Why You Should Ask about Bucket Lists

Pic of a red check markMany of us have a personal bucket list, but what about a professional bucket list?

We fill our personal bucket lists with our dreams: travel to far-away places, adrenaline-filled activities, famous people we’d like to meet.  I get a chuckle out of my kids’ bucket lists, which give me insight into their aspirations, however simple or crazy. A few years back, their bucket lists included ordering room service, riding in a limo, and jumping out of a moving car. As a parent, I could help make some of these happen, once I knew about them. (Note to my kids – Don’t even ask me to help with that last one!)

My bucket list is a jumble of ideas, not well formed except for a handful of professional things I want to get done some day. It includes things like contributing content to wikipedia, publishing a book about the intersection of leadership and parenting, and joining the board of a non-profit whose cause I care about.

By sharing these bucket items with all of you, research shows that I’m more likely to accomplish them. (You can read a summary of this research by Gail Matthews, PhD, published on the Dominican University web site.) In fact, since writing the first draft of this article, I took the plunge into wikipedia! For the Dreamweaver page, I wrote a brief history of how the project started, and I added some ACM publications to the IRIS Intermedia page. I worked on both of these software projects earlier in my career, and it felt good to add to their wikipedia pages.

Leaders can use bucket lists to increase employee engagement with their company’s mission and future. By asking about an employee’s list, we can discuss otherwise unspoken career goals and dreams. Whether it’s traveling internationally, developing code for a 1.0 software release, shadowing an executive for a day, becoming a patent holder, or something else, once you know you can make introductions. You can look for stretch assignments for them to take on. You can open doors!

What do you think of using bucket lists to improve engagement, with your family or your employees? I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Innovation…in the bamboo forest?

Photo of a bamboo ForestWhen we bought our first home, my husband and I were warned about the bamboo growing on our back hillside. Friends told us that the bamboo was invasive, that it would eventually send shoots all over our yard. Unfortunately, they were right. My husband and I spent many weekends digging trenches to prevent the bamboo from spreading, pulling up the shoots, and silently cursing the person who had planted it.

Yet, we stopped cursing it when we realized the bamboo fueled our children’s creativity. Once our kids were old enough to play outside on their own, they discovered the hillside and started calling it the “bamboo forest.” It wasn’t very large, but in their minds it had all the elements of a forest – tall growth, a blanket of leaves, and a magical element that unleashed their imaginations. They spent hours in the bamboo, building forts from fallen branches and leaves and having all kinds of fun.

We sold that house many years ago, and my kids, now teens, have fond memories of the bamboo. I was reminded of it just the other day when I heard my son and some friends talking about houses they used to live in. In his now deep voice, my son enthusiastically described the bamboo and the fun he and his sister had there. In hindsight, I’m happy that the previous owners planted it. It provided a constrained space perfect for inventing imaginary worlds. Our kids didn’t need a special toy or after-school activity to teach them how to be creative.

Creativity and constraints go hand-in-hand in the business world as well. In her Harvard Business Review Blog titled “Why Innovators Love Constraints,” Whitney Johnson wrote:

“Our perceived limitations may give us direction on where we might play, or want to play. Indeed, if we will let them, constraints can (and will) drive us to disruption.” 

Designers also understand the power of limits. If things are too open-ended, or if you have too many tools at your disposal, innovation can’t start, or is hampered. A few years back, Scott Dadich, the Creative Director of Wired Magazine, wrote in “Design Under Constraint: How Limits Boost Creativity“:

“In fact, the worst thing a designer can hear is an offhand ‘Just do whatever you want.’ That’s because designers understand the power of limits. Constraint offers an unparalleled opportunity for growth and innovation.”

Leaders and parents alike, do you have a bamboo forest to encourage innovation? Please share it in the comments. I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

(Photo credit: BigStock.com)

Extreme Helpfulness

The best piece of advice I received when I started managing people? That my job was to make my team successful. Over time, I built on this advice, realizing that I also had to make the teams around me successful. This approach was key to unlocking more leadership responsibility. Let me explain…

At one point in my career, I was the only program manager at my software company, responsible for scheduling and organizing the work needed to create a successful product. Given that I hate reinventing the wheel, I was careful to keep track of what I did, improving how I got the job done with each project we released. When other teams started hiring program managers, I put together a kit of my best practices to help them learn the ropes and be successful. I wasn’t expecting anything in return, but, in hindsight, creating this kit was critical to my career. My personal brand became linked with strong program management, driving consistency across business units, and “dotted line” leadership of people outside my direct team. As a result of helping others, my leadership reputation and responsibilities grew.

While I like to think of myself as a generally helpful person, I’m a novice when compared to Adam Grant, a professor at Wharton. I heard about him from my friend Lise, who pointed me to a NY Times article “Is Giving the Secret to Getting Ahead?” The reporter followed Grant during a typical day, where students sought his advice as he walked across campus, stood in lines outside of his office hours waiting to get a chance to talk to him, and sent him hundreds of emails asking for help or thanking him for something he had done for them.

Adam Grant practices “extreme helpfulness,” giving his time and advice to everyone who asks for it, regardless of how busy he is. He’s truly generous with his time, without expecting anything in return. Does helpfulness pay off for Grant? According to the article, yes.

“For Grant, helping is not the enemy of productivity, a time-sapping diversion from the actual work at hand; it is the mother lode, the motivator that spurs increased productivity and creativity.”

Creating the kit for program managers was my mother lode. After that experience, I wanted to help my co-workers even more. I started mentoring individuals and built teams to help other groups across the company create their software products. Like Grant, helping others increased my productivity and creativity, along the way making me a better leader.

As I think about being a parent and being extremely helpful to my kids, I’m realizing there is an important distinction to make. I never want to do things that prevent my kids from learning the skills they need to move into adulthood. Instead, I want to be extremely helpful in every way that leads to learning, maturing, and “helping them help themselves.” With my teens, I won’t write an email about an internship for them, but I’m happy to review theirs before they press “Send.” As they learn to cook full dinners, I’m in the kitchen to answer their questions, but leaning back from the hands-on work. You get the picture.

This distinction also holds true for helping people at work. As first time managers or more seasoned leaders, we don’t want to do work for our team. We want to help them by setting them up for success.

What do you think of extreme helpfulness, as a leader or as a parent? Please leave a comment; I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Setting aside time to think

Photo of woman creating a frame with her hands to see through When I led a team of program managers at a software company, I’d ask new employees to set aside time every week to step back from their to-do lists. I’d encourage them to reflect on what went well, as well as what they might be forgetting to do, what contingencies they should plan for, and what they might want to do differently. These program managers were responsible for so much detail that it was all too easy to lose sight of the larger picture. By taking time to think about how they were doing their jobs, they created the mental space they needed to be effective.

I hadn’t thought of that advice in years, yet it came flooding back to me as I caught up with a old friend last week. Valerie and I hadn’t seen much of each other since starting our families, and it was great spending time with her again. As we shared stories about our kids and our busy lives, we also discussed how important it is to step back and think about our larger goals as parents. What values do we want our children to learn, and how are we going to teach them?

To answer these questions, we need mental space. By ourselves or with our partners, we need to step back, noodle on things, and have discussions. Just like my team of program managers, we need to reflect on what we’ve already accomplished and think about what we want to change moving forward.

Yet, for busy parents or busy professionals, it’s challenging to set aside time to think and plan. Here are some strategies my friends use, for home or for work:

  • My husband and I have dinner together–with candlelight–almost every night. The meal may not be fancy, but the candlelight seems to get us out of our ordinary mind-set and make space for taking stock, or just staying caught up.
  • I schedule time on my calendar to reflect. Thirty minutes per week is what I need.
  • I go for walks with friends. Just hearing what is on someone else’s mind often gets me out of my own head and helps me look at parenting from a different perspective. If I’m with a mom who has kids older than mine, I get a heads-up on what to look out for as the kids move toward the next developmental stage. Or, I become aware of the importance of something I hadn’t really thought about before.
  • I force myself out of my comfort zone by going on vacation where the lifestyle is different and much slower. I slow down and think for a change instead of spending all my time “doing.”
  • With my children, I use report cards to chart a course, identifying what went well (and should continue as a habit) and discussing how to apply those approaches to classes that didn’t go so well.

If you set aside time to think on a regular basis, please share your strategies or what you’ve learned from doing so in a comment. I look forward to hearing from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

(Photo credit: BigStock.com)

More thoughts on making yourself unforgettable

After posting Make yourself unforgettable, I read an article on Forbes: Volunteering: How Helping Out Helps You Stand Out In the Workplace. It emphasized the importance of volunteerism and proudly listing this experience on your resume and LinkedIn profile:

“Companies today are looking for well-rounded candidates…. In fact, one in every five hiring managers in the U.S. say they have selected a candidate because of his or her volunteer experience.”

High school students know to highlight volunteer work in their college applications. Millenials know to list it in their LinkedIn profiles.  But, the same might not hold true for all job seekers.

As I wrote in my previous post, if you’re a leader who’s mentoring someone through a job search, help them be unforgettable. If they can’t claim a memorable hobby or accomplishment, they can still differentiate themselves with volunteer work. Encourage them to describe it with passion and conviction. Help them stand out!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Make yourself unforgettable

How do you get someone’s attention? At last week’s Invent Your Future conference, I facilitated a series of round-table discussions for women about advancing their technical careers. It was great meeting so many talented women and hearing about their professional goals. We touched on a number of topics, including how to get the attention of a recruiter when you submit your resume to a job posting. In particular, the women wanted to know how to make their resume stand out.

It made me think of the advice my daughter got just a couple of weeks ago. If you’ve been reading my blog, you know my daughter is a junior in high school and starting to think about college. We met with a counselor who was sharing some strategies writing essays for college applications. Her overall piece of advice? “Make yourself unforgettable.”

Makes sense, right? You want your application to stand out from the thousands of others that the college admissions staff will read. The same is true for cover letters and LinkedIn profile summaries. You need to emphasize what’s special about you. What will you bring to the job or to the student body that no one else will? What story can you tell in your application that people will remember weeks or years later? What is your unique personal brand?

I’ve interviewed hundreds of people over my career, and many had resumes that clearly were unforgettable. Ditto for some of my colleagues, who I interviewed for this article. Here are some of our favorite, most memorable resumes:

  • The engineer whose hobby was being a videographer for a skydiving school, which meant he jumped out of airplanes regularly.
  • The project manager who included photos of his neatly folded socks after reading my tongue-in-cheek requirement that the ideal candidate has an organized sock drawer.
  • The applicant for a bank credit investigator job who had been the Casaba Melon Queen of San Joaquin County.
  • An editor who enjoyed “small objects, aggressive vacuuming and beating my mother-in-law at Scrabble.”

In case you’re curious, each one of these candidates got the job! Obviously, they were highly qualified, and we’ll never know if they would have landed the job if their resumes hadn’t included these “unforgettable” qualities. Regardless, the moral is that you don’t need to tell something super impressive about yourself, just something that makes people want to know more.

So, whether you’re a parent helping your child apply for colleges or their first job, or a leader who’s mentoring someone through a job search, help them be unforgettable. And, share your ideas in a comment! I’d like to hear from you.


p.s. For more ideas, check out my follow-on blog post:
More thoughts on making yourself unforgettable

© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

I haven’t learned that yet

When my son was about six years old, a family friend who was visiting us sat down to do math puzzles with him. At one point, our friend asked my son to multiply two numbers, and my son answered, “I haven’t learned that yet.” It was the perfect response! He owned the fact that he didn’t know something, yet he didn’t make any excuses. I was impressed.

I heard this phrase again this past weekend at the She++ Conference at Stanford University. The goal of She++ is to inspire women to embrace computer science. Given my daughter’s interest in studying CS, she and I decided to attend the event.

As part of the conference, a panel of Stanford Computer Science (CS) undergraduates, all of whom were women, shared their experiences. A recurring theme was that, while CS is a challenging degree program, it can lead to empowering, potentially world-changing, career opportunities. Many of the panelists shared stories of struggling with assignments and not getting great grades on an exam or two. Most of them had not done any programming until they entered Stanford, and understandably they felt intimidated by other students who had been programming since they were 9 or 10 years old. One of the panelists emphasized that it’s okay to say to yourself or others, “I haven’t learned that yet.” You can and will learn it! I couldn’t agree more.

As parents and as leaders, we can encourage others to be comfortable with the phrase “I haven’t learned that yet.” When we see someone looking perplexed, or struggling to get something done, we can ask, “Have you learned how to do that?” It’s our job to make it safe to ask for help and embrace learning new things, whether it’s simple multiplication or advanced computer algorithms.

I’d love to hear from readers about how they make it safe to ask for help or how they support others who might feel vulnerable because they don’t know something.  Please reply with a comment. I look forward to reading about your experience.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

Tell ’em to start a club!

If I had a nickel for every person who has asked me for advice about how to move into management, I’d be rich! Well, not really. I’d probably have enough to buy myself lunch. But, the point is that I’ve been asked about it a lot. Here’s what happens: someone applies for a first level managerial position, but are told they need experience managing people before they will be considered. Of course, they can’t get people management experience unless they are given the opportunity. It’s a catch-22.

One piece of advice I often give in this situation is to offer to manage an intern. Many leaders would be happy to delegate managing an intern to someone without management experience, as it creates an opportunity for career growth while relieving them of some work.

I also started thinking about how high school students create opportunities to learn management skills. Not too long ago, I attended an open house for an independent high school near our home. At the event, students told us about why they chose to go to the school,  their favorite class, and their extra curricular activities. Each student was the founder and president of a club…the modern dance club, an a cappella group, a creative writing club…the list went on and on.

By starting clubs, these students were learning valuable leadership skills while demonstrating initiative, meeting new people, creating an opportunity to be seen as a leader by other students, and generating visibility with teachers who can write recommendations and make introductions. Plus they were doing something they enjoyed. A win-win situation all around!

Clubs are also a great way for employees to build their leadership brand. I’ve seen it first hand over my career; I’ve started a book club for program managers, and I’ve sponsored a book club for women’s leadership. Based on my experience, I wrote a free publication with practical tips for starting a club at work:

Karen’s Tip: Start a Club

If you know someone who wants to develop leadership skills, or are interested in creating an opportunity for yourself, be sure to check it out.


© 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.

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.