The true goal of leadership and parenting

Picture of an empty bird's nestMy husband and I have had a few practice runs at empty-nesting. Stretches in the summer when our kids visited my family on the East Coast, and my husband and I stayed in California for our jobs. While we missed our children a lot, we have to admit it was a nice change. No milk in the fridge? No worries. Decide to go on a date night at the last minute? Sure! Life without our kids around for a few weeks had its benefits.

As we look ahead to empty-nesting for real, we hope that our children are prepared for life, are set up for success in whatever they choose to do, and are happy. Isn’t this the true goal for any parent?

Making them successful and happy is also the true goal for any leader. It’s our responsibility to ensure that our employees are successful in their careers, guiding them to deliver on business needs while learning new skills to stay relevant and grow their careers. We want them to be happy and engaged with what they are doing so they can do their best work.

Often, the challenge is identifying the next skill someone needs to master. Because everyone is unique and there are external factors to consider, there’s no playbook to follow. Once you’ve taught your kids to do their laundry, is cooking next? Or financial literacy? What’s going to best meet personal and family needs? With employees, do they next need to learn a technical skill or a management skill? And what skill will best serve your company’s objectives?

My advice? Set aside time on a regular basis to reflect on how you’re going to meet the true goal. And look ahead to empty-nesting, whether that means having your children become independent and move out of your home, or delegating areas of responsibility to your team so that you have bandwidth to learn new things yourself.


© 2014 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

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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.

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.