9 Ways to Lead the Return To “Normal”

Things are starting to stabilize. Things appear to be getting better. The curve, for now, appears to be flattening.

But make no mistake: The anxiety people have is manifest 24/7. They’re worried about their families, their health, their jobs, their livelihoods (and that of their partners), managing kids, elderly parents, etc.

It’s not like people can go to work and get away from home problems. And they can’t go home and get away from their work problems, either.

As we all recover, our role as leaders is to provide employees with realistic reassurance, with empathy, honesty and emotional intelligence.

Here are 9 techniques for leading the Return to Normal:

1. Keep Your Foot on the Overcommunication Gas Pedal

Having an employee tell you “Hey, enough with the communication. I don’t need this much” is infinitely preferable to not giving them enough information. (Although in my entire career, I’ve never heard of an employee asking leadership to back off on the communication).

If the employee is working remotely, here’s a complimentary tool to help you conduct an effective conversation.

And remember, when you ask someone how they are, it tells them you care.

2. We’re Going to Be in The Unknown For Quite Some Time

This crisis, to quote an unknown author, is a case study in uncertainty – even as we’re coming out of this.

Many of us are asked, ‘when is it going back to normal? First, it will never be back to normal again. It’s OK. Remember, the world changed after 9/11, and we adapted.

We’re never really going to be back to “normal”. It won’t be “the way it always was”. It‘s up to leaders to make this new normal a comfortable place to be. It won’t be the same. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be good.

3. Emotional Intelligence/Know Your Audience/One Size Fits One

Some people are incredibly anxious right now. Some people aren’t. Everyone has different stressors and all of us have been traumatized. Effective leadership starts with Emotional Intelligence, which can be summed up by “know who you’re talking with, and adapt accordingly”.

(Note, there’s a lot more to Emotional Intelligence than that, but it’s a start).

4. Make a plan but make plans to change the plan

We’re learning so much new information each day. I was reviewing some articles I wrote a month ago, and they’re already obsolescent. It’s great to prepare and make plans, but don’t be so wedded to the plan that you can’t change.

Because your plans ARE going to change.

5. Gratitude for your clients/end-users and employees

Gratitude helps take us back to the known. It reminds us of things we’re proud of (in a time where we tend to focus much of our energy on what’s scary). It’s always a lot easier to focus on the negative than remember the positive.

As an extra bonus: what you do now will pay off in the future.

6. Don’t pretend to be the expert

Leaders are being called on to do a lot these days, but remember, you’re not the expert in everything.

Find out the experts and rely on them – from safety issues to mental health, there’s a trove of information available. Don’t guess. Don’t pretend you’re the expert. It will bite you on the way back.

7. Calm & Prepared

As a leader, you’re always on stage. People are watching not only what you do, but how you do it.

Temperament is one of the most essential qualities a leader can have. An effective crisis strategy begins by separating charged emotions from facts and data.

8. Just because it’s not logical doesn’t mean it’s not real

Despite every precaution you might be taking, some people are going to be fearful of coming back to work. You might not think that’s logical, but it doesn’t matter: it’s real to them.

Your perception is their reality. Understand their fears and you’ll begin the breakthrough.

9. Put the “Humanity” Back in Human Resources

One of my great frustrations with many HR professionals is that they buy into every possible rumor and make it fact.

Case in point: they’ll tell you not to ask about an employee’s personal life or their home situation. (“You can’t intrude on someone’s personal life – we’ll get sued.”)

To which I say – show me the case law.

At a time like this, when work and life have morphed into some unrecognizable blur, now is exactly the time to ask how their family is; what they’re fearful of and what personal and professional concerns they have. It’s called being human.

We’ll get through this. But how we get through this and break through to the other side will determine our success as leaders.

How Smart Companies Streamline Their HR

For the past twenty years, we’ve helped more than 250 businesses and organizations with Human Resources. We’ve learned a thing or two about what works and what doesn’t.

Regardless of company size, what they all have in common is that the HR function can be more streamlined. We’re not talking about cutting staff. It’s about maximizing available “resources” so you can maximize this critical business function.

Here are 4 steps we recommend to make your workforce more productive, engaged and aligned. (Hint: it’s not as hard as you might think!)

1. Maximize HR Technology

Most small and mid-sized businesses don’t have a HR Management System (HRMS). That’s amazing to us. Almost all the major payroll companies offer this program at low prices. There is not one thing you can do to better streamline HR than this.

In 2020, we helped four businesses install an HRMS. Within three months, the average HR administrator saved 45 hours per month! (Company size averaged 60 employees)

Venture capitalists invested $7 billion in HR technology companies in the past two years. It’s only going to get bigger and better for every business.

2. Who Does What (aka the right person for the right job)?

If you have a full-time HR person, ask them, “what do you spend your typical day doing?” If it’s administrative, then the HRMS in #1 will reduce their workload by about 25-40%. So NOW what do they do all day?

An accredited HR professional probably works with you on employee performance issues. They also explore ways to increase employee engagement and return-to-office issues. Most also support the talent acquisition process. But in a small business, how many hours a week does that really take?

Is your “HR person” an “HR person”, or is that a side gig for the office manager or bookkeeper who doesn’t have an HR background? If you have a General Counsel, do they have an employment law background?

In 2003, the ratio of HR professionals to employees was 1:40. Today, it’s about 1:150.

Companies are discovering technology and targeted outsourcing can replace a full-time HR person. At the same time, the employees doing that work can return to their true area of expertise.

Do a gap analysis (or have an expert do one for you). Find out what you have and what you’re missing. You should find a cost-effective HR program which increases capabilities and decreases worries.

3. Get Experts and Let Them Make the Decisions

Everyone thinks they know something about HR. And most of them don’t, plain and simple.

If you have a Board, don’t get them involved in reviewing Job Descriptions (this happened to us last week).

Titles mean nothing today. We saw an applicant earlier this year who was a “Director of Human Resources”. Upon review, the company she worked for had eleven employees. And her “HR function” was collecting applications and processing payroll. It’s not about the title, it’s about the expertise. You don’t want someone like that making decisions that impact your business.

When it comes to HR, consolidate decision making processes to one or two people. The more people you talk to, the more different opinions you’re going to get. Meaning decisions will never get made. Last year, a non-profit client had six executives approve their employee handbook. It took them (and us) 23 drafts and six months to deliver a document. A document that was already legally reviewed and ready-to-go.

Know who the experts are and use them. You don’t have to hire full-time people to get this level of expertise.

4. Strategically Use Your Employment Attorney

In smaller companies, the de facto HR answer machine is often the employment attorney. (When in doubt, let’s call…). But that can be  expensive, as most employment attorneys charge between $500-$1,000 per hour.

Certified HR consultants, however, charge less than half that and can provide answers to 80-90% of questions.

Save the employment attorney for lawsuits and questions which are legal in nature.

In fairness, we love employment attorneys. They do things we cannot do, and we do things they generally don’t want to do. Most employment attorneys want to be defending you in court. They don’t want to answer questions such as “how long do I have to keep this employment application on file?”

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Keep Your Best Employees By Asking These Questions

A very wise man once said if you ask enough “stay interviews”, you’ll be doing a lot less “exit interviews”.

I have seen very few businesses that can’t benefit from more frequent and quality interactions between managers and their employees.  The problem is, most managers don’t know what questions to ask.  As a result, communication is garbled or non-existent, and a very good employee often shocks their boss when they “suddenly” leave. This problem is exacerbated when managing remote employees.

Anyone can ask good questions; it’s just a matter of being intentional about doing so.

Many years ago I was running a division of about 300 salespeople.  10 managers reported to me.  One of those managers was actually someone I reported to a few years previously (that’s another article right there).  I really loved and respected Chris when he was my boss, and tried hard to treat him the same way when I became his boss.  The trouble was my boss – Edward – intensely disliked Chris, and wanted me to fire him.

So I put together a day-long meeting where each of my managers presented a “state of the staff” to both me and Edward.  Each manager had 45 minutes to review staff, discuss challenges and successes.  The managers were competent, and reviewed each employee in terms of productivity, customer service ratings, etc.  I saved Chris for last.  Instead of reviewing numbers, he reviewed each of his direct reports as individuals.

“Keith had a tough year last year, as he was going through a divorce.  The divorce is now final and he’s totally been re-focused”.

“Jennifer and her husband just bought a new house so she’s twice as motivated to bring in new sales”.

And so on.  He knew each of his employees in detail – where they lived, names of their spouses or significant others, what their issues were and what their goals were.  At the end of the day, Edward grudgingly said he understood Chris a lot better.

So get your managers to get to know their employees better.  It’s not a big ordeal – just 10-15 minutes a month of conversation.  And managers need to do a lot better than simply “How’s it going?”

Last year, we worked with an organization on their culture and incorporated much of the culture into some stay interview questions.  Here are some of them:

  • If you were to win the lottery and resign, what would you miss the most?
  • If you were the CEO for a day, what would be the one thing you would change about this department?
  • What makes for a great day?
  • What can we do to make your job more satisfying?
  • What can we do to support your career goals?
  • Do you get enough recognition?
  • What will keep you here?  What might entice you away?
  • What do you want to learn this year?  How might you learn it?

By understanding employees better, your managers will be better able to help employees stay.  Or, prepare for an impending departure.  In either instance, asking stay questions becomes an essential part of your overall performance management strategy.  After all, the whole purpose of management is to manage performance.

Top 17 Tips for Managing Remote Employees

1. Do everything you’re supposed to do with on-site employees, but do it on steroids.

2. Overcommunicate. Until they complain about too much communication, keep overcommunicating. (Note: I’ve never heard of an employee complaining about management over communicating)

3. Redesign onboarding to reflect remote employee (and company) needs, and bring remotes into the office for – at least – the first week or two of their employment.

4. Encourage all remote and on-site employees to communicate with each other. It can’t all be on the manager.

5. If you have birthday or lifecycle celebrations for on-site employees, have them for remote employees as well. They must feel included.

6. Encourage remote employees to have occasional, casual colleague discussions (coffee, wine, lunch, etc.)

7. Company-branded “googies” or “swag”. If you have these items, make sure the remotes get them too.

8. When conducting one-on-ones, make sure to include information on the company – who’s doing what; goal achievements, etc.

9. If an employee is working in a different state or municipality that your home office, make sure you’re up-to-date on any state- or municipal-specific labor laws.

10. If an employee is working in a different state, they still need labor posters, but they don’t have to have them posted in their living room! Order the poster to yourself. Take a digital photo and e-mail that to the employee, making sure they acknowledge they’ve received it.

11. When communicating, use Emotional Intelligence. Observe them. Focus on whether he/she/they are engaged, connected, happy (or not).

12. When conducting a team meeting, keep an eye out for those who are not talking, and make sure to get them participating. Don’t let the frequent talkers talk too frequently at the expense of quiet employees.

13. Set clear expectations for performance and hours of work/communication. The moment those expectations aren’t met, make a phone call.

14. You trusted them enough to hire them. Focus on results, not their process.

15. Not every conversation needs to be on Zoom.

16. Focus on what I call “The Proximity Challenge”. Most managers tend to delegate plum assignments to those who are nearby. Avoid this trap.

17. Tell them how you prefer to be communicated with – what medium, when times and how. Ask them the same thing.

7 Ways to Tell If You Have the Right Leaders on Your Team

Before I design a leadership development program for a client, I meet with the CEO or business owner. I ask them questions to discover if the management team is capable and competent – as leaders. 

In any business, success is almost entirely predicated upon great (or at a minimum, good) leaders of people. Weak management teams are easy to spot if you know what you’re looking for. And they’re present in every organization. Managers have that title for many reasons. They may have been the hardest worker, kissed the most ass, or been the best salesperson. But none of those attributes mean anything when it comes to leadership. That’s why leadership development exists.

A major reason businesses aren’t successful is due to ineffective line managers. With rare exceptions, most businesses have what I call an “Uneven Leadership Team”. Meaning some managers are more effective than others. This is the rule, not the exception.

So after nearly 30 years in leadership, how do I know if you have the right leaders on your team?

1. You’re Not in the Weeds. The number of C-level execs I speak with who spend time on minutiae is amazing. Think about the primary role of line leaders. It’s to eliminate the day-to-day responsibilities of the business owner or executive. Do you spend your time on issues like customer complaints or employee relations problems? If so, you likely don’t have the right leaders in place.

2. Your various departments and/or locations run consistently. When a branch office or a specific department isn’t performing well, it’s usually a management issue. Uneven management is more common than you might think. It causes friction, creates jealousy among employees, and generates headaches for you.

3. Employee Turnover is Low. I don’t define good/bad turnover in terms of percentages; there are too many variables. Retail and restaurants tend to have high turnover, for example. And the state of the economy can cause turnover to raise and fall everywhere. So simply stated: is your turnover acceptable to you? Or are you losing valuable employees every year?

4. You’re Never Wondering: “Did it Get Done?” When you delegate or assign tasks, do you find yourself asking, “Did that ever got done?” Or are you confident and assured that things get done without you having to check in all the time? The mark of a good leader is they handle problems before they escalate, and they get things done.

5. Things Run Smoothly When You’re Not There. One of my favorite leadership stories is when I learned how to delegate. I was a line manager, and every Friday seemed to be Complaint Day. Frustrated, my boss’ solution was to have me take a Friday and go to the beach. On Monday, I was dreading the inevitable pile of complaints but to my surprise, there were none. My team had handled them all.

How long are you comfortable being completely out of touch with your office? (Is it a week, a day, or a couple of hours?) The quality of your leadership team predicts your answer. As my Coach Dan Sullivan says, the mark of a great executive (you) is the ability to have a Self-Managing Company.

6. You’re Spending Your Time Doing What You Love. My definition of professional success is the ability to do what I want to do, not what I have to do. How about you? How much time at work do you spend doing the things you enjoy doing? The more time you spend in this area, the more competent your leadership team is. I guarantee it.

7. Employee complaints are low and enthusiasm genuine. There are certain things a manager can’t control. But they control a lot in a business, and a major symptom of good managers is happy employees. Happy employees tend to be positive. They don’t file lawsuits; workers’ compensation claims or grumble about minor issues. They’re not looking for another job. They’re happy and feel well compensated in their job and the company they work for.

Beware, though: when you’re a leader, people tell you what you think you want to hear. So when I ask a CEO, “Are your employees happy?” and they reply, “Yes.” My follow up is always, “How do you know?”

It’s always a good time to re-evaluate your management team. What are you missing? What could be better? Is it a training issue, or is it time to make changes? Nothing is permanent. The performance of managers and leaders must be judged not only on what they do, but how well they lead.

Letter to Leaders – April 2021

Are we there yet?

We’re getting there. On the day that I’m writing this (April 3) the United States vaccinated 4 million people. Now, whether you believe in vaccines or not, this is a giant step closer to whatever-it-is it’s going to be in The New Normal. My wife and I got our first vaccines this week, and we spent the rest of the afternoon saying “Happy Vaccination Day!”

I felt a definite sense of closure driving home after the vaccine shot.

But in the meantime…back to the wall, which many of us have hit.

Burnout is definitely here. The New York Times reports that 34% of employees feel burned out. People say they’re less productive, less engaged, and that they don’t feel as successful.

And we’re the lucky ones! We have jobs! We have our health!

Those benefits were good enough for the first twelve months, but (at least, for me) it’s not good enough for now.

I want me team around me.

I want to feel progress.

I want to stop forgetting what I was doing….all the time.

I want to regain the adrenaline when I speak in front of live audiences (trust me, it’s not the same speaking in front of a bunch of faces on my monitor, even though I love all of you).

There’s a psychological condition called Anhedonia. A noted psychologist says it’s kind of liking looking and feeling like Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh. The physical  allegations aside, I can relate. I’ve recently been meditating twice a day, in addition to taking a 30-minute nap.

But. There are non-medical solutions, led by “do something different”. Last month, I drove to the homes of each of my employees. I got to a house, then called them, telling them I was outside. (Needless to say, they were surprised and a couple of them took quite a bit of convincing I was actually there). I gave them a gift card and thanked them for their work.

It did way more good for me than them. I hadn’t seen any of them in person for over a year. It felt good to connect—even for a couple of minutes.

We’re so close to the end. Don’t give up now.

Letter to Leaders – March 2021

I have a client that I’m close to (we’ll leave it at that).

Last month, they asked us for immediate help. A job opening they’d been trying to fill had garnered 8 resumes in three months. Each candidate wasn’t qualified for a fairly senior role.

“Can you help us immediately find someone?”

So my team put together several action steps to increase incoming resumes. I also decided to interview three people at the company who either have, or had, the same job.

(In case you didn’t know, adding videos always increases attention —especially on job posts).

I recorded a Zoom call with each of them. It was like a job interview; I asked their professional background and what the position was like. They also talked about the company culture. Their point-of-view is powerful, because it doesn’t come from HR or the hiring manager.

We turned the three videos around in 24 hours. We did basic editing, added graphics, and an introduction. I was proud of my team. It was immediate, powerful but—like many Zoom videos—not perfect. Some of the videos were fuzzy, the backgrounds weren’t the best, etc. But they were finished. And finished in record time.

The next day, one of senior executives decided they weren’t quite good enough. He told me they’d re-do the videos on their own. I wished him well.

Those videos, a month later, still aren’t done. Not coincidentally, the position is not close to being filled.

There are lessons for every leader in this:

  • Curb your perfectionism. Perfectionism is one of the biggest obstacles to getting things done. Sometimes (actually, many times) very good is better than nothing at all. Anything we do can be better. But if you fall into that trap, you’ll fail.
  • At most businesses, it’s 10x harder to get to ‘yes’; than ‘no’. In this company’s case, it takes the vote of each of the top 10 executive to say “yes”. But any individual executive can say “no”. When it’s easier to get to a “no” than a “yes”, the victims will be agility, creativity and progress.

Make sure you’re a leader who recognizes the importance of very good. Perfectionism has its place—but none of us are brain surgeons or nuclear scientists. We’re leaders, charged with progress, growth, culture.

And if you’re a CEO, business owner, or the lead in any business, re-think who can say “no” or “yes”. Without question, saying yes takes courage. If you say no, there’s zero chance you’ll ever get criticized or blame.

But fear of failure is not what leadership is about, is it?

Nine Tips For Recruiting on LinkedIn

Many small and mid-sized businesses are struggling with trying to find and hire employees. Moreover, those same businesses don’t have the staff to properly develop and manage their company LinkedIn page.

At Symmetry, we aren’t primarily a headhunting firm; we’re an HR Outsourcing company and we occasionally help our clients with search and selection. We’re always amazed to see common mistakes on the most important online website for employers – LinkedIn.

The first thing a candidate researches is your website and then your LI page. if they don’t like what they see, they’re not going to bother applying.

LinkedIn is an essential component in recruiting and hiring employees. Fixing common mistakes is fairly easy and definitely inexpensive. You just need to know what to look for.

Here are the most common mistakes or omissions we see when helping clients develop a more robust employer brand through LinkedIn:

1. The company profile page. Make sure it has the right business name and logo. You’d be surprised how many businesses don’t. If you have a common name (ABC Company) it’s likely there are a number of people who consider themselves your “employees” from throughout North America and Europe. Make sure you have a cool and relevant cover photo as well.

2. Get every employee on the proper company LI page. There are always a number of employees who aren’t connected properly. You can always tell: Go to an employee profile page. To the left of the job title and company should be the proper logo (like mine below).

3. Every key employee should have an updated profile AND an updated picture on their profile. And for goodness’ sakes, when you post a job on LI (or anywhere), make sure all your employees “share” that information with their network. With LI, it’s not really posting the job that will get you lots of candidates; it’s how your employees and network share that with their networks. That’s viral, and that’s important.

4. The “About” section. I’m always amazed when a company’s “about” section contains copy that’s completely outdated. So update it. Start by having this internal discussion: What is a compelling reason a great employee would want to work for you?

5. Post news, promotions, employee anniversaries to increase your visibility. Invite candidates who apply to follow your LI page.

6. Follow your clients, vendors, friends, and network. Get them to follow you back. It’s a lonely feeling when people see you only have 3 followers.

And when you do post for a position on LinkedIn, remember these tips:

7. Write your job post and headline as if you were a marketer. Don’t fall into the HR trap of writing it to comply with some imaginary law. Your primary aim is to get people to read and apply for the position! Make it inviting but realistic. The job title is probably the only thing a candidate will review.

8. Include the salary. There is a myth among many ignorant executives and HR folks that posting a salary causes all sorts of issues among current employees. Well, the opposite is true for candidates. No one is going to take the time to apply if they don’t know what the salary range is up front. (By the way, your employees should know exactly what the range is for every position at your company – it’s called transparency).

9. Add a video, interviewing current employees who have the job or had the job. What’s it like? What do you do? What is the culture? That’s information a candidate wants and needs – especially from people who aren’t the hiring manager.

The message is the medium. Reset your expectations. There is not a lot of talent out there right now. And those employees that are great are being well-paid and are happy in their job. They’re not going to risk a stable good thing right now unless there’s a MAJOR incentive for them to do so. Give that potential candidate the compelling reason.

Letter to Leaders – February 2021

Well, we got through the 13th month of 2020. The transfer of power. The near insurrection. The valiant attempt to vaccinate 330 million people (about 100 million of whom don’t want it). There was another insurrection—of the stock market by the “Revenge of the Nerds.”

It’s hard to think of an establishment that hasn’t been completely overturned in the past couple of years.

So what’s next?

I dislike intensely “experts” who purport to predict the future. The simple truth is—especially now—there’s no way to plan, predict or prepare for the future. What we can do is be flexible enough to navigate the next abrupt change. Because change won’t end; what it will look like is the unknown.

Instead of predicting the future, I thought I’d remember the past. Some people who were part of my past died recently:

· Larry King, the interviewer of the famous and infamous. Each night driving home after a 6-midnight shift as a bartender or waiter, I’d listen to his talk show. “Bethesda, Maryland, Hello.” He took inquisitiveness to another level. He led an amazing life. I used to see him frequently in the past few years when I had breakfast at Nate & Al’s. Everyone who approached him got a warm welcome. He was the same person on camera as off. That’s a pretty good way to be remembered.

· Tommy Lasorda. As a kid growing up in the 70’s in Southern California, he was the man. I moved to Northern California for college in the 1980’s. Wow did Northern Californians hate Tommy. Relentlessly positive, devoutly religious (although how he reconciled that with his incessant cussing was always a question). But his bluster “The Big Dodger in the Sky” belied a strategic master. “Most managers think a couple of innings ahead,” Jay Johnstone once said, “Tommy is always thinking in the middle of next week.” I met him many times over the years: he was exactly the same person in a business suit than on a field.

· Hank Aaron. It was April 1974. I was 11 years old. My family watched the Monday night baseball game when Aaron broke Babe Ruth’s home run record. I’ll never forget it. I was unaware then of the racial slurs and death threats Aaron faced, and was only dimly aware of the courage he showed. The man was class personified. And he made the life path easier for tens of thousands of Black people everywhere.

The Best of Television 2020 (6-1)

After revealing numbers 7 through 12, it’s time for Eric’s Top 6 TV Shows I Saw in 2020…

(I know not all these shows first aired in 2020; it’s that 2020 was the year I finally got around to watching them this year!)

6. Killing Eve – Hulu/BBC America/AMC

I concede that Season 3 of Killing Eve is a bit of a comedown from Season 2, which in itself was a bit of a comedown from Season 1. But that doesn’t make this show any less compelling or fun to watch. And if you haven’t seen it at all, time to watch.

It’s a cat-and-mouse thriller involving an international assassin (Jodie Comer) and a MI5 detective (Sandra Oh). Oh connects a string of murders throughout Europe to Comer, and the game begins (with plenty of twists, turns, and unexpected murders).

At its best, Killing Eve is an original, daring, witty and jaw-dropping thriller. Comer seems to have owned the Emmy award the last couple of years for her Villanelle. Comer’s great but the writing and  are what stand out to me. And it’s original it’s about time an assassin and detective should both be female. 

And Killing Eve is courageous. There’s a most unusual willingness to murder major characters. You’re always guessing, never sure, as a viewer.

We are always a bit off balance watching the run of the show. Will she or won’t she. And it appears there isn’t anything she won’t do.

Like all the shows on my list – Killing Eve is addictive. Just when you think, “they can’t do that” – they do.

5. Homeland – Showtime

I’m not sure there’s ever been a series that, over time, is uneven as Homeland. I doubt it was ever intended to be more than a 2-season series (but what a two years they were). Then some good seasons and some – meh – not so good seasons.

I started watching the show from the beginning in 2011. There were often long delays between seasons, and some of them weren’t worth the wait.

But then came the final season – number 8 – which began in February and ended in April 2020. And Season 8 more than made up for the past five or so years. I’m so glad I didn’t write it off.

If you don’t know the show – it follows a brilliant, bi-polar CIA Officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes). Mathison navigates between making brilliant deductions and equally horrible personal choices.

From Washington to Iran and Germany to Israel, Homeland international storylines are about saving the world, or not.

But Season 8 brings it all together. Carrie and her long-time mentor Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin) are in a true no-win situation. Pakistan has a nuke and won’t hesitate to use it on nearby American troops. Russia holds the key to the solution, but demands a huge sacrifice of the Americans. And the American President is in completely over his head and held sway by a Svengali who has his own agenda.

Homeland has always followed world events eerily and accurately. The breakneck pace of plot is never more evident than this year.

Lots of actors roll through the series, but at the core was always Carrie and Saul. Danes and Patinkin are perfect. No one does a lower-lip quiver better than Danes. She’s haunted. Patinkin’s Saul could be his best performance ever. And yep, in 1979, I saw him perform Che in “Evita”).

You’re convinced there’s a logical conclusion (a direction the writers want you to take) to the series. But it ends with a roller coaster of shock, disbelief and then a final scene that is inevitable. I’ll miss Homeland, but they ended the series in the best way possible. Most series can never say that.

4. Normal People – Hulu

There hasn’t been much criticism of Normal People. What little there is complains the series doesn’t meticulously follow Sally Rooney’s novel.

I didn’t read the novel. I didn’t need to and neither do you. And if you’re staying away because it’s a millennial coming-of-age story, don’t stay away. This is a beautifully wrought classic; a story about growing up.

Normal People follows two high schoolers in Ireland. There’s Marianne, an social outcast from a wealthy family. And Connell, who has his act together but no money (his mother cleans house for Marianne’s family).

They connect (literally and physically), and the series follows their relationship through college. They’re together, then not. With other people, then back together. But always friends.

Normal People overcomes every possible stereotype through its fantastic writing and cinematography. The haunting, spare soundtrack lets us know we’re in this with them.

And “them”. What casting. Daisy Edgar-Jones is simply radiant. In the final episode, there’s a flashback to her high schooler to a beautiful college graduate. It’s shocking; the transformation is stunning. Even though the series was filmed in a few months, Marianne looks five years older. It’s not just makeup; it’s acting.

Mark my words: Edgar-Jones is going to be a major star soon. Paul Mescal doesn’t even need to talk. His emotions and feelings are plain to see on his expressive face. Mescal understands the impact of underacting.

There’s talk of a Season 2, and I hope that isn’t true. This was near perfect television; it won’t improve in future seasons.

3. The Crown – Netflix

It’s somewhat unoriginal of me to put The Crown at number three; it’s at or near the top of every “best of” list.

But there’s a reason for that. The Crown is so sumptuous, so ambitious, and so laden with acting talent it can’t be ignored.

Three women dominate Season 4: the Queen (natch) and also Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana.

Their stories are already known and don’t need repeating. We know Diana had an unhappy marriage to Charles and that Thatcher was “The Iron Lady”. But The Crown explores in detail why the marriage was unhappy. And Thatcher’s bumpy, awkward relationship with the Queen is uncomfortably funny.

Or do we? Much has been made of whether everything in “The Crown” actually happened? After all, how do we know what Charles and Diana said to each other in private? Or if Thatcher really was imperious in her meetings with the Queen?

It doesn’t matter. It’s great storytelling; it’s fascinating, and it’s compelling.

It pulls no punches: we see Diana vomiting during her periods of bulimia. The royal family (including the Queen and Queen Mother) plays drinking games in front of an astonished Thatcher.

It’s rumored The Crown cost Netflix $130 million to make over the anticipated six-year run. You see every cent of it on the screen, from the costumes, scenery, and CGI effects. And by now you’d think the UK would run out of good actors for The Crown. They haven’t so far, although Americans Gillian Anderson as Thatcher and John Lithgow as Churchill are notable exceptions.

Maybe it’s that I respect “The Crown” more than anything else. Whatever. It works for me.

2. Succession – HBO

You have to be patient with Succession. Many people I’ve recommended it to can’t get through the first six or so episodes. I understand; I barely made it through. But the series finds its footing after that, and Season 2 finds it hitting its stride.

Succession follows a Murdoch-like family running a media and entertainment empire. The family tries to figure out who does what with an aging, but still wily, patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox). Kind of a thin premise, but the plot ultimately delivers and in a big way.

One of the reasons it’s hard to like Succession is because there’s not one likable character in the bunch. Family, business associates, hangers on – no one is likable. When you find a redeeming character, he or she does something so reprehensible that you want to throw your slipper at the screen.

But then, slowly and surely, Succession envelopes you. You start understanding the characters and why they are who they are. Then the plot thickens. We find ourselves rooting for things to happen one way or the other. There are more evil families than the Roys. And every decision comes with unexpected consequences.

No family member is good enough for Logan, and they’re all damaged as a result. One son gave up everything to live in New Mexico with his ex-hooker girlfriend. The number two son is brilliant, awkward and a recovering drug addict. When he asks his father – finally – why he didn’t get the #1 job, Logan looks at him sadly and says, “because you’re not a killer.”

It’s that kind of show. Plus billionaire porn: castles, mansions, cars, yachts (WHAT a yacht). And truly some original casting and acting. Any of the major characters could have won an Emmy (it turns out Jeremy Strong, who plays the #2 son, got it if for no other reason than this scene.)

There’s some good news. It turns out that – at least in the world of Succession – billionaire families are as dysfunctional as the rest of us.

1. Broadchurch – Netflix

OK, so the series ended in 2017. Well, I didn’t get around to watching it until 2020. Sue me. Broadchurch is the best television I saw.

Broadchurch is a British serial crime drama set in a fictional, picturesque English town. It focuses on police detectives Alec Hardy (David Tennant) and Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman).

It begins with the death of a local boy, Danny Latimer. Then turns its attention on the impact of grief, mutual suspicion and media attention on the town. Miller’s best friend is Danny’s mother. Together, Hardy and Miller try to track down the killer among many likely suspects. The killer? Someone you’d never suspect; a true jawdropper.

It’s well-written as you’d expect. The cinematography creates a character out of the actual town. Broadchurch redefines your expectations of the crime drama.

Character after character is developed, nuanced and acted beautifully. They’re real people placed in circumstances no one should have to go.

At the end, the show revolves around Hardy and Miller. Tennant is a wondrous stage actor and a former Doctor Who. Colman has gone on to play Queen Elizabeth in The Crown and is now one of Britain’s great actresses. It’s an awkward but ultimately trusting relationship. They inhabit their characters with simple authenticity.

Those who have seen Broadchurch will understand: I’ll greatly miss hearing Tennant’s Scottish accent yell out, “Mill-ah!”


Other shows I watched this year but didn’t make the list: Two wonderful series that finished too long ago to be relevant for the list: Breaking Bad, The Office (yes, we finally saw them). Also saw the entire series runs of Bosch, Modern Love, The Widow, Truth Be Told, Jack Ryan, The Loudest Voice in the Room, and The Undoing.