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.

(Photo credit:

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.

(Photo credit:

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.

(Photo credit:

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.

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.

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.


Would you like to vote on my next topic? Click here

© 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.