two people looking at data during a performance review

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.

Why it’s a bad idea to bring your whole self to work

“If you’re looking for a firm with a strong team connection where you can be your whole self … ”
“We welcome all, and seek talented individuals who can bring their whole self to work … ”
“We appreciate different backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives — encouraging everyone to bring their authentic selves to work.”
“We cultivate a community of playful personalities that thrive in a fast-paced environment where our employees can be their most authentic selves.”

These quotes are from recent job postings at well-known companies. They reflect a powerful trend in current thinking about the kind of environment that talented employees are seeking. They also imply that this kind of environment will bring out the best in their people.

This wording may be useful from a marketing perspective. But let me tell you, as guidance for getting ahead and moving into a leadership role, it’s dead wrong.

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.

Brown sailing boat on the sea during sunset

Why we’re listening to sea shanties and living like sailors

Singing sea shanties is a thing right now. And while it may seem as hard to predict and understand as any other pop culture trend, it’s not a surprise to me that we’d find comfort in classic and modern versions of the 19th century sailors’ songs. 

No, we’re not performing physical labor together like the original singers. But from what my husband, Dan Golden, has told me about old-time sailing, there are a number of parallels with the way many of us are living now.

Child with a jacket sticking their tongue out mockingly

Bad behavior at work sets the culture. What will you tolerate?

Once in a while, someone shares a quote with me that captures an essential piece of wisdom. Today it was a line from Steve Gruenert and Todd Whitaker: “The culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.”

Isn’t that annoying? Don’t you wish the culture was shaped by people’s best behavior? But having observed hundreds of organizational cultures, I know the quote is true. That’s why the “No Jerks” rule many companies have adopted is so important. 

Of course, the challenge then is to define what being a “jerk” looks like. That will vary from one setting to another. But nonetheless, in any organization there have to be limits on what behavior is tolerated.

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.

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 sitting along notes floor working on her laptop

Feeling ignored at work: Invisibility as a not-so-superpower

As a girl, the power to make myself invisible was a magic wish. It seemed so wonderful — to be able to sneak into places and do whatever I wanted without anyone noticing.

Then feeling ignored at work gave me a taste of invisibility, and I learned it actually isn’t so great. 

The first time I remember feeling invisible at work was the winter of 2008-2009. I was working for a consulting firm, and part of my job in that miserable winter was to bring in new business. I did everything I could think of: I made phone calls, wrote newsletters, sent emails, developed marketing materials, and invited people for coffee or lunch or drinks. The response? Bupkes! Not just nothing, but the Yiddish word for “emphatically nothing.” I even found it difficult to elicit a response from my colleagues. It was profoundly demoralizing.

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.