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“Quality presence allows them to… take risks and fly into the world with confidence”, by Karen Hough and Dr. Ely Weinschneider

I want them to know I’m always here, and very selfishly, it’s for my own well-being! They are some of the most delightful people I’ve ever met, and they’ve also given me some of my greatest challenges and frustrations of my life. They’ve made me grow as a person and professional. It’s also important to […]




I want them to know I’m always here, and very selfishly, it’s for my own well-being! They are some of the most delightful people I’ve ever met, and they’ve also given me some of my greatest challenges and frustrations of my life. They’ve made me grow as a person and professional. It’s also important to be a model of what you want to see in them — if you desire kids who enjoy books, read to them, take them to the library and take time to read for yourself. If you want them to be well-mannered, be sure to use table manners and grateful words. They need to have you around as an example. I also feel that quality presence allows them to feel stable. They’ll have a solid foundation at home, so that they can take risks and fly into the world with confidence.

As a part of my series about “How extremely busy executives make time to be great parents” I had the pleasure to interviewKaren Hough, who is the Founder & CEO of ImprovEdge, one of the Top 1% of women-owned businesses in the US. The company provides business training with an improv twist, serves the Fortune 100 and has a presence in four cities. She is an Amazon bestselling author, contributor to the Huffington Post, recipient of the Athena Award, and Yale graduate. She lives with her husband and three children in Ohio.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us your “childhood backstory”?

My mother swears that I popped out singing and dancing. I was born in Kansas, and lived my entire childhood in Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, so I’m a big basketball fan. My dad worked in IT, my mom was a nurse and administrator, and I had one sister who was four years older than me. My parents both worked to make ends meet and let me try anything that interested me. I sang, danced ballet, tap, jazz, did theater, was in Brownies, ran track, did drill team, cheerleading, marching band and 4-H. My maternal grandparents bought a little cabin on a lake before I was born, so from May — September, we spent every weekend out there. I would swim, waterski (constantly and early — the water is like glass if you get up at sunrise in the summer) fish, and wander. We rebuilt a bigger cabin ourselves, my dad and grandfather doing it in stages, so we could afford it. I was a straight-A student and knew I would go away for college. I realize now I had a ridiculously secure, safe, loving childhood. What a gift.

Can you share the story about what brought you to this specific point in your career?

It’s an “Oops to Eureka!” story! Oops to Eureka! is an improv concept that demands we embrace the unexpected and find the discovery. After graduating from Yale, I became a professional actor and improviser in Chicago, training and performing with Second City and other improv troupes, doing theater, film and radio. After I got married, I was enjoying success as an actor in New York when I had the ridiculous opportunity to go into a tech startup. (Remember, I was a Humanities major, and they still wanted to hire me…) In a real twist, my husband said, “If the tech thing doesn’t work out, you can always fall back on your acting, Honey.” I crammed and took classes every night and improvised during the day. Although I didn’t have the experience of many of the engineers, I could think on my feet in front of clients, come up with creative solutions, and roll with the unexpected. I kept getting promoted and ended up working in three different start-ups — one went public and one was acquired. It was crazy and difficult, and I loved it. The Wharton School of Business agreed to let us test the idea of using improv as a behavioral learning tool in 1998 — we were the first training company in the world to integrate improv, back it up with research in neuroscience and psychology, and trademark our principles. I bought out my partners and incorporated in 2005. We are now in the top 1% of women-owned businesses in the US, and serve companies such as NBCUniversal, JPMorganChase, AstraZeneca, and Coach, both in the US and internationally.

Can you tell us a bit more about what your day to day schedule looks like?

No two days are alike! We are very event-focused, since the work we do with our clients is the timetable around which our business revolves. We do live keynotes, workshops and events, as well as many virtual webinars, videoconference conversations, coaching both virtually and in-person, working in a studio to create funny learning videos, and meeting with clients for coffee, meals and conversations. When I’m home, I get up to make my youngest child breakfast every day around 5:45am, and I try to pause by 4pm so that we can talk, make dinner and be available for after-school carpools and activities. My husband and I try to go to all the activities together, and if we cannot, at least one parent attends. I usually go back to work about 9 or 10pm for a few hours. I always try to squeeze in at least 30 minutes of yoga, biking or walking my dog each day. When I’m traveling, which is very often, I work out, and I check in with my family after the event is over and before I go to dinner. It seems impossible, but my two oldest kids are both in college, so I do a lot of texting, sharing articles, video calls and sending care packages. I’m also lucky because business travel tends to take me to their cities at least a few times each year, so I extend my stay to get a bonus chance to see them.

Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. This is probably intuitive to many, but it would be beneficial to spell it out. Based on your experience or research, can you flesh out why not spending time with your children can be detrimental to their development?

Kids are always changing. It’s important to be present so that you can notice what’s going on for them, and be there to intervene, support, or encourage, based on need. I’ve also seen kids, especially teens, making excuses for their parents. They make up stories, act as though they don’t care, or simply ignore issues because they are so embarrassed or uncertain about their parents’ lack of engagement. I’ve read research that shows kids DO hear you, even if they are belligerent or don’t seem to notice. They may act as if they don’t care or pay attention, but when you speak to them about safety, school, friends, it makes a difference. It DOES soak in.

On the flip side, can you give a few reasons or examples about why it is important to make time to spend with your children?

I want them to know I’m always here, and very selfishly, it’s for my own well-being! They are some of the most delightful people I’ve ever met, and they’ve also given me some of my greatest challenges and frustrations of my life. They’ve made me grow as a person and professional. It’s also important to be a model of what you want to see in them — if you desire kids who enjoy books, read to them, take them to the library and take time to read for yourself. If you want them to be well-mannered, be sure to use table manners and grateful words. They need to have you around as an example. I also feel that quality presence allows them to feel stable. They’ll have a solid foundation at home, so that they can take risks and fly into the world with confidence.

According to this study cited in the Washington Post, the quality of time spent with children is more important than the quantity of time. Can you give a 3–5 stories or examples from your own life about what you do to spend quality time with your children?

We eat and cook together. Every night, we sit down together for dinner, even if it’s takeout. We all have favorite dishes, and all the kids can cook at least a few meals. My oldest son is in an apartment at college now, so this early experience has been extremely helpful! When he’s home, we experiment with new, fast recipes. My husband started ordering meal kits when my travel schedule got especially crazy one year, and the kids really enjoy the chopping and cooking. I’ve always gotten up in time to make breakfast and see my kids out the door on school days when I’m home. We also love to go to great restaurants together, and I’ve done that since they were little, so they would know how to behave and order.

Take walks together. We’ve always had dogs for pets, so walking the dog is a daily event. One spring, we took a dog walk after dinner almost every night. It wasn’t much more than 30 minutes, but gave us time to stretch, digest, talk and be together. We’ve also done more extensive hikes at the metro parks in our area or have taken walks to the local ice cream shop. That’s always a winner, when ice cream is the promised end result!

Go to a show. As a former professional actor, we’ve always gone to the theater together. Even a movie, concert or art festival counts. Any event that is entertaining and provides something to talk about afterwards is key. You can share perspectives and comment on the event.

Let them bring friends. Whenever you buy an extra ticket to a sports event, or make your house the site for the sleepover, or offer to be the driver to an after-school activity, you get to learn more about how your kids interact with their friends, see them when they are happy and engaged, and spend time with them as well.

Add on to your business trips. If you’re going someplace fun, it would be great to share it with family. I had to be in Orlando for just one afternoon event once, so I took my grade-school aged son. I had a sitter stay with him for a few hours while I worked, then we stayed another 2 days to go to Universal and Disney. Honestly, we spent the most time in the hotel’s fantastic pool, which had a lazy river and several slides!

We all live in a world with many deadlines and incessant demands for our time and attention. That inevitably makes us feel rushed and we may feel that we can’t spare the time to be “fully present” with our children. Can you share with our readers 5 strategies about how we can create more space in our lives in order to give our children more quality attention?

Use your calendar! I live by my calendar. Family priorities go first, including basketball games, spring breaks, and haircuts. My ensemble understands that it takes something critical to move a family activity. And I stay focused. Wherever I am, I am 100% there. My work ensemble knows not to contact me on vacation unless it’s critical. My family knows not to call me if I’m with a client, unless it’s critical.

Ask them what they want. If there is a concert, trip or activity they really want to do, look into how you can make that happen. Then be there. Be their driver, cheerleader, and partner. Make sure you’ve created enough space so that you can enjoy the event, undistracted, too.

Focus and set boundaries. I once heard a working father complain that his kids didn’t appreciate him being at home. Then he described how he worked from home one day and totally ignored his kids. He couldn’t figure out why they were still unhappy when he was, physically, in the house. He should have gone to work! When you are with your kids, don’t take calls, don’t work at your computer and don’t talk about work. Since I run a virtual company, that took a LOOOONG time to figure out. We all set boundaries so that I could have “office” time that was respected by my family, if I promised to be focused with them and respect our family time.

Let yourself off the hook now and then. My husband is an executive, and we both travel. At least one of us is always home, or at the very least, a grandparent is watching them. I also believe you can be great at everything, just not every day. Some days, I’m a great wife and mom, but a disconnected CEO. Other days, I’m a Rockstar CEO, but have to let myself off the hook for missing family time. That’s OK, and in the end has taught my kids that it’s important to love your family AND love what you do.

How do you define a “good parent”? Can you give an example or story?

My parents were really great. And I strive to be as much like them as I can. They loved me, forgave me for my many mistakes, and were there to catch me a few times when I fell. They also just gave me daily belief in myself. They were always telling me that I could do great things and be a good person. It helped me go out into the world with confidence.

How do you inspire your child to “dream big”? Can you give an example or story?

I remind them that life is long! They can do anything they want to do. They may have to work hard for it, sacrifice for it, but they can do it. And by the way, if they want to make a change, they can do that, too! Your life is not a script. It’s improv.

How do you, a person who masterfully straddles the worlds of career and family, define “success”?

I’ve got it. I have a partner in my husband who has loved me, challenged me, and supported me when some of the risks didn’t work out. I’m so grateful that I get to be a mother to three delightful people. I get to do something I love for work every day. I lead an amazing ensemble of creative, intelligent people, who also keep pushing me to achieve more and be better.

Yitzi, I’d also like to make a special comment here. I have so many advantages, it’s hard for me to take credit for this wonderful world I get to live in. I was born in the US to parents who could educate me, I have a spouse who also brings an income, I have family to support me and help care for the kids, and I can afford paid support when needed. These are invisible and incredible benefits that many people don’t enjoy. Just wanted to make that comment, as the “advice” I’m sharing is not applicable to all when they may be struggling with barriers. Thank you.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a better parent? Can you explain why you like them?

The newsletters and research shared by my public-school system, and the teachers and counselors in it! They are a great resource, and if you listen to their advice, it will stand you in good stead. In addition, I take my kids to the library, and whenever I’ve had a behavioral issue or needed help, I’ve asked my librarian. They always found just what I needed.

I also ask YouTube, Twitter, and my mommy network to help! When the kids are interested or concerned about something, those forums help me understand what’s going on, and how to approach a topic. (The mommy network are the moms in my school district and even my professional world, to whom I turn when I need a sounding board.)

I also read the books my kids are reading. I loved their children’s books, and some of the best fiction in the world today is being written for teens and ‘young adults.’ It allows me to understand what they’re thinking about and have a topic of conversation that matters to them.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Alone we can do so little. Together we can do so much.” — Helen Keller

This quote is a great summation of why I love improv. It’s a team performance sport and has always been true for me. You’re never alone up on stage, you always have a team to lean on, or lead, depending on the day. And the more I’m with great people, the more I can do.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It’s a movement to which I already belong! Gender equity, equal pay for equal work, benefits and freedom so that all genders can take advantage of meaningful work, being a parent if they choose, and living with the people they love.

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

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