work from home or in the office debate

Why a rigid work-from-home policy might mean more freedom

All the business leaders I talk with these days are struggling with the same issue: Whether and how to bring their employees back into the office.

Some are firmly convinced that everyone needs to come back full-time right now. Others are equally convinced that employees should be granted total flexibility — come in when you want and as much or as little as you want. Many are somewhere in between these two extremes. And almost everyone is feeling confused and uncertain about what is best.

Unfortunately, there is no one right answer. In each company, it takes a unique set of circumstances to retain your best people while maximizing the good work you get out of them. Still, there are a few guidelines to keep front-of-mind.

Why use a business adviser? For the outside perspective

The top company executives had been interviewing candidates for the CFO role. They found someone they really liked and were convinced he was the right guy for the job. In fact, they were already driving him around the town to show him attractive neighborhoods where his family could live. By the time they asked me to interview and assess the candidate, his hire was all but a done deal. I was just answering a few last-check questions: Was he the right leader for the job? Would he be a good fit with the company culture?

Female sprinters racing around a track

How to make sure merit pay actually rewards performance

Many years ago I worked for a mental health clinic that employed a variety of professionals, including two social workers. When annual raises were announced, one of the social workers, Anne, had received a larger raise than the other one, Judy. 

Judy was annoyed at the disparity, so she went to the Medical Director to ask for the reason. Dr. Frank explained that both women were doing a good job with their clients. But in addition to her day work, Anne was very involved in the community, representing the clinic at evening events and serving on some community boards, while Judy was not engaging in those activities. Anne’s visibility and contribution to the community reflected well on the clinic, and so she was rewarded for her commitment. 

I don’t know whether Judy was satisfied with this explanation. But it is to Dr. Frank’s credit that he was willing and able to provide a clear explanation for the difference in the two raises. Too often that is not the case. Too many organizations have a “trust us” approach, where decisions about promotions and raises are made in a “black box” with no clear rationale.

Two business women walking a hallway in the office

One of the most in-demand jobs may surprise you

What does the job market look like post-COVID? I know, we’re not quite there yet, but I’m certainly seeing a lot more business leaders moving into great new roles, as well as a lot more optimism about the near future. So what’s the landscape like?

Here in Illinois, Crain’s Chicago Business just published a list of the 10 most in-demand jobs (subscription required). At first glance, the list did not surprise me. The top eight jobs are all technical IT jobs — except one. But that one, the HR specialist at No. 5, did surprise me. 

In this digital world of ours, where so many of us have been living on screens and keyboards for the past year, why is there a big demand for specialists in the management of human capital?

Various colors of sewing thread organized on a board

Career inspiration: 7 lessons from an artist’s journey

There’s a mind-blowing new exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago, Bisa Butler: Portraits. Butler creates enormous, extraordinary portraits of Black Americans, using elaborate quilting techniques to piece together brilliantly colored pieces of fabric. I have admired beautiful quilts for years, but I have never seen anything remotely approaching the artistry and impact of Butler’s work.

Who is Bisa Butler? The story of her career so far provides some valuable guidance in how to succeed at the career you were born for.

Person standing in front of a wall with many items to choose from

Uncertainty in decision making lets great leaders shine

Professionals don’t experience uncertainty in decision making — as an amateur, I “knew” this. Before I worked in a medical center, I thought medicine was an exact science: Doctors were trained to evaluate data and come up with precise diagnoses and treatments to benefit their patients. Before I went to business school, I thought all business leaders were quantitative experts: Executives were trained to crunch numbers and come up with clear-cut decisions to benefit their businesses.

Of course, neither proved to be true. Science is certainly the foundation of medicine, but much of what medical practitioners do is art, based on their intelligence, experience, and listening and communication skills. Similarly, much of what business leaders do is educated guesswork, based on their intelligence, experience, and listening and communication skills. Even my fellow student Hazim, the “quant” on our team, would usually start his guidance to us with the phrase, “We assume … ”

Clipboard and paper that says 2021 with glitter scattered

Cautious, sometimes optimistic, predictions for 2021

Don’t even try to forecast the future! If there’s one thing we’ve learned from this mind-boggling year, it’s that our ability to make accurate forecasts is highly unreliable. I remember several panels of experts last January making predictions about 2020: With the exception of possible uncertainty resulting from the presidential election, they were very positive about the prospects for this year. 

‘Nuff said about that.

woman standing in office with mask

Thriving in a Pandemic – Top 10 Tips from a CEO

How would you like to be running a high-end wine production and distribution company about now? Think about it for a minute – there’s bad news and there’s good news. The bad news is that sales at all your “on-site” customers – wineries and restaurants – have plummeted. The good news is that retail wine sales have risen. The challenge, as in every business right now, is how to make the most of an extraordinary situation.

I recently listened to Bill Terlato, the CEO of Terlato Wine Group, talk about the choices he and his leadership team made over the recent months to keep their company healthy. Although his advice was based on his industry, most of it was relevant for leaders across the board. So here’s my summary of Bill’s top ten pearls:

woman looking at laptop

How Understanding Brains can Make you a Better Leader

Prior to 1990, when scientists wanted to directly observe how the brain works, they had to open up people’s skulls and attach electrodes to their brains. Guess what – it was really hard to find people to sign up for that kind of experimentation. So a lot of what we “knew” about how the brain functioned was guesswork. Then in 1990, the invention of Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) made it possible for scientists to study how the brain works while leaving people’s skulls intact. The field of neuropsychology exploded and has become one of the most exciting, fast-paced areas of science. 

man holding phone and coffee outside

Productive work breaks — the dos and dont’s of managing energy

For the third time in a row, Bill used up most of his time in our coaching session to talk about how anxious and overwhelmed he was feeling. A senior executive in a large transportation company, Bill normally had a very calm demeanor, to the extent that others sometimes perceived him as remote or disengaged. But now, week after week, he was finding himself reactive and overwrought.

My first thought was, “Well, of course!” Almost everyone I’m talking to these days, both personally and professionally, is reactive and overwrought. By now we’re all exhausted from the uncertainty, sadness, fear, and relentless accommodations we are making as we try to navigate through the crisis. It seems endless. This is the world we’re living in.

woman standing in doorway

What to do when you get laid off: First mourn, then organize

Twice in my career, I’ve had to answer the question of what to do when you get laid off.

In 1980, the psychiatric hospital where I worked half-time eliminated all the part-time jobs. I was laid off. I had just had my first child and we had just bought our first house. It was awful.

In 2009, when the economy was tanking, the consulting firm where I was working laid off one-third of its consultants in one day. It took me one week to realize that there were no jobs for someone in my field — no one was hiring. It was awful.

But in both cases, it didn’t stay awful.

wendy on billions

Billions therapist Wendy Rhoades brings real coaching to fiction

I like writing about Wendy Rhoades, the high-flying performance coach on the Showtime show Billions. Having said that, I want to make two things clear. First, Wendy Rhoades is a fictional character. She is not real. This is important in a world where fact and fiction are often very muddled. Second, Wendy is not a moral exemplar. She lives and works in a world whose moral code is highly problematic. She has already gotten in trouble for a lapse in her professional ethics, and my guess is that she’ll continue to make some very shady choices.

So why do I keep writing about her? She is an intriguing character, she’s a powerful female figure, and she demonstrates some of the tactics of successful performance coaching. It’s the last point that keeps me watching the show and writing about what I see.