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.

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.

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.

shot of man in suit

CSR leadership isn’t about the rhetoric. It’s about action.

There was big news in Corporate Social Responsibility, or CSR leadership, last summer. The CEOs of more than 180 major companies signed a document announcing that big corporations should no longer focus exclusively on maximizing shareholder profits. Jamie Dimon, Chair of the Business Roundtable and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, presented a statement that business leaders should focus on delivering value to all their stakeholders — to customers, employees, suppliers, and local communities, as well as their shareholders.

When I wrote about it at the time, I saw it as a shocking shift in how businesses would measure their success. But I was also skeptical. One of the main drivers of change in a business is what gets measured. So I said:

“Watch what the CEOs do about measuring their companies’ success. If they focus solely on stock price, then their statement was just window-dressing. They and their companies will continue to emphasize short-term shareholder value above all else. But if their quarterly reports and analyst calls start highlighting other measures, then perhaps they really mean to change the game. It should be interesting.”

man and woman arguing

Managing disruptive personalities that impede important work

The best thing about a crisis is that it often brings out the best in people. So many individuals step up with courage, creativity, and generosity. They help each other out, they find new solutions, and they stand firm in the face of adversity. In the business world, these people are your most important assets. But at the same time, there are others who make things worse. For a variety of reasons, they engage in behavior that is undermining, distracting, or disruptive. 

paintings in a museum

Curating your life in the time of Covid-19

My book, Curating Your Life, was published on April 8. News flash – the middle of a pandemic is not the best time to launch a book! But there’s also some good news. Although I wrote the book long before anyone had heard of COVID-19, it turns out that learning how to manage your energy for peak productivity is a highly relevant topic in this challenging time. As a result, I’m getting plenty of opportunities to write and speak about the book, including a recent “Coffee and Connect” session for the Executives’ Club of Chicago. 

We talked about how the demands on our energy have changed. Some of the tasks that used to exhaust us – commuting, hosting big meetings, going to networking events – are no longer such a big part of our lives. At the same time, other demands have ramped up – learning new technologies, connecting through Zoom and other media, doing our own housework, cooking all the meals and spending much more time with family members. The specifics vary from person to person, but the challenge is the same – how do we manage our energy for peak productivity and joy during this strange time?

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.