbows tend to creep back on the table just a few minutes later. 

I know I need to think of something different. I want him to break this habit so he doesn’t look like a goon at a nice dinner party or fancy event. Clearly, my persistence alone is not enough.

In times like this, when I find myself scratching my head as a parent, I try to think like a leader. What would a leader do to change behavior? To lead transformation?

A successful transformation starts with a vision, followed by defining a strategy for what needs to be done, executing that strategy, measuring success, and celebrating accomplishments. With my son:

  • I have a vision: no elbows on the table at mealtimes,
  • I have a strategy: remind him each time he forgets, and
  • execute: pointing it out, over and over again.
  • But, I don’t measure and celebrate success. Or, not yet at any rate.

So, as of last night, we are now tracking the meals where my son remembers to keep his elbows off the table. He’s charting his progress on a clipboard that we’ll keep in the kitchen, and I’ll reward him with something special when he hits a milestone. (This approach worked well when my kids were younger–we used incentive charts with little dinosaur stickers to help them learn something new. I know he would be humiliated if I bought a kiddie incentive chart now, so I’m using a simple piece of graph paper.)

Now that I’ve got my game plan, I’m feeling better. The next time I, as a parent and or a leader, need to lead change, I’ll be sure to couple persistence with metrics from the beginning. It’s a winning combination.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Start as you mean to go on

I was surprised by the response to my post about how hard it can be to shed past reputations. Many people emailed me directly to share their personal experiences of having to leave a company to reinvent themselves. It happens more often than I’d imagined.

Since then, I’ve been thinking of how people go about recasting themselves…for a new job, as they join a new community or school, or to meet a personal goal. Is it different for children and adults? And what is the role of a parent in helping their children adapt to change?

Then I heard the phrase, “Start as you mean to go on.” It means:

  • Make the effort to get things right at the beginning and develop good habits to follow going forward.
  • Approach something new by acting as though you were already a success.

I love it. This phrase embodies both the practical and the psychological aspects of recasting yourself, of starting over.

Did I follow this advice when starting my new consulting business? Yes and no. I’m a goal oriented person and a disciplined list maker, so I’ve done well with my goals for how much networking to do each week and how often to post on my blog. These have become habits I can easily continue. The more difficult aspect of “starting as I mean to go on” has to do with my confidence. I’ve never been a consultant before, and I need to regularly tell myself that I have deep expertise and skills that are in demand. It’s just so hard to get past my inner critic who prevents me from acting as though I’m already a success.

So, I’m reaching out to you, my readers. How have you started as you meant to go on? Do you have ways to ignore your inner critic? Have you helped a child or an employee make a fresh start? What worked? I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day

Photo of sunrise
Photo courtesy of my friend Sherry Page, who took it on an early morning walk in Sausalito, California. © 2013 by Sherry Page.

Sometimes when I write, I find myself singing a song over and over. Often it’s just a refrain, loosely connected to the topic I’m thinking about. Today, it’s the refrain from “Feeling Good” by Muse, which includes “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day….for me.” (For those of you who are fans of Nina Simone or Michael Bublé, yes, they recorded this song as well.)

My son loves Muse, and he’s been learning to play “Feeling Good” on the piano. So, I’ve been hearing it a lot lately, and I’m not surprised to find myself singing it as I go about my day.

What is my new dawn, my new day? Turns out I entered a new phase of parenting recently: mentoring my teens about how to interview for jobs.

On Saturday, my son had an interview to be a teaching assistant for a summer program for kids from under-resourced communities. Before the interview, I told him to be prepared to ask some questions and to share why he was excited about the program. And, because the teaching assistants can propose an extra-curricular activity to lead, I asked my son what he would say in the interview if this came up. While I half expected him to say “Muse Sing-alongs”, his answer was even better: “Improv.”  How fun!

The next day, my daughter wanted to talk about her upcoming interview for a summer internship at a non-profit that supports women computer scientists. What should she wear?  I said to stay away from ripped jeans and hoodie sweatshirts. (We live in Silicon Valley where workplaces tend to be very casual, but I think it’s nice, even for a high school student, to look pulled together for an interview.) What should she bring? I told her to leave her heavy school backpack in the car, and bring in just a purse and a notebook. We also made sure she had driving directions, her contact’s phone number, and a list of questions to ask about the internship. Check, check, and check!

This experience made me think about what lies ahead for me as a parent. Will I rely even more on mentoring and other leadership skills to be the parent my kids need?  I hope so. I feel I have a lot to share with my kids as they become adults, and so much more still to teach them. I’m thrilled they respect me enough to want to learn from me. And (humming along to the Muse tune), it fee-eels goo-oo-ood…

For those of you with college-age or adult children, I’d love to hear about the parenting skills that are important to you today. How much do they overlap with your leadership style? Please post a reply in the comments.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Parenting Skills DO Translate to the Office

Last week, Rosabeth Moss Kanter, an author and professor at Harvard Business School, published an HBR blog post titled Why Running a Family Doesn’t Help You Run a Business. If she wanted to generate controversy, she was successful! Based on the comments, readers were incensed by her assertions about stay-at-home moms who were looking to return to the workforce. Some of her more controversial statements were that stay-at-home moms would be too focused on compassion vs. hiring the right people, and that their time spent in limited-vocabulary conversations would impact their ability to think strategically. I’m still shaking my head over that last one.

While I don’t think anyone should go into an interview thinking their stay-at-home experience will be 100% relevant, I do believe that Ms. Kantor’s article was short-sighted. To counter it, I think we need to share stories about successful re-entries into the workforce. In fact, here’s one about a former colleague of mine:

After spending ten years at home raising her three kids, Ann, a talented engineer, decided to return to the software industry. She reached out to her network of professional contacts and heard about a great job opportunity. Because of her past reputation, Ann was invited to interview for the position. Knowing she would be scrutinized for the long hole in her resume, she did a very clever thing. Using software developed by the company, Ann created a digital presentation about a home remodeling project she had recently done. Not only did she demonstrate her technical abilities, she showed that she was willing to learn and work for something she wanted, and that she had been honing her project management skills at home. As you might imagine, she got the job.

Do you know about someone who was a stay-at-home parent and successfully re-entered the workforce? Please click “Leave a reply” to share your story. I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Sometimes you just need a fresh start

The other day I was talking to a man who used to work for me. He was seeking advice about his current job, where he doesn’t feel his team respects or trusts him. As we discussed some approaches to build trust, I also told him it can be challenging to shed a reputation. Co-workers see you one way (fairly or unfairly), and they might not be able to see your full potential.

I then told him about a parenting class I had taken with Dr. Michael Thompson, a child psychologist and co-author of the best selling book Raising Cain: Protecting the Emotional Lives of Boys. Dr. Thompson told us that teenage boys can get cast into a role that prevents them from growing up to be confident, talented young men. If they get teased about something or labeled in a certain way, they may not be able to shed it. However, if these boys get away from their peer groups and make a fresh start, they can often reinvent himself. Dr. Thompson shared an impressive story of an insecure boy who was on the lower rung of the high school social ladder. He went to an outdoor education camp for the summer, where he took on the leadership role for his group. He returned to school a changed person.

In the workplace, there are similar situations where you get stuck in a certain role or with a reputation that holds you back.  Sometimes the best thing is to just move on, to a new team or a new company.

Have you seen examples where your kids or your co-workers are held back by how others view them? How did they move past the prejudices? I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 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.