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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Interview with Deborah Mills-Scofield

Photo of Deborah Mills-ScofieldTo bring additional perspectives to the intersection of leadership and parenting, I’ve started an interview series. Today, I’m thrilled to be interviewing Deborah Mills-Scofield, an innovation consultant, author, adjunct professor, wife, and mother of two. She will now tell you more about herself and her views on leadership and parenting.

1) Tell us about yourself, professionally and personally. 

I went to Brown University, where I helped start the Cognitive Science program. I graduated in three years (everyone said you can’t do it, so I did). I spent summers working at AT&T Bell Labs, and after graduating, I went to work there. I developed technology for speech recognition and messaging, started managing people, and spent a lot of time traveling globally to meet with customers. 

During that time I married my husband, who has left Basic Research at Bell Labs to teach Physics at Oberlin College.  Bell Labs/AT&T moved me to Ohio and flew me back and forth, weekly, to my NJ office and elsewhere in the world so I wouldn’t quit.  When I had my first child, I refused to travel and worked part-time from home, still retaining my management level but reducing my management role.  After my second child, it became hard to keep the enthusiasm going since AT&T was in a downward spiral, and I quit.

At that point, my career started growing in many interesting directions. I didn’t know many people in Ohio, so I reached out to the Brown alumni network and met lots of people, including the founding partner of the VC firm I’m a partner in. I started my consulting business and my blog about innovation, and I now write for Harvard Business Review’s blog twice/month. I also teach innovation and entrepreneurship at Oberlin College and Brown University. Working with students keeps me young, encourages me to continue challenging the status quo, and keeps me fresh for my clients whom I help with strategic and innovation planning. Of course, my two amazing, wonderful, incredible children also keep me young.

I’ve often thought, “Why the heck did AT&T let me manage people before I had kids?” I’ve learned so much about management from parenting! I think management books are great for parents, and parenting books are great for managers. I also believe children’s storybooks are the best books for innovation, and I often use them with my clients. One of my favorite series, Scaredy Squirrel by Melanie Watt, helps people see that looking at the world in new ways isn’t so scary after all. You see, I believe we’ve lost the emphasis on storytelling as a teaching tool. Sure, stories are important for the first eight or so years of our lives, but after that they are deemphasized. I like stories because they let you identify with something outside of your experience. When you hear a story, you can interpret it in a way that is meaningful to you, and apply it to a challenge or goal you are facing. This is why I use children’s storybooks with my clients.

2) You are a recognized blogger on innovation. What is the goal of your blog? 

I started my blog to get people to think about innovation and see that it’s not formidable, it can be broken into bite-sized pieces, and you can learn from others. Over time, it’s evolved to less about the specific practice of innovation, and more a reflection of what I’m finding interesting that others seem to as well. I’ve also opened it to others to express their voices. I have clients write guest blogs about creating an innovative culture. I have students from Brown write about how they view entrepreneurship and society. With each post, I want my readers to think about how they can apply it, learn from it, or do things different for their company or community.

Moving forward, I’ll also be writing about how to use your network to make something happen. Regardless of how many people you know, you can and should count on people you know to help you achieve your goals.  One of my recent posts in Harvard Business Review on the power of the “Ask” seems to have a hit a chord!

3) What three adjectives do you think describe the best leaders? The best parents?


  • Visionary (helping you see the forest from the trees)
  • Humble & vulnerable
  • Trustworthy


  • Loving, unconditionally if possible.
  • Prudent, balancing the short and long term. I.e., Is what I’m doing now leading my child to be the person I think they should become, a person of integrity, character and someone who can make and keep a commitment?
  • Authentic, using actions, not just words, to be a role model. Don’t tell your kids one thing and then do something else. Help them to build trust in others.

4) What skill or best practice have you used both as a leader and as a parent? What challenge were you facing at the time, and what did you learn?

I’ve learned how to try to motivate people to do what’s best for them (not for me) so they can come to it themselves and learn how to keep doing it. I’ve also learned that what motivated someone two weeks ago may not work again today, and just because it worked for one kid or employee, it may not work for another person. It takes time to know what motivates an individual, which includes balancing short and long term.

I’ve also learned to motivate from the heart, both at work and home. I look at the relationships I had at AT&T Bell Labs, and I look at my clients today. Someone commented recently that everyone hugs and kisses me. I feel a genuine affection for my clients. Love has such power, but we have demeaned it in the workplace to a sexual definition, not in an Agape or Philos way. As a Jew who is also a Christian, I believe that my kids are a gift from God, and that I have been chosen to raise them on His behalf. With God’s help, my ultimate hope for my kids is that they will bring Him joy.

5) Is there anything else you would like to share with us?

Because of the generation of women who worked before us, it’s easier for us to apply parenting lessons to the workplace. We don’t necessarily need to keep our personal and professional lives separate. There is an ability to carry the lessons back and forth. The next generation should be even better.

Are those bosses who are more enlightened managers better parents and vice versa? I’d like to see research done in this area!

Thank you, Deb, for taking the time to share your thoughts with us! If anyone knows about research on the positive effects of parenting on leadership, please let us know in the comments. We’d like to hear from you.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

When is it okay to play favorites?

I think most of us would bristle if we were accused of playing favorites with our kids. I love my children deeply and unconditionally, and I would never intentionally hurt them. I want them to grow up to be happy, successful adults. And I certainly don’t want to give one of them an advantage at the expense of the other. I do my best not to play favorites.

But what about at the office? I was once accused of playing favorites by a member of my staff. I am sure I denied it at the time; it was so hard to hear that feedback. But, as I reflected on it, I realized there were some elements of truth to it. While the work this person was doing was important to the company, I was giving more of my time, more resources, and more opportunities to another staff member who was making a larger impact to our business. Before I started feeling too guilty, I remembered reading in First, Break All The Rules…What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently that the best managers do play favorites.

It turns out that many managers spend most of their time on their least productive employees, wanting to help them improve. They feel they don’t need to spend as much time with their most productive employees, because they can already do their jobs well. Sounds sensible, right? But, as First, Break All The Rules points out, it’s a mistake. The greatest managers spend time with their best employees, figuring out what they need to be even more productive and more engaged in the business. For example,

  • Do they need more budget?
  • Do they need to be introduced to someone who can help them with an assignment?
  • Do they have skills that are being underutilized?
  • Are they working on highly-visible projects that could lead to promotions?
  • Do the company’s leaders know about them?

Not only is it okay to play favorites at work, it’s a best practice. In hindsight, I wish I had agreed with the employee who accused me of playing favorites. If I could do it all over again, I would have told why I was giving more of my attention to another employee, hopefully in a way that was not hurtful, but honest and even motivating to him. If a group within a department has the opportunity to wildly exceed expectations, the entire department will benefit from an improved reputation. There will be more opportunities, more budget, more trust, and more respect. Just as all boats rise at the same rate with the tide, so do groups within a department.

By contrast, I don’t think the same rules should be applied at home. While I certainly make decisions about how to spend my time and money on music lessons, club sports teams, and other extra-curricular activities for my kids, I do so to help them discover and hone their individual talents. When one of my kids sees me spending more time with a sibling on homework on any given night, I hope they know that I will be there when they need help. I don’t ever want to play favorites with my children.

I write this blog to explore the intersection of leadership and parenting. But, on occasion, I will find areas where they don’t align. I think this is one of them. Do you agree?


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© 2012 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.