man trying to scale a rock climbing wall

Fearless 2021 predictions from Chicago’s business leaders

We have all learned this past year that trying to predict the future is a highly risky endeavor. But that doesn’t stop us from trying.

Every January, the Executives’ Club of Chicago invites a panel of experts to help business leaders and investors navigate the coming year by predicting the major economic trends. Last January, for the most part, they didn’t do so great. But they were at it again recently.

Man on phone illustrating Zoom fatigue

The trick to managing Zoom fatigue without miscommunication

When I was first introduced to Zoom by my fellow executive coach, Jim Kelly, a few years ago, the concept of Zoom fatigue would have seemed laughable. At the time, I was just amazed at how well it enabled Jim and me to stay connected as professional colleagues and friends. I felt like part of an exclusive club — no one else I knew was using videoconferencing very much, let alone Zoom.

five people in office wear talking

How to evolve and optimize internal talent management

How do employees find out about opportunities in your company? Not just full-time jobs, but also opportunities to participate in projects, find a mentor, engage in networking, or learn something new?  How do leaders learn about employees’ skills, aspirations, and passions?

In most companies, the answer is – it’s difficult. Often, employees have access only to the opportunities their managers know about and are willing to share with them. And equally often, leaders have many demands on their time with few opportunities to really get to know their people.

hands pointing to diagrams

How organizational innovation can bring in big, bold ideas

The calls for organizational innovation always intensify during a crisis. Sure, many leadership qualities and behaviors are in high demand right now, including the ability to handle your own and others’ emotions, the skill to set clear expectations and hold people accountable, and the gumption to make the tough calls. But the one trait I hear asked for most often is the ability to innovate — to think about problems in new ways and move swiftly to create novel solutions.

Innovative ingenuity is an individual skill. But it is powerfully affected by organizational culture. Many companies are very effective at squashing innovation, often unintentionally. How often have you heard leaders respond to a new idea with, “Oh, we already tried that and it didn’t work?” Or watched as new ideas were ignored, dismissed, or even stolen. And then leaders wonder why their team members aren’t frequently bringing them bold, creative ideas.

olivia de havilland

What do you want out of life? A Lesson from Olivia de Havilland

Olivia de Havilland just passed away at the age of 104. The tribute to this great movie star in the Chicago Tribune (July 28, 2020) praised her “talent, ambition, and luminosity,” which pretty much says it all. As Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, as Maid Marian in The Adventures of Robin Hood, and in numerous other starring roles, she lit up the screen. 

She was a standout off-screen as well. At a time when the Hollywood studios locked movie stars into oppressive contracts, de Havilland challenged the system and won. The result of her court victory is called “the de Havilland law” to this day.

Sounds like a life well-lived. That may have been at least in part because of her very clear-eyed vision of what she wanted. At the age of 18, de Havilland tested for a starring role opposite Errol Flynn. She won the role and went on the star with him in six more films. During that screen test, when they were off-camera, Flynn asked her, “What do you want out of life?” She thought for a moment and responded, “I would like respect for difficult work, well done.”

man standing at middle of cornfield

Uncertainty is always around, but we manage to get through

I started writing my newsletter, The Cautious Optimist, in the spring of 2009. Like today, that was a dark and scary time. The financial world was collapsing around us, unemployment was skyrocketing, and everything was very uncertain. I chose the title deliberately because it captured the attitude I was trying to cultivate – not a rose-colored “Little Mary Sunshine” perspective, but a realistic confidence that things would get better. 

And here we are again. It’s a very different crisis from the 08-09 financial meltdown, but once again we are surrounded by collapse and uncertainty. It’s been 11 years, and I’m still writing The Cautious Optimist, and people are still reading and responding to it. No one knows what the future holds, but I’m confident that cautious optimism is still the best game in town. 

remote meeting

What crisis leadership looks like during Coronavirus and after

I don’t know about you, but my inbox has been deluged with well-meaning, useless Coronavirus advice. If one more person sends me information on how to wash my hands or socially distance myself or engage with my team, I’m going to say a bad word. As a result, I have been avoiding sending out advice of my own.

And then amid all the noise I got a PowerPoint deck from my colleague Nancy Picard, one of the smartest people I know. Her deck was full of useful guidance about how to lead right now — useful enough that I was moved to share it with you.

Interviewing Technical Talent

In the fiercely competitive world of hiring technical talent, what interview approach differentiates top technicians who will work well in your company? Surprisingly, assessing “soft skills” may be as important as evaluating the candidate’s technical skills.

The Rock ‘n’ Roll Lifestyle

You may not be able to play the guitar or scream out a song like a rock star, but if you’re a business leader, your lifestyle may be as unhealthy as a rock star’s: too much travel, dashing from one meeting to the next, working long hours, and eating on the run. A recent book, The Rockstar Remedy by Francis and Massand, has some good advice. Don’t expect yourself to make healthy choices all the time – aim for 90%. Then focus on five areas:
– Detox: get rid of the things that are poisoning you physically or emotionally
– Food: eat for beauty, stamina, and focus
– Body: find exercise you love
– Mind and Spirit: practice therapies and treatments that you bring you back into harmony
– Socialize: strengthen connections with those you love

Sounds like good advice, whether you are Beyonce, Tim Cook, or you.

The Sisterhood Code

The recent Annual Conference of the Society of Women Engineers was an energizing event. Thousands of women engineers gathered in downtown LA to learn, network, and celebrate. These are groundbreaking women who are using their intelligence and drive to carve out new roles and pave the way for others. I was honored to be an invited speaker for a Mega Session on “Finding and Using Your Power.” Among other aspects of mobilizing female power, I talked about the power of women working together. I shared “The Sisterhood Code,” a document I had written a couple of years ago after hearing about “The Bro Code.” Some audience members asked me to post The Sisterhood Code on my website, so here it is:

The Sisterhood Code

I will combat negative stereotypes of women.
I will cheer the successes of other women.
I will stick up for other women.
I will look for ways to promote other women’s careers.
I will trade favors with other women.
I will value other women’s work.
I will measure my success in part by how well I help other women to succeed.
I will be inclusive of women.
I will value myself, my talents, and my contributions.
I will guard against my own anti-woman thoughts and behaviors with vigilance.

Women won’t achieve equality without the help and support of our male colleagues. But we can start by ensuring that we are helping and supporting each other.

Fathers, Daughters, and Business Leadership

Does having a daughter change a man’s leadership style? Several recent research articles suggest that it does. Male judges with daughters are more likely to rule in favor of women’s rights. And companies led by men with daughters make more progress in closing the wage gap between men and women.

This is a beautiful example of how a leader’s personal life affects his or her leadership choices. Although we like to pretend that we are “all business,” in fact we bring our whole selves to work, like it or not. Having a daughter often changes a man in profound ways. Many fathers are fiercely protective of their daughters and deeply invested in their happiness and success. Through that personal connection, male leaders often become much more aware of the inequalities women face in the workplace. Gender discrimination is no longer an abstract concept – it is a threat to their daughters’ well-being.

This has implications for how women can successfully craft mentorship relationships with male leaders. Many successful mentorship relationships resemble father-daughter relationships. The male executive becomes emotionally invested in his female mentee’s success and helps her to develop her leadership skills and break through barriers.

For more of my thoughts on this topic, check out “Why Men with Daughters may be the Key to Closing the Gender Wage Gap” in Fast Company.

When to Fire a Client

Cramer-Krasselt, an ad agency, recently announced they would no longer work as lead creative agency for Panera Bread. While subsequent news stories made this a “he said/she said” story as to who fired whom, the conflict raises the interesting question of when a business should fire one of its customers or clients.

Most businesses place great emphasis on creating a great client experience and putting the client at the center of what they do. Attracting and retaining customers is the lifeblood of a business. In most cases, there are ways to improve a client relationship that is running into trouble. And yet – there are times when the prudent business decision is to terminate a client relationship.

At the heart of this decision is a cost-benefit analysis. How much is the client worth to your company? And what is the relationship costing you? This is in part a hard-nosed quantitative analysis. Some clients demand a great deal of service and are unwilling or unable to pay a fair price. Some customers are truly money-losers.

But what makes the calculation more complicated is that part of the cost/benefit analysis is qualitative. Consider the following scenarios:
• A not-for-profit organization has been a long-time user of your services or products. They cannot afford to pay your regular fee. But they are highly-regarded in your community and their work is highly congruent with your company values.
• A high paying client is difficult and demanding to work with. He is rude to your staff, inconsistent in his requirements, and never satisfied. Some of your staff members refuse to work with him.
• You learn that a highly regarded client is engaging in behavior you consider unethical.

In cases like these, the issue is not just financial. It has to do with your company’s culture and brand. What is it worth to you to protect your company’s people and values? Part of visionary business leadership is the ability to weigh the intangibles as well as the tangibles and to do what is in the best interests of your company.