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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Get ’em out of the cave

Photo of a cave“I’m sure the first caveman who went over the hill to see what was on the other side—I don’t think he went there wholly out of curiosity. He went there because he wanted to get his son out of the cave.” — Studs Turkel, “Working”

I love this quote. I heard it for the first time when my 16-year old was in his school’s performance of “Working.” This musical, based on Stud Turkel’s novel of the same name, is a collection of interviews with the working class in America. My son played a steel worker, who described his desire to make things better for his kid, to get him out of the cave. Such is the case for many parents. We want to raise our children in a different, often better environment than our parents could offer to us.

It got me thinking about leadership and getting employees “out of the cave” when they’re stuck in ruts. With a change in environment, job responsibilities, or even daily routine, employees can gain new perspectives, be more innovative, combat burnout, and become more engaged with the company and its mission.

Living in the San Francisco Bay Area, I’m surrounded by parents who seek enrichment activities for their kids. But, I can’t say the same for all the executives I’ve worked with over my career in the software industry. Sure, some have been great at identifying development opportunities for their employees, but others seem to get caught up in the business at hand and never seem to think about enrichment for their teams.

As inspiration for all of us, here are some tried-and-true approaches from parenting that I’ve seen successfully applied to the workplace:

Parenting Leadership
Exchange programs
Just like you might encourage your teens and college students to explore student exchange programs or mission trips, ideally in a different country… Look for opportunities for your employees to work from another office for a short period of time, ideally in a different geography.
Shadow days
Just like you might ask a co-worker to take your kids to a meeting or lunch on “Bring your kids to work day”… Match a top performer with an executive in another area of your business, and have him or her shadow the executive for a day.
Summer camps and sabbaticals
Just like you give your kids time to do something different when they’re not in school, such as camps, travel, or just unstructured time during the summer… Give your employees a 5-day “sabbatical” each year to work on whatever experimental or research project they chose, just so long as it might benefit the team or the company.
Temporary jobs
Just like you might help your kids find part-time jobs or internships… Identify rotation assignments for your employees. Could they step into a new position until you can hire the full-time person? Or fill in on another team who is looking for temporary contracting help?

With each of these approaches, kids and employees are exposed to different cultures, ideas, opportunities, and challenges. The overall impact? Improved happiness, confidence, engagement, innovation, and productivity.

I’d love to hear your approaches to getting your your kids or employees “out of their caves.” Please leave a comment!


© 2014 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

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Ask the Readers: Do you have a favorite book for parenting AND leadership?

Ask the readers

I’m always thrilled to come across leadership books that give me ideas for being a better parent, and parenting books that I can use professionally to make me a better leader. I’d love to read more of them. Do you have one to recommend?

Earlier this week, I visited Hackbright Academy to help with a workshop on interviewing skills. Poornima, my partner at Femgineer, taught the workshop, and at one point she mentioned that I have a blog about the intersection of leadership and parenting. Her comment led one of the students to approach me at a break to find out more about my blog. She shared with me that she has two children, and that, for years, she’s been noticing overlaps in parenting and leadership. In fact, there was a single book that had a huge influence on her both her parenting and leadership styles. It’s called “Mindset” by Carol Dweck. I’ve added it to my list to read!

I bet there are many more books that cross-over between parenting and leadership. Chances are they were written for one audience or the other, but the advice is applicable to both home and work.

Do you have one to recommend? A parenting book that gave you ideas or inspiration to be a better leader? A leadership book that helped you with a parenting challenge you were experiencing? Please leave a comment to tell me about your favorite books. I’d love to read them.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

When was the last time you made someone feel smart?

drawing of a light bulb
Image courtesy of bplanet / 

Are there some people you enjoy spending time with because they make you feel good about yourself? My husband and I know an older couple who have a knack for asking questions that make us feel like we are the most interesting people in the world. (Believe me, we’re not.) This couple refers to conversations we had years earlier, complimenting us on our achievements since then and encouraging us to stretch ourselves in new ways. Given their advanced years, I’m pretty sure they must keep a diary of their activities, and read it before seeing us to be able to remember what we’ve told them. Whether this is their secret or not, they make us feel great every time we visit them.

I thought of these friends when I read “7 Tips for Making Other People Feel Smart and Insightful,” a blog post by Gretchen Rubin. (Gretchen is the author of the best-selling books “Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home.”) She writes

We all want to get along well with other people, and one way to do this is to help people feel good about themselves. If you make a person feel smart and insightful, that person will enjoy your company. The point is not to be manipulative, but to help other people feel good about their contributions to a conversation.

She goes on to share some suggestions, including taking notes about what others are saying, referring back to comments that they made earlier in a conversation, and asking someone to finish a thought if they got side-tracked. Each allows you to show respect for their ideas and their experience, and that you are paying attention to what they’re saying.  My favorite is asking for advice and acting on it. As Gretchen points out, we all love to give advice, and we feel smart when someone seeks our counsel. We may even feel brilliant when that person follows our recommendations.

Not only will Gretchen Rubin’s tips help you make others feel good about themselves, they can also help drive engagement. Are you a leader who wants to increase  employee engagement with your company’s mission and future? Or, perhaps you are a parent who wants to  improve your teen’s engagement with your family? Think about making them feel good about the contributions they’re making to any conversation, and making them feel insightful when you seek their advice.

Professionally, I ask others for advice frequently. I’m a collaborative person, and I appreciate learning from others and including people in my decision making process. But, do I do this at home? Turns out not nearly enough.

When I asked my kids if I looked to them for advice, they both shook their heads “no.” Whether they realize it or not, I learn from them all the time. Yet, learning from someone is different than asking them for input. When we seek advice, we’re trying to sort something out; we’re gathering perspectives to help us understand a broader picture. By default, we reach out to people whose opinions we respect and trust, and this, in turn, makes them feel smart and insightful. With teens who are still developing a sense of who they are and the adults they will become, seeking their advice gives them the opportunity to practice sharing their ideas and to develop confidence in their opinions. Chances are, they’ll also teach us a thing or two.

So, I’m making a resolution to include my kids in my decision-making process more often. Please share your ideas, or your stories about when you’ve sought your kids’ advice. I’d love to hear from you.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

They’re Watching You

Picture of a businesswoman seated in an office chair with her hands behind he head.  “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t cut it for a parent or a leader.

At the start of my career, I worked in an applied research group at Brown University. Our director frequently travelled to raise funding, always sharing great stories when he got back. Once, on a visit Microsoft, he attended a meeting where everyone leaned back from the conference room table, folding their hands behind their heads. It was a bit odd. Afterwards, he asked his host why everyone sat like that, and the answer was that Bill Gates (who was still the CEO at the time) tended to sit that way. Other Microsoft employees, without realizing it, mimicked his behavior.

Years later, I retold this story to a co-worker who had started cutting people off in meetings. As I gave him feedback about it, I told him that his team was starting to do the same thing. I then shared the Microsoft story with him to illustrate how easily habits can rub off on people. I asked him, “How are you going to feel if your entire team starts acting like you in meetings?” It was an “aha” moment for him. He saw the impact he could have in shaping the culture of our meetings, and he wanted them to be inclusive, not antagonistic.

My husband and I have noticed that our teens are picking up our habits. Most I’m thrilled with — things like manners, healthy eating, and a strong work ethic. But, then there are ones I’m embarrassed to admit. Like retreating to different rooms to watch TV shows streamed to individual tablet computers, our earbuds providing an even greater level of disconnect from the rest of the family. Like being overly competitive when playing board games.

It can be overwhelming to realize that employees and kids could be watching your every move, and consciously or sub-concisously deciding to mimic you. If they respect you, they’re going to pick up some of your habits. You need to be a good role model, 24×7. After all, “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t cut it for a parent or a leader.

I’m looking for ideas for how to handle situations when people pick up your bad habits. If you have advice, please share it in the comments! I look forward to hearing from you.


© 2013 by Karen Catlin. All rights reserved.

(Photo credit:

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.

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.

It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day

Photo of sunrise
Photo courtesy of my friend Sherry Page, who took it on an early morning walk in Sausalito, California. © 2013 by Sherry Page.

Sometimes when I write, I find myself singing a song over and over. Often it’s just a refrain, loosely connected to the topic I’m thinking about. Today, it’s the refrain from “Feeling Good” by Muse, which includes “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day….for me.” (For those of you who are fans of Nina Simone or Michael Bublé, yes, they recorded this song as well.)

My son loves Muse, and he’s been learning to play “Feeling Good” on the piano. So, I’ve been hearing it a lot lately, and I’m not surprised to find myself singing it as I go about my day.

What is my new dawn, my new day? Turns out I entered a new phase of parenting recently: mentoring my teens about how to interview for jobs.

On Saturday, my son had an interview to be a teaching assistant for a summer program for kids from under-resourced communities. Before the interview, I told him to be prepared to ask some questions and to share why he was excited about the program. And, because the teaching assistants can propose an extra-curricular activity to lead, I asked my son what he would say in the interview if this came up. While I half expected him to say “Muse Sing-alongs”, his answer was even better: “Improv.”  How fun!

The next day, my daughter wanted to talk about her upcoming interview for a summer internship at a non-profit that supports women computer scientists. What should she wear?  I said to stay away from ripped jeans and hoodie sweatshirts. (We live in Silicon Valley where workplaces tend to be very casual, but I think it’s nice, even for a high school student, to look pulled together for an interview.) What should she bring? I told her to leave her heavy school backpack in the car, and bring in just a purse and a notebook. We also made sure she had driving directions, her contact’s phone number, and a list of questions to ask about the internship. Check, check, and check!

This experience made me think about what lies ahead for me as a parent. Will I rely even more on mentoring and other leadership skills to be the parent my kids need?  I hope so. I feel I have a lot to share with my kids as they become adults, and so much more still to teach them. I’m thrilled they respect me enough to want to learn from me. And (humming along to the Muse tune), it fee-eels goo-oo-ood…

For those of you with college-age or adult children, I’d love to hear about the parenting skills that are important to you today. How much do they overlap with your leadership style? Please post a reply in the comments.


© 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.

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.