The six-word phrase that matters most

Picture of boys playing soccerDid you know there is a parenting phrase that brings student athletes happiness, confidence, and a sense of fulfillment? It’s just six words: “I love to watch you play.”

Years ago, I first came across a variation of this phrase in the program for a local Nutcracker performance. My friends’ daughter was playing Clara, and they placed an ad in the program saying, “We love to watch you dance. Love, Mom and Dad.” It made an impression on me. It was so simple, supportive, and beautiful.

I like to think that I’ve used it many times since then to encourage and praise my kids, but I’m not so sure I remembered to. However, it was top of mind when my husband and I sat down to write a letter of love and affirmation for our daughter, to be given to her at a high school retreat. Our daughter is a talented writer, and in our note to her, we said: “We love to read what you write.”

Coincidentally, a few days after the retreat, I came across Daniel Coyle’s article in the Huffington Post: Five Ways to Nurture Talent (Without Being a Psycho Parent). In the article, he shares informal research done by collegiate coaching experts about ways parents had made a positive or negative impact on their children’s development. One of the “aha’s” from their interviews is what Daniel Coyle says may be “the wisest parenting tip I’ve ever read.”

The kids reported there was one phrase spoken by parents that brought them happiness. One simple sentence that made them feel joyful, confident, and fulfilled. Just six words. I love to watch you play.

Given how important the phrase is to student athletes, and the impression it made on me when I first saw it, I started wondering how it could be adapted by leaders to make their teams feel confident, happy, and engaged with their work.  For example,

I like to watch you lead meetings.
I like to read your reports.
I like to watch you give presentations.
I like to see you help customers.

What do you think of this phrase, as a parent or as a leader? Have you used it yourself? Thinking of opportunities to use it more in the future? Please leave a comment sharing your thoughts. After all, I like to read your comments.


© 2014 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

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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!


© 2014 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

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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?


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.

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The Quest for Perfection

My husband and I just celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. Over the years, we’ve often quoted my father-in-law, who said the following as part of a larger speech wishing us all the best at our wedding ceremony:

A couple was having a fight. It was getting pretty heated, and one of them said to the other, “The problem with our marriage is that I’m a perfectionist and you’re not.” To which the other person replied, “That’s why I married you and you married me.”

Makes you think, right? 

While the perfectionist could have been either the husband or the wife in that story, I do believe that working moms who are perfectionists are setting themselves up for failure. There is no such thing as perfect leadership or perfect parenting, and it’s the imperfections that help build resiliency in our teams and in our kids.

I was recently contacted by an assistant to the President of Barnard College, Debora Spar. She saw a strong connection between my blog, my support of women in leadership, and Debora Spar’s new book “Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection.” Here’s a brief snippet, from Debora’s blog:

“Today, women are regularly trapped in an astounding set of contradicting expectations:  to be the perfect mother and manager, the comforting spouse and competent boss. Not only do we strive to be the perfect person, and the perfect leader, but we blithely assume we will achieve it all.  And when, inevitably, we don’t, we don’t blame the media, or our mothers, or the clamoring voices of others.  We blame ourselves.”

Individually, parenting and leadership are immense responsibilities. Now imagine doing both at the same time, along with the goal of being perfect. The results aren’t going to be, well, perfect. 

You can read more about Debora and her book on


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Learning to recover from mistakes

I remember coaching a client who had accepted a new position at her company. As she told me about the role, she was clearly excited. She wanted to make a good first impression, showing up as confident and capable. The only problem? The Impostor Syndrome was alive and kicking. Yep, she was concerned about being qualified for her new role. She was doubting her abilities and letting her inner critic speak much too loudly.  

The Impostor Syndrome is getting a lot of press these days. Sheryl Sandberg writes about it in Lean In, and cites research showing that women tend to experience it more intensely and be more limited by it than men. Like Sheryl, I’ve felt it more than I care to admit. I definitely could relate to my client.

Outside of work, my client was a talented performer, often onstage in front of large crowds. When I asked her if she lacked confidence during her performances, she immediately answered, “Not any more, because I know I can cover any mistake I might make. The audience never knows if I sing a wrong note.”

Brilliant! As a performer, she identified her key to confidence: Recovering from mistakes so quickly and naturally that no one notices a thing.

We then talked about how to apply what she learned as a performer to her corporate job. We discussed how she’d been singing since she was a kid, and over the years, every time she sang a wrong note or lyric, she learned. She had trained herself to take responsibility for the mistake, learn from it quickly, and push it aside to continue with the piece of music. How empowering it would be to do the same thing at work!

As I drove home after the appointment with my client that day, I started thinking about my family. As a mom, I’m wired to protect my kids from making mistakes to save them from hurt, discomfort, or regrets. I ask them if they have their homework as they leave for school, I remind them to wear a raincoat when the skies are gray, and I tell them to check how much gas is in the car before pulling out of the driveway. Sure, they don’t always listen, but that doesn’t stop me. I want to intervene so they don’t make mistakes.

However, from mistakes comes learning. And, as I saw with my coaching client, knowing how to recover from mistakes can build confidence and combat the Impostor Syndrome.

Do you have other techniques to combat the Impostor Syndrome? I’d love to hear from you.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Have you filled any buckets today?

Photo of a yellow bucket
Photo via MarlonBSB via Wikimedia Commons

I had the rare opportunity to have lunch alone with my teenage son yesterday. After bringing him to an orthodontist appointment in the late morning, we had time to stop for a bite to eat on the way back to school. As we ate our lunch, I mentioned that I was behind on writing my blog. He then suggested I write about how leaders and parents need to schedule their work. Ouch.

Instead, I told him I was considering a blog post about How Full is Your Bucket? This book presents the simple metaphor of a bucket, and how, with day-to-day interactions, people either “fill our bucket” by making us feel more positive, or “dip from our bucket,” leaving us feeling more negative. Ideally, our buckets are filled often enough so that there is a reserve to see us through disappointment, put downs, rejection, and so on. My son then chimed in, “So, leaders and parents both need to fill buckets every day.” Absolutely!

The book has an interview with a CEO who believes that bucket filling is his secret weapon. He takes time to understand the contributions individual employees are making, and then makes the effort to thank them in person when he visits their offices. In return, he gets to know his employees better and builds a lasting rapport.

Don’t you think bucket filling can be a secret weapon for parents as well? Our kids face all sorts of challenges when we aren’t around to support them. They might second-guess their outfit once they get to school, they might have forgotten to do a homework assignment, or they might have been benched for most of a game. With a bucket full of positive feedback and love, they should be able to get past the negative emotions that might come their way.

Today, with every interaction you have with another person (your kids, your co-workers, or a clerk at the store), ask yourself if you are adding to or taking away from their buckets. Are you filling as many as you can?


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Keep On Keeping On

A friend sent me a link to a recent HBR podcast, Ernest Shackleton’s Lessons for Leaders in Harsh Climates. If you read my previous blog post about making difficult decisions, you know I am a fan of Shackleton and his leadership style. I’ve read a lot about him already, and I have to admit that I didn’t think I would learn anything from the podcast. But, I decided to listen to it, and it was worth my while. Let me tell you why…

The 30-minute podcast features Nancy Koehn, Harvard Business School historian and editor of The Story of American Business. She uses Shackleton’s story as a case study with her MBA students, and, in this podcast, she discusses how to apply Shackleton’s leadership to today’s tough business conditions. Interestingly, she also touches on some parenting scenarios. As you can imagine, my ears perk up when I hear someone else exploring the intersection of leadership and parenting. In this case, it was about perseverance, or “keep on keeping on” especially when the going gets tough.

Later in the day, I was thinking about the phrase “keep on keeping on” as I read An Overwhelmed Mother’s Departure Memo in the New York Times. After outlining her insane day juggling her kids and her job, she concludes with,

Needless to say, I have not been able to simultaneously meet the demands of career and family, so have chosen to leave private practice, and the practice of law (at least for now). I truly admire all of you that have been able to juggle your career and family and do not envy what a challenge it is trying to do each well.

In her case, the demands were too much, and she decided to stop keep on keeping on. However, not everyone has that choice; Shackleton did not give up, many working parents can’t quit due to financial concerns, and those parents of special needs kids who won’t ever give up on their children.

Do you feel you have a choice when the going gets tough? How do you “keep on keeping on” at work? At home? I look forward to hearing from you.


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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

The Power of Imperfection

“Perfect parenting does not exist, and it is the imperfections that lead to resilient children.”  

The Most Reverend Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schori spoke these words at Maria Shriver’s Women’s Conference in 2010. She was on a panel about leadership, and the conversation touched on the stress that working parents often feel.

When I heard Dr. Schori’s comment, I remember feeling an immediate sense of relief. I know I’m not perfect, but I had never before thought about the benefits of making mistakes. Every parent wants what is best for their child, to protect them from harm, and to unconditionally love them. However, we are humans and we make mistakes; we might forget to send our child to school with their lunch, we might drop them off at a soccer practice without making sure that the coach is there, we might forget that the fuel tank is approaching empty when we let our newly licensed child drive it for the first time, and so on. Each of these mistakes can provide learning opportunities for our children.

Just as perfect parenting does not exist, the same holds true for perfect leadership. As leaders, we strive to do our best, but we should accept the imperfections in our leadership. These shortcomings can help our team learn, become resilient, and develop their own leadership style.

I’m not advocating that parents or leaders should try to make mistakes; instead, I believe that we should be comfortable with the fact that we are not perfect. Chances are, our children and our staff are more resilient as a result.

Do you agree?


© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.