Merit Badge

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I never really put much value in new year’s resolutions. Until I saw one up close.

Several new year’s days ago, my daughter started a run streak — running at least a mile every day. She really committed. Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stayed her from getting her mile in. She was up before the sun to get her mile in. Arriving late to a hotel, she’d hurry to the treadmill before midnight to get her mile in. The morning of the birth of her first child, enormous and nine months pregnant, she got her mile in. 2,058 days in a row, over five and a half years, she got her mile in. Long enough to land her in the top 50 on the national list of longest run streaks.

So, two new year’s days ago, when I stood in front of the mirror and didn’t like what I saw, I followed her lead. No, I didn’t run a mile every day. But I did commit to getting healthy and dropping a lot of weight. I started walking the dog and eating better. Then I rode the neglected exercise bike and did sit-ups and lifted weights. I got my old bike off the hanger in the garage and tuned it up. I rode and even did CrossFit for a while. Today I ride 50-100 miles a week and I’m down about 90 pounds. I can’t match my daughter’s daily persistence, but my doctor tells me the changes in my health are remarkable. That new year’s resolution worked.

My constant companion in all of this were podcasts. I’ve listened to hundreds of hours of podcasts while sweating. Stories and tech and politics and news and, of course, my passion: organizations and management. The lack of a good podcast on leadership is why you’re listening to me right now.

Until this week, I had never listened to the same podcast episode twice. I just listened and moved on. There’s always so much in my queue, so much great work still to be discovered. But this week, I found myself listening to the same one again. Not just twice, but three times.

The episode that grabbed me was on Preet Bharara’s Stay Tuned, one of my favorite pods. Though Preet often talks law and politics, this episode was with Harvard philosophy professor Michael Sandel. They discussed his new book on the Tyranny of Merit. How the seemingly lofty goal of a meritocracy is corrosive to the common good.

Given the themes we’ve been exploring here, about diversity and inclusion, the discussion was timely. But Sandel caused me to rethink most of my beliefs about merit, and privilege, and intelligence, and frankly just luck.

The episode shook me to the core. It also gave me some nasty flashbacks. And that’s what this is all about.

This is Leading Smart, the show about Managing in the Brainpower Age. It’s a field guide to the joys and challenges of leading and working in the modern workplace. I’m Chris Williams, your guide to the stories and ideas that I hope will inspire you to be a better leader in the world of knowledge work.

In this episode we’ll explore why merit so hard to define. This is Episode 214 — Merit Badge.

The old Microsoft board room was like most board rooms: designed to be intimidating. In the now demolished building eight on the Redmond campus, it was the cliché of executive excess. A long narrow room paneled in dark wood with a matching table that seemed almost comically long. The hallway side was all windows. It was always fascinating to pass by and catch a glimpse of the often-animated conversations and wonder the topic at hand. The room sat at least 30 around the table, but I rarely saw it full. Usually there was just a handful of unlucky souls in there, taking their beatings and retreating.

I spent a lot of time in that room. I presented to the board a couple of times, but mostly I was there for one strategy or product meeting or another. One regular occasion was the annual review of senior people. It was a three-day affair, one day for the product development teams, one for the sales organization, and a third shorter day for the rest of the internal groups. Each team VP would come in to face Bill Gates and a few other leaders for the review of a spreadsheet of their topmost talent. As the senior-most HR person, I was the orchestrator, timekeeper, and occasional referee of the discussion.

The exercise had a number of goals. Identifying talent early and making sure there were plenty of opportunities to succeed was part of it. Ensuring the key products had the talent they needed to be successful was also part of it. But a core objective was to level-set across the corporation. To hold the bar and make sure the standards for excellence were upheld for the highest-level positions. On their face, these are admirable goals.

I remember at the time thinking that this was good organizational hygiene. Something everyone that strives for meritocracy should be proud of. A chance to ensure consistency to rigorous standards, while also highlighting potential and ushering it to success.

In hindsight, however, especially after listening to Michael Sandel, I realize the reality fell far short of these lofty objectives. Though merit was the focus, the conversation often strayed in uncomfortable ways. Not offensive, and never blatantly racist or sexist, it still was clear that talent and skill were not the only metrics. Brilliant engineers were shuttled aside for often minor offenses, such as taking unpopular technical stances. Leaders with great potential were tarred with the stench of a project that failed well outside their control. People were frequently dismissed as being “difficult” or “not team players”. Even when in fact they were no more so than many others who were lauded.

In the end, what made one person a star and another an outcast often seemed capricious and arbitrary, based on little more than one opinion around the table. Worse still, I’m sure none of the victims ever knew why their careers stalled or opportunities mysteriously dried up. On reflection, I realize that I rarely left that room feeling as hopeful as when I entered.

For a company that strived to be a meritocracy, and that had some of the best talent on the planet at the time, the result was often painful. It was a living embodiment of the Tyranny of Merit that Michael Sandel decries in his book.

The goal of a meritocratic organization is clear: to create a level playing field such that people rise as far as their effort and talents will take them. That the best and brightest end up on top. This feels objectively like a good and just goal, difficult to argue against.

Yet as good as a meritocracy feels in concept, it’s impossible to achieve in fact. In the real world, a level playing field is simply impossible. And many of the factors that make it not equitable are outside the control of the players. It starts in hiring.

It’s mathematically impossible for organizations to ensure a completely level playing field in hiring. They can’t possibly recruit from all schools around the world. They can’t be at every career fair. When applications number in the thousands, equal treatment is unfeasible. It’s not even practical that every job opening is known to all the best candidates.

So, they recruit where the fishing is best. That often means the elite universities, or those with programs with renown in their industry. If you didn’t happen to attend of those are you obviously less talented?

As we discussed in the episodes on hiring, to combat the tsunami of applicants, they filter applicants on sometimes arbitrary requirements. If you end up on the wrong side of those whose fault is that?

And organizations tend to look for applicants where they’ve succeeded in the past. For most firms that’s in their home country, even their local market. If you’re not there, does that make you less worthy?

The result is that, just by getting into a company, you’ve gotten lucky. You’ve been fortunate enough to be in the right country, at the right school, in the right program, at the right time, with the right keywords on your resume, to get the attention of the recruiter. Where’s the merit in that?

This is personal to me. I graduated from a midwestern state school that Microsoft certainly didn’t recruit from, and my resume would never have made it past the filters. I came to the company through an acquisition, and likely never would have ended up there otherwise.

A key component of success is risk-taking. Big risk is what leads to the biggest rewards. This seems fundamentally just. But taking risks is distinct from merit, and the ability to take risks is not distributed equitably.

Many simply cannot afford to take the risk to go to college. They can’t be out of the workforce for those years. They can’t take on the financial burden. The ability to take on the risk of college is not a level playing field.

Once in the workforce, chasing the next opportunity often means taking a risk. Leaving your family obligations. Moving to a new city or even a new country. Taking a cut in pay for the potential of future rewards is something only a few can manage.

Here too, this is personal to me. I had parents who could pay for my college. And on at least three occasions in my career, I took a cut in pay for a new opportunity. Each time, the risk paid off. But in every case, I had the back stop of parents who I knew could assist should the bet go sour. I knew that I would not be homeless. That I could take the risk. Most are not so fortunate.

And, yes, there are all the diversity issues. When the judgement of merit, of talent, of skill is highly subjective, it is virtually impossible to ensure that such judgement is blind to each person’s uniqueness.

Looking back at that senior people review at Microsoft, I can’t help but wonder if some of the decisions were made, even unconsciously, on the basis of ethnicity, culture, gender, or some other inequitable dimension. I’m sure that was the case, but I’d be hard pressed to give an example.

For me, this too is personal. I have achieved success at least in part because I am because I’m a straight white male. That I looked like the senior leaders wherever I worked. That I spoke and wrote like those above me. That I came from a small inoffensive midwestern American town. It’s hard to overlook the likelihood that these qualities assigned me merit above those not so similarly endowed.

For me the most painful part of Sandel’s discussion was his condemnation of the term “smart”. He argues that smart is highly context dependent.

This struck me deeply, as I have always worked hard to combat any reflex to inequity. From my early career I worked with and for a broad range of people, and I tried hard to tamp down on racism, sexism, or elitism. Yet, I drew the line at “smart”. I would proudly say, “I’m not racist or sexist, but I am a smartist. I just can’t bear stupid people.”

Here Sandel humbled me. He points out the rather obvious point that smart is genetic. Outside anyone’s control.

But smart also tends to be dimensional. Some people are mathematically smart yet bereft of common sense. Others are mechanical elites without the ability to communicate effectively. Still others have artistic genius along with zero interpersonal skills. My condemnation of “stupid” was rarely multidimensional and now seems at least naive, if not highly inappropriate.

Perhaps most inconvenient is that smart is also highly environmentally conditional. Being a smart scholar was great in ancient Greece. Sculptors and fresco painters were in great demand during the renaissance. Skilled craftsmen were the elite of the middle ages or during the industrial revolution. For many today the skill of basketball or football is a ticket to success. And in the world I have lived, logic and problem solving is paramount. It makes me wonder what the “smart” will be in the next century.

Being smart in a dimension out of favor should not be a condemnation. The best pole vaulter in a world that pays basketball stars millions should not starve. Certainly, those whose skills are best for the era deserve handsome rewards, but those not so gifted should not be condemned. Alas I have done so and feel chastened by Sandel’s admonition.

Lastly the most damning result of a meritocracy is the caustic effect it has on organizational culture. The veil of merit often shrouds a very simplistic view of cause and effect. Those who end up on top feel that they deserve to be there, and that those who did not deserve their fate. They didn’t work as hard, they weren’t as smart, or simply lacked the skills to get ahead.

This leads to what Sandel refers to as the arrogance of merit. Those who achieve success in these organizations believe in their own merit. They overlook or downplay the conditions that aided in their success and ignore the often-hidden burdens that hindered those who failed. They look down on others for not working hard enough, even when effort was unrelated to their lackluster results.

This is perhaps the place where we, as leaders, have the most control. On a personal level we can reflect on how and why we’ve achieved our own position. Not as some sort of painful guilt trip, but rather as insight into how our organization assigns merit and rewards success.

For our teams, we can rightly celebrate those whose skills and fortune have aligned with the goals of our organization. We certainly should elevate those who are best able to leverage their talents. But we cannot and should not tolerate disdain for those less fortunate in the talent lottery. And remind everyone that it takes many roles and skills to make a successful team.

And most importantly we should reflect on Michael Sandel’s insights. When reviewing performance, we should be thoughtful and equitable when choosing upon whose chest we pin that coveted merit badge.


Leading Smart is from me, Chris Williams. You can find out more about the show and discover other resources for leaders at my web site

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That’s it for this episode. The next episode is another of my conversations with leaders. We’ll talk with Michael Kennedy, the CFO of the Muscular Dystrophy Association. We’ll talk about his experience leading internationally, about vision in the finance world, and now his role at a world famous non-profit. I hope you’ll listen. Until then, please remember that each of the several dozen decisions you make today are part of Leading Smart.