My Lean In Story

Lean In LogoA few months ago, the Anita Borg Institute asked me to write a story about a time I chose between fear and leaning in to my career. They wouldn’t tell me why, except that they were working on a confidential project about women leaning in, and that it would be announced in March. Right away, I knew the project was for Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement. And I was thrilled. I wanted to show my support for the movement, and I now had the opportunity.

Here’s the guidance I received for writing my story:

A Lean In Story is a tension point in one’s career that offers two possible outcomes: “leaning in” or “leaning back.” Examples are: asking for a raise and getting it, realizing a need to switch departments and doing it, motivating yourself to reach a difficult work goal, etc.

And here is the structure I should follow:

First-person account that follows a traditional story arc, in 500 words or less.

a) Set the stage – offer a short account of details leading up to the tension point

b) Introduce the tension point – this is typically when fear, vulnerability and doubt appear.  Make sure to outline what the paths of leaning in and /or leaning back looked like

c) Decide to lean in or lean back – stories are more likely to be about leaning in but they could also be about leaning back

d) Share the resolution – how did you feel after the decision was made? How did the situation play out?

e) Show the future – how did your decision impact you, both personally and professionally.  Share a positive ending about what you learned from the experience.  Don’t be afraid to weave in some closing advice or words of wisdom.

While I have dozens of examples of both leaning in and leaning back over my career, I knew immediately which story to tell: when I decided to move from a great part-time job into a full-time role with a lot more responsibility. It wasn’t an easy decision to make, and I wanted to share all the reasons I didn’t think I should lean in, and why I finally did.

You can read my story at While there, be sure to read some of the other stories. Each one is a pocket of inspiration in 500 words or less.

If you have a story you would like to share, visit the Lean In site and follow the steps to submit your story. I look forward to reading it!


© 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.

Five Reasons Why My Husband Was My Most Important Career Decision

Photo of Karen and her husband TimI’ve been following Sheryl Sandberg for a few years now, starting with her TED talk in 2010. While all of her messages are powerful, I think my favorite is: “I truly believe that the single most important career decision that a woman makes is whether she will have a life partner and who that partner is.”

I’m so very thankful for my husband, and I whole-heartedly believe marrying him was the most important career decision I ever made. Here’s why.

1 – He makes me less fearful. Our daughter, who is now looking at colleges, recently asked me how I decided which college to go to. I told her I chose the closest one to home that had a great reputation. I really wasn’t adventurous back then. Since marrying my husband, however, I’ve grown less fearful of change. As a young married couple, we moved from my life-long home of Rhode Island to England, where I got international work experience. From there, we decided to relocate to the San Francisco Bay Area to pursue our careers in technology. This morning, I joked with him that we should apply to be the middle-aged married couple to go on the 501 day journey to Mars. Knowing we’re in it together, I’d do almost anything!

2 – He helps me when the going gets tough. The most stressful job I ever had was when I was 30 years old and just started at a new company. I was a localization project manager, a job I had never done before, and I was the only person in this role at my company. I had more work than I could possibly do, which caused an overwhelming amount of stress. Over dinner one night, I started crying as I told my husband about my day and how far behind I was. He then helped me think differently about my work, and how to justify I needed some more people to help me. He helped me create a model for estimating how many hours any given project would take, and therefore how many additional people I needed to get it all done. He spent his whole evening helping me. And it paid off. The next day, I presented the model to my manager, and who agreed that we needed to hire another person. My stress level dropped overnight.

3 – He shares in parenting responsibilities. Like most working moms, I complain about having to shoulder most of the parenting responsibilities for our family. However, when I needed it the most, my husband equally shared the duties. Just before having my second child, I interviewed for a new position at my software company. I got the job, even though I was about to go on maternity leave for three months. When I went back to work, I knew I would need to put in some extra hours to learn the ropes and show my commitment to this new team who were putting in long hours on a software release. So, my husband and I took turns being home by 6pm to feed and bathe our kids. Knowing I could work late, if I needed to, every other day made all the difference.

4 – He often believes in me more than I do. In the mid-2000’s, I was working part-time for a software company, and we were acquired by a larger company. As part of the acquisition, I was offered a significantly larger role, if I agreed to work full time. As I considered the new role, I started thinking of all the reasons I shouldn’t accept it. I’d have less time with my children. I‘d never managed a group of that size. I’d have a longer commute and would get less exercise. I’d have to lay off some people. I lacked experience in some of the technical areas that I would be managing. The list went on and on. My husband helped me recognize that I could and should seize the opportunity. He convinced me that we could handle the logistics of our both working full-time. He reminded me that I had the foundation to learn new technologies and that I was a talented leader. Thanks to his support and encouragement, I was able to set aside my fears. I allowed myself to envision succeeding in the new position, and I got really excited. I found the confidence to say yes.

5 – He provides balance to my aversion to risk. I’m now building a consulting business from ground zero, something I’ve never done before. My husband, bless him, is telling me not to worry about paying clients right now. He believes it’s okay to take some risks, that the money will come, and we’ll be fine in the meantime. His support and confidence is encouraging me to explore options, to invest time in networking, and to attend many events. And I’m feeling more confident every day that all of these activities will pay off.

I’m so very grateful for my husband and his unwavering support of me and my career.

Tim, for these reasons and so many others, I love you.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

My “Lean In” Checklist

Lean In Book cover
There’s hype, there’s controversy. Personally, I’m ready to be part of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In movement! Are you interested as well? Here are some things you can do to participate today:

  • Pre-order a copy of “Lean In” from Amazon or your favorite bookseller.
  • Clear your calendar for March 11, when your book will arrive. You know you will want to read it right away.
  • Join the movement. Enter your email address at
  • Show your friends that you are leaning in by liking the Lean In Facebook page.
  • Contribute to the professional conversation by joining the Lean In LinkedIn group.
  • Tweet with the hashtag #leaningin.
  • Share your personal story of a time you chose between fear and leaning in. Post it on the Lean In site.

My next steps, once I read the book:

  • Write about the intersection (or perhaps collision?!) of parenting and leaning-in.
  • Start or join a lean-in circle.

What ideas do you have for contributing to this movement? I’d like to hear from you!


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.