As revealed in Netflix’s new documentary, ‘White Hot: The Rise and Fall of Abercrombie and Fitch’, today’s company is very different from the brand of the 1990s and early 2000s. For more than a decade, Abercrombie and Fitch have been in the process of rebuilding its reputation; this reveals some interesting lessons that we can take away as PR and comms professionals.
In its heyday, Abercrombie & Fitch (Abercrombie) was worth more than $5 billion and had more than 1000 stores worldwide. During this period, the company was led by Mike Jeffries, who once revealed in that now-famous 2006 interview that the company’s marketing strategy was deliberately exclusionary. He only wanted the ‘attractive’, ‘cool kids’ wearing Abercrombie. If we look a little deeper, we see that this was not merely a surface level PR strategy – you want what you can’t have, right? Instead, racist and exclusionary policies were embedded within the company’s culture. While these policies once appeared to benefit Abercrombie, as attitudes changed, they quickly eroded the company’s reputation, which has had a fundamental impact on the business’s long-term growth.
The question is; what can the demise of Abercrombie teach us about the importance of managing your company’s reputation?
As the company’s figurehead, the CEO will always have a significant impact on the reputation of your company – both positive and negative! The former CEO of Abercrombie, Mike Jeffries, who once led the brand’s revival, would ultimately become its biggest liability. Jeffries was known for his bold ideas and commitment to the brand. However, he was also uncompromising, unorthodox, and did not take criticism well.
While Jeffries has long since left the company, Abercrombie is still working to ameliorate the damage caused by his tenure as CEO. Ultimately, Jeffries should not have been left to manage the company for so long. That being said, the current CEO, Fran Horowitz, has been working hard to ensure that the company is accountable for past mistakes. In a statement to CNN, Horowitz said, “we own and validate that there were exclusionary and inappropriate actions under former leadership,” adding that the company is now “a place of belonging”.
While the company has a long way to go, the importance of leadership accountability is evident here. Suppose a business fails to hold its leader accountable or recognise when it is time for leadership change. In that case, long-term damage will be inflicted upon the company’s reputation.
As times change, often should a company’s values. Failure to make the necessary changes will eventually impact the reputation of any company. When Jeffries began his tenure as CEO, he built the brand upon racist and discriminatory values. These values quickly began to seep into company culture and policies, hiring practices, and even the designs on the clothes.
In 2003, 8 former employees sued Abercrombie for race and sex discrimination. Without admitting any guilt, the company settled and was required to pay $40 million and sign a decree to change its practices and promote diversity.
For a while, the company continued to get away with its discriminatory practices. However, these days consumers value and expect brands to promote diversity and inclusion. Abercrombie failed to move with the times, which meant that as attitudes changed, the brand became toxic, and their failure to own up to past mistakes came back to haunt them. Companies should continually audit their values and policies to ensure that they are promoting diversity and inclusion and that they are not breaking the law, for that matter!
The demise of Abercrombie from a multi-billion dollar brand to a disgraced clothing company can teach us a few things about managing your company’s reputation:
The past few weeks must have been pretty stormy in the KPMG comms team. KPMG’s ex-chairman, Bill Michael, recently came under fire for making controversial remarks about his employees “playing the victim card” and “moaning” about their circumstances during the lockdown. The comms team reacted fast and the organisation was quick to make changes – and communicate them well! However, it’s unfortunate that most of the damage took place in a matter of days as Michael’s story trial was analysed and scrutinised by the media in no time at all. It’s clear that there is a lot of work to be done with repairing KPMG’s damaged reputation and the comms teams are more than likely sorting it as we speak, but what would you do if this happened to your organisation?
Of course, this question may feel like nothing more than hypothetical but getting stuck in these kinds of dilemmas isn’t as far away as you may want to believe. It could be something as simple as a video leaking of your CEO or Senior Director saying something in private that goes against the company vision or values. It could be a spokesperson retweeting something without fully understanding the implications. Or even just someone forgetting to change from their social media account to their personal account and tweeting something inappropriate from the company feed. It may seem unlikely, but these things have happened countless times before. Cast your mind back to 2017 when Uber’s founder Travis Kalanic’s argument with a driver was leaked – it cost him his job and a hit to his reputation. We’ve explored this further in our Reputation Shapers guide that you can access here.
There is no doubt that an over-exuberant or insensitive leader somewhere will make mistakes again, and there is so much being written right now about leading with empathy. But, how can you prevent this from happening in the first place and protect your organisation if the heavens open and you find yourself in the middle of a communications storm? Here are three tips to help with weathering the storm:
Take time to train
Just because someone is a good speaker doesn’t necessarily mean that they are ready to speak to the world. It is so important that senior teams are trained and fully briefed before stepping into the media limelight. And it’s not just about knowing how to speak well with the media, it’s about knowing how to stay on message and communicate appropriately. Similarly, it’s important to know what kind of person they are. Are they likely to lose their temper? Are they stubborn? If so, these things could become an issue and understanding what they may need and supporting them is equally as important.
Remember, it’s not just the media we have to be prepared for. The drama with KPMG stemmed from an internal discussion at a town hall, Uber’s issues arose from a leaked conversation with an employee and countless figureheads have been cancelled on social media for speaking out of turn. Just like the timeless saying goes: Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
Staying calm in a crisis
Being in a crisis, regardless of the situation, is a stressful ordeal for anyone to face but being prepared for it makes the experience a bit more palatable. With any media-related plans that have even the slightest possibility of turning sour, your comms teams must be prepared for a crisis situation.
If you aren’t prepared and something has come up to bite you, much like the KPMG comms team must have felt recently, the first step is to pause and understand just how damaging this is. Knowing what you are working with will help to rationalise the next steps and understand how much help and support you may need. This can also help to understand how rapid your response should be. Jumping on the issue too soon could make it seem insincere but leaving it too late leaves time for speculation to occur.
Secondly, what is the best way to communicate your response? Is it sending a press release, or holding a press conference? Or even just focusing on one interview to clear the person’s name? Whatever is the best practice for the situation, stick with that and follow it through until the end. Depending on the scenario, actions may be your next step. When looking at KPMG, the cultural lack of awareness might not end with the removal of the chairman but it’s a start – this needs to be followed up with proactive action from the company to get their reputation back on track to prove to their people, clients and the outside world that they are doing things to actively improve these situations.
Finally, ensure you are monitoring the situation and staying on your toes. Just because the news cycle is over, doesn’t mean it won’t come back to bite you!
Crystal clear communications
The vocabulary we use to communicate is just as important as the way we communicate. An easy way to ensure the right language is used is by accurately preparing for communications – this can be through detailed briefing documents with sections that focus on topics and phrases to actively avoid, or in-person training sessions. Granted, pressure or nerves may get in the way, and that cannot be helped, but giving support and practising should help to avoid potential mishaps.
The only thing worse than saying the wrong thing is saying nothing at all. When faced with a difficult question, it may feel safer to say “no comment” or divert from the question itself but this can be just as damaging. Recently, Matt Hancock came under fire from Piers Morgan on This Morning following the free school meals scandal. Instead of answering the question, Hancock merely recited the “safe” phrases and unsurprisingly, the interview spread like wildfire. Should his comms team have been prepared for this question? Absolutely! But communications can be unpredictable and with the power of social media, one foot in the wrong direction can become a crisis in a matter of minutes.
Getting it right with communications is tough – the world is unpredictable and what grabs people’s attention is changing every day. As comms professionals, we must ensure that we are prepared for all outcomes, good and bad. These tips will help you to prepare your teams and leaders for communications gone bad but sometimes it helps to get an outsider to help. We run workshops and personal coaching programmes that can help with these issues and prevent them before they arise – you can read more about our services and offerings here.
The news this month that Jeff Bezos is stepping down as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Amazon has shocked many. After leading the company for more than a quarter of a century, he will now vacate the role and become Executive Chair.
His replacement? The somewhat unknown Andy Jassy. Well, I say unknown – to anyone who follows Amazon Web Services (AWS), he is anything but. Jassy is credited with building AWS to become the cloud juggernaut it is today.
Jassy is incredibly astute, strategic, and effective. With 24 years’ experience at Amazon, he also knows and aligns with Bezos’ vision. Perhaps more importantly, he also offers a clean slate for Amazon’s communications team.
Bezos has been a love-hate figure for the last decade. To some, he’s the definition of success. To others, he represents everything wrong with capitalism and the growing wealth divide. Over the past few years especially, his quest for growth has faced increasing criticism. His reputation has been especially damaged by claims of wealth hoarding. This is at a time when Amazon warehouse staff are allegedly working in very poor conditions.
Jassy, on the other hand, is not burdened by these issues. The average person doesn’t know who he is, let alone have a perception of him. With effective executive communications, Jassy really can be the figure that Bezos never was. Amazon’s comms team is probably relishing shaping Jassy’s reputation. I would be.
I’m interested in seeing how visible Jassy will be. His time leading AWS has been more behind the scenes, but that may not be possible as CEO. As the head of Amazon, he’ll be under the same media scrutiny as the other big tech giant CEOs, such as Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook and Tim Cook at Apple.
Often, it was Bezos’ vast wealth that was used as a weapon to demonise him and Amazon. That’s a very unique situation though; Bezos’ wealth was due to him being the biggest shareholder in Amazon. Jassy will have shares, but not on the same scale as his predecessor. And while he’s already worth an estimated $440m, he’ll be the least wealthiest of any tech giant CEO when he takes up the role. You’d think for this reason then that much of the negativity towards Bezos won’t transfer to Jassy.
While Jassy aligns with Bezos on many matters, he’ll know Amazon isn’t perfect. He is his own man and, like every successful CEO, he will run the company how he thinks best. His challenge is to balance growth with tackling the many criticisms Amazon faces. In addition to the warehouse issues, this includes allegations around its environmental record, antitrust, and competition. These topics are increasingly in the media, so will pose a challenge to Jassy’s reputation as the company’s leader.
Given that Amazon continues to grow year-on-year, it would be reasonable to think his reputation as a businessperson is safe in the short-term. And how much of a long-term is there with Jassy at the helm? The average lifespan of a CEO is five years. If Jassy were to double that, he’d be 63 by the time he steps down. The average age when CEOs step down is 62 years old.
The most important factor in the reputation that Jassy develops, then, is around those troublesome factors mentioned above. Working conditions and the environment are the two most significant, in my opinion at least. We will certainly have our eyes on Jassy, assessing how he addresses these challenges and the repercussions on his reputation as CEO. Our recommendation would be to start with his employees, spending time getting the communication right there, and bringing them on-board with his vision for the company. This will then create the right platform to build confidence with investors and customers.
Amazon has taken a more proactive stance on climate change recently. It created a $2bn climate innovation fund last year, for starters. It’s expected to be running on 100% renewable energy by 2025. It’s also making its delivery fleet electric. This green trend will likely continue at Amazon; it doesn’t really have a choice though, considering how consumers are increasingly demanding companies improve their environmental credentials. If this trend does continue, it’s an easy win for Jassy to earn plaudits. The comms team can associate progress on the matter with his leadership, regardless of his level of involvement.
The topic of working conditions, on the other hand, looks like it will continue being a problem. The latest on this is that warehouses are attempting to unionise. Poor public handling of this in coming years could be a banana skin for Jassy. It’s unlikely we’ll see him come in and vow to revolutionise working conditions though. That would be great for his executive communications strategy, but it would add legitimacy to allegations that Amazon currently rejects. It would also create new costs and liabilities for the company if they changed their operations, which would affect the bottom line. I suspect he’ll be distanced from this topic in public, even if he’s involved behind the scenes.
It’s important to remember that Jassy is joining Amazon off the back of its best ever year. He isn’t taking on the role as fire fighter or saviour. His brief will be “onwards and upwards”. For this reason, it would be surprising if we saw major changes at Amazon.
It will continue as the behemoth it is now, with a safe and ever-growing market share. But I really do think Amazon has an opportunity to position Jassy as a CEO who moves the company forward reputationally. Good executive communications will be critical to achieving that. I’m excited to see how it all plays out.
I don’t think I’m wrong in thinking that many of us are very much looking forward to saying farewell, au revoir and auf wiedersehen to 2020. It has been quite the turbulent year, to say the least, and I’m sure almost people are exhausted and ready for the Christmas break. With vaccines preparing to be rolled out, 2021 is already starting to look more hopeful and ‘normality’ may actually start to return.
Whilst we’ll be quite glad to see the back of this year, we shouldn’t totally forget it. We’ve seen a lot of great things come out of 2020 that had a real impact on lives and society – from the generosity of people and companies offering their money and support to those in need, to finding a better work life balance through remote working –, so it’s not all been doom and gloom.
Here at Firefly, we have had many moments of inspiration throughout the year. If anything, the whirlwind of 2020 got us talking, debating and sharing so much more, with lots of great new ideas and reflections in the comms space. Launching Reputation Shapers was most definitely a highlight for us – more on that below! With every crisis comes creativity, new thinking and differing outlooks on life, and so I wanted to share some of our best pieces of content.
We look forward to writing more inspiring and thought-provoking content in 2021 and continuing to shape the reputation of tech-driven companies. Bring it on!
It seems like a lifetime ago that we saw a wave of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ memes sweeping the UK. However, many of the communications from Boris Johnson and the Queen have had a decidedly wartime tone, so it seems fitting to bring them back into the spotlight again.
During the ‘Great Pause’ we’ve ‘Kept Calm’, and now there are mutterings of ‘A Gradual Return’ which won’t be big and won’t be fast. The worst thing that you can do is ‘Carry On’ as you were, and pretend that nothing changed.
Because at the risk of sounding like one of the glib ‘experts’, a lot has changed, and perhaps most importantly, people have changed. On the flip side, change is stressful, and people hate uncertainty, so many communications leaders (and I daresay our PM is included in this group) have been struggling to strike a balance between keeping plans flexible and presenting a stable vision of the future.
So how can (and should) you change your plans and recast your thoughts, being mindful of everything that has happened? It would be wrong of me to offer ‘concrete’ answers, because every single person’s experience will be different, and every organisation has adapted in varying degrees – but at the same time, we’re also conscious that during stressful times, it can be hard to see the big picture, so here are some prompts to help you keep your thinking straight.
Planning from the End
Boris Johnson’s announcement on the 10th of May left a lot of room for manoeuvring, especially if the UK sees a ‘second spike’. However, with the news that some of the technology giants will be working from home until Christmas, it’s fair to say that it’ll be at least Q4 before we see a return to anything resembling what we’d usually call normal.
However, this does give us a firm timeline; marketing and communications staff should plan for a linear return to (a new) normal over this period. Of course, there will be spikes and dips – especially if or when we see another outbreak – but you can plan for that too.
And before you think of what to communicate, it’s important to think of who you’re communicating with. To help keep your thoughts in order, here are a few starters for ten.
Your staff and partners are the single most important group to communicate with, and they will have had a very broad base of experiences during lockdown. From parents caring for children, to new recruits working in small flats, everyone has been managing differently. However, there are a few constants in what they’ll be looking for.
– Clarity: Although government guidance may be less than crystal clear, there’s still time – and a need – to give concise, well-reasoned guidance to staff about working patterns, support during work hours, and an anticipated timeline for any changes. With the furlough scheme potentially extended until September, now is the time to plan how to communicate with staff, as well as making sure that non-furloughed employees understand where they stand, and also feel appreciated.
– Plan from the end: You also need to plan back from the end of the lockdown; as my colleague Charlotte said in her ‘Communicators dealing with Sudden Change’ Playbook, people might not remember what you did, but they’ll remember how you made them feel. Were you inspiring, honest and did you treat them fairly? Or were you indecisive, secretive and sneaky? How will your current communication plans make them feel – and how do you need to plan for this? It’s perfectly acceptable to be firm and fair, but do be realistic: you may need a plan for re-hiring if a number of staff decide to leave, for example.
Customers, Prospects and Partners:
Covid-19 will undoubtedly have affected your customers, whether that’s the general public or other businesses. Unless you’re the likes of Zoom or a hand sanitiser manufacturer, experts like Sir Martin Sorrell have advised that you can’t ‘spend [on advertising] your way out of a recession’. Similarly, a number of pieces of research have suggested that whilst consumers don’t want brands to stop advertising during this time, they do want brands to be more sensitive to their needs – in some cases, switching to advice and wellbeing messages, rather than offers and promotions. With that in mind, it’s important to consider:
– New priorities: Many customers will have shifted to what’s truly important – for example, essentials and products that can be used at home, like family technology, loungewear and indoor sports equipment. It’s important to remember that this won’t last forever, but making it easy for customers to find what they need will absolutely be remembered post-Covid.
– Content consumption: Customers may well have changed how they consume content – for example, not many of us are commuting past billboards anymore! At the same time, with general stress levels higher than before, it’s important to be concise, clear, and unless it’s constructive and necessary, not present overly negative views – we’ve all heard them on the news and social channels!
– Reassurance: Many customers, prospects and investors will also want to know that if they’re buying from you – whether it’s products or shares – that you’re a stable provider. What has Covid-19 done to your 3-year plan, for example? Does your company roadmap still feature the key products and services that you promised last year? Is your company financially stable, and what are your ambitions? Staff may be blindsided by these questions during sales or marketing meetings, so it’s important to be prepared for them.
Where do we go now?
Coronavirus has meant a significant rethinking of business plans and processes, but now that a phased return to ‘normal’ is in sight, it’s time for you to keep calm and to get back to planning, working out what your phased return to normal will look like.
And whatever you do, remember our two principles of good communications during Covid-19 – be kind, and remove uncertainty where you can. If your communication ticks these two boxes, you’re safe to proceed, but if not, it might just need a fresh pair of eyes or (better yet) a fresh brain.
We have a wealth of assets that can help you set out your communications plan, whatever the audience. So regardless of the audience and the changes you’ve been through, we’ve got you covered – and if you’d like to discuss further how you can keep calm and carry on (differently) please don’t hesitate to get in touch with us on firstname.lastname@example.org.
It’s a tired trope; a new set of company values, trotted out by the senior management team at an all-hands meeting and posted up around the office, the corners gently curling over time, extra letters added to certain words by the office joker. Values often smack of ‘do as I do’-ism, with few senior staff paying them little more than lip service after the first week – or worse, being used as a stick to berate employees when they don’t perform well.
Company values are certainly being tested right now; it’s a difficult time for everyone. But why do so many company values fail? And are they worth holding onto at all?
Take a stand
First and foremost, I do believe that company values are worth keeping. I believe that their failure is more often than not a failure of execution, planning and responsibility, rather than an inherent failing in the values themselves.
The USP of a company is something that can and should influence everything that it says and does. For example, as of March 2020, Primark still does not have an online shop. The brand is all about browsing, buying in volume, and the in-store experience. Ikea’s brand experience is all about affordability, the inescapable nature of its store layouts, friendly staff and great meatballs.
If your brand has a USP – and I do hope it does – then values are a natural extension of this. For example, one of Ikea’s values is cost-consciousness. I’d challenge you to tell the difference between a piece of furniture bought from Argos and one bought from Ikea (Billy shelves aside!) – but the experience of going into a store, or even buying on the two websites is radically different. This difference percolates through from a company’s USP, from its strategy, and ultimately, from its people.
And as Ed Catmull, formerly of Pixar, says in his book Creativity Inc, your company will have a culture whether you like it or not; your only choice is whether or not to be involved in setting it!
Company values are no different – your staff will behave as they see fit, and in the ways dictated and demonstrated by their managers, and their managers in turn. The CEO who walked on-stage at an all-hands meeting brandishing a paintball gun (true story!) and told staff “I could shoot you right now, but I don’t need to – you work for me, I own you” says far more about company values than any poster put up by the HR team. Chris Pearse, author of the Broken CEO, says that behaviour trumps values every time, but I’d say this is a point of semantics. Your behaviour is your values – or to get biblical about it ‘faith without works is dead’.
Doing the Right Thing
Values spread from the top, but also from the bottom. So whilst a key part of a successful company values programme is making sure that your leadership team lives and breathes the values, making sure that your HR team is hiring in line with your values is also crucial. After all, it’s a relatively straightforward matter to teach skills to a new hire – it’s much harder to teach the right attitude.
This makes it absolutely key that hiring teams understand the attitudes, behaviours and approaches that candidates have, and making sure that they match what the company stands for. Having to send an employee on a training course is an easy feat – correcting cultural conflict and tension is not.
As well as being desirable traits, a statement of values is essentially a permission document. Like the laws of a country, it gives employees permission to do something – or not to do it. If one of your company values is ‘brave’, for example, then you shouldn’t reprimand staff for trying new things.
Of course, it’s also important to apply a little human common sense to values. There will be times when it’s not appropriate to uphold a particular company value – or times when they conflict in a given situation. It would be all too easy, for example, for our Firefly company values of ‘determined’ and ‘team spirited’ to clash, as we drive each other mad with a fanatical devotion to one challenge or another. Again, those who take values rigidly or as an excuse to beat employees over the head will generally find them not being upheld!
Tying it all up
In short, a good set of values creates an ethos, a feeling, a set of behavioural permissions, similar to a vision and mission statement. We love Showpad’s mantra of being ‘good natured ass kickers’ – and its values reflect this, including humility, simplicity, togetherness and diversity, to name but a few. It’s an expression of company intent.
After all, as I’ve said, there are many companies doing the same thing, making the same thing, offering the same service today. What makes each one stand out is not only its brand, style and reputation, but how its employees conduct themselves. Can you imagine ordering a pristine new iPhone, only to find that it’d been hastily thrown into its box, rather than being the minimalist, joyous un-boxing experience that we all expect today? That’s a matter of staff behaviour – and staff behaviour is a matter of values, whether you choose to get involved in them or not.
If you need help establishing your company values, Firefly runs a series of workshops helping leaders and communications teams in understanding their own history, purpose, vision, mission and values – as well as how to communicate this and ‘walk the talk’. For more information, please contact email@example.com
When you think about successful and well-known leaders in the business world, which words spring to mind? How about strong? Decisive? Innovative? Disruptive? How about wealthy or unscrupulous?
What about ‘kind’? Did that make the top ten – or even the top twenty?
In our experience, kindness is rarely seen as a positive attribute for a leader. Despite an increasingly woke business world, where there’s a growing focus on sustainability and transparency, simple kindness is still often dismissed as a ‘nice to have’ that organisations just can’t afford or don’t prioritise.
Let’s unpack that a bit more, because as a human, there seems to be something wrong here. Why isn’t kindness desirable in the leadership community?
Show me the money!
It’s a really easy question to answer, and unfortunately, it’s not pretty. More often than not, ‘kind’ can be associated with words like ‘nice’, and if we’re being brutally honest, some see kindness as ‘weak’. There’s often an ‘attitude hangover’ from the eighties, nineties and noughties where leaders model themselves on figures like the Wolf of Wall Street or other characters from fast-talking macho TV shows or cultures.
Similarly, there’s often a feeling that kind people get taken for granted or taken advantage of. The anchor of London Real, Brian Rose, puts it neatly “[that] if we hang out with lower status monkeys, we’re going to go down the tube with them” – as if there’s some kind of contagious ‘neediness’ virus that’ll spread from people who need help to those helping them. When you think about it, this barely makes logical sense – if you’re the one giving, you’re not needy by definition.
That said, there’s little doubt that the business world is a tough place; leaders have to make difficult decisions, conduct disciplinary hearings, make people redundant, get the best deal for the organisation, and stay smart. It’s clear to see why the default path for leadership is often being as cut-throat with your employees as you are with your competitors, but it’s not the only way to be.
Is it possible to be kind and a leader?
It’s a horrible experience to lead a round of redundancies or close a facility, but it’s possible to do it with kindness, treating employees with respect, as humans. Your competitors might profit from ‘dirty deals’ for years – but in the age of transparency, they might also be found out. After all, McDonald’s was completely untouched during the ‘horsemeat scandal’ of 2013, despite reporters’ best efforts to dig up dirt.
Similarly, a CEO can be undermined, even destroyed, by a review on Glassdoor or an allegation of misconduct.
Being kind is a long-term investment in your brand. Geoffrey Colon, Head of Brand Studio at Microsoft Advertising, recently gave a talk at CES, where he mentioned that Satya Nadella is encouraging all Microsoft employees to not only think about what they can do, but what they should do. Essentially his line of thinking was that brands can’t ‘just’ do a good job anymore; they have to serve a long-term purpose and solve a real human problem. This means staying relevant – and perhaps more importantly, staying profitable. This is a serious reputational consideration – and from this perspective, establishing kindness as a corporate value makes serious sense.
It doesn’t mean being weak; quite the opposite. Being kind is often having difficult conversations sooner, but in a fashion that treats your employees like human beings.
To give another example, when Mary Barra became CEO of General Motors in 2014, she had to deal with the recalling of over two million cars after issues resulted in the tragic loss of life. Despite the awful circumstances, Barra communicated with a kindness, respect and presence that firmly established her as one of the greatest leaders in industry today. Most of the press articles covering Mary’s statements at the time begin with her opening comments, which express deep sympathy for the victims, before being candid about the root causes of the issues.
Barra took responsibility. She expressed candid regret, and she explained what she would do to not only address the immediate concerns, but also the systemic problems across GM. Her approach was kind, but it wasn’t easy, and it certainly wasn’t weak.
But Barra wasn’t only a great leader with the big issues; she reputedly changed GM’s entire dress code from a long-winded document to ‘dress appropriately’, treating staff with the trust and respect to make their own decisions.
None of these policies are the sign of a weak, unsuccessful leader. In fact, under Barra’s leadership, GM’s share price has been consistently higher than prior to her joining. Similarly, even the most bullish of leaders – such as Oren Klaff, who trains leaders to pitch to Venture Capitalists – admits that he can be ‘nice’. Opinionated, of course, strong when he needs to be, but still ‘nice’!
Furthermore, a general change is coming; some leaders who established themselves in earlier decades are learning new values or handing over the reins to younger, more woke generations – but it takes time. However, there is evidence that younger generations are calling out antiquated behaviour more often in the ‘OK Boomer’ movement. Admittedly, this isn’t the kindest way to do it, but nonetheless, evidence that there is a significant generational change coming!
In fairness, many kind leaders do exist in older generations – at Firefly we’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the best people in the industry.
Remind me why I should be kind?
There’s really only one reason to be a kind leader: it’s the right thing to do. But if that’s not enough for you, here’s a few other factors to consider.
– According to the University of Warwick, happy people are 12% more productive. In fact, a Google study found that increasing employee support resulted in a 37% rise in employee job satisfaction.
– Satisfied employees stay in their roles, and they work harder. Companies have both ‘character’ reputations (‘do I like you?’) and ‘capability’ reputations (‘are you going to do what you said you’d do?’) and if you erode the former then you’re purely dependent on the latter. This means that people are less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt when your products and services fail – so it’s beneficial to have a good character reputation.
– Applying kindness to the wider business function and environment pays; funds that specialise in clean energy, water and forestry like Pictet Environmental Opportunities have seen a 50% rise in value in the last four years.
– Customers appreciate kindness – and this attitude comes from the top. Ritz Carlton hotels are famous for small but meaningful acts that drive repeat business – again and again.
– Kindness drives return business, engaging customers – and this brings a 23% higher ‘share of wallet’, compared to competitors, according to Gallup research
Get involved, or get out of the C-suite
Not all leaders choose to actively motivate their staff, instead relying on pay and benefits to do that for them but for those that do, it’s often portrayed as a binary choice between the carrot and the stick. In the twenties, it’s not that simple anymore; after all, while a kind, firm, fair leader can motivate staff, they also empower staff to motivate themselves, supporting them, being an ally and an advocate for them. This falls somewhere between the stick and the carrot. [Ed. A ‘stirrot’? No? A ‘carrick’? I’ll stop.]
Either way, kind leadership is a step forward to a better brand of business, one that is more respectful to its employees, its suppliers and the world at large. And in this politically volatile, economically uncertain age, that’s something that we sorely need.
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