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.
Dear Doctor Claire,
My boss doesn’t understand me. He thinks our reputation is alright but that our fizz has gone flat. He says our personality and passion doesn’t shine through. How can we rekindle the flame and sparkle again? Can you help us?
A Concerned Marketeer
You’re not alone. This is a very common PR challenge amongst marketers – it’s very difficult to know where to start.
It’s easy to look at visionaries and high-profile leaders in organisations around the world – Branson, Musk, Bezos, Zuckerberg, to name but a few – and think how effortless their profile looks. But no relationship between a marketer and their boss is ever effortless.
Most CEOs take responsibility for offline vision, culture and driving the company forwards, but sweep the online under the carpet. For all the discussions about social selling, marketing qualified leads and awareness funnels, the place of social media and digital channels in commercial corporate communications is still not yet firmly established.
But here are a few things to consider before setting out on your journey to establish leadership, digital brand personality and start to put the life back into your brand:
– Where are your customers? Social media and digital channels aren’t special. They’re not new anymore. They provide another channel for communicating with prospects and customers. So if there’s a big group of CIOs on Twitter and you’re an IT brand, the face of the company should be too. If there are lots of stay-at-home mums on Instagram and you’re a cookery brand aimed at this group, you should get on there right now. You should also make sure that you’re relating to potential customers on both business and personal levels – and this often means blogging and tweeting about personal interests and relating to prospects outside of business hours. But all good senior executives know: being a leader isn’t just a nine to five job.
– Isn’t developing a digital brand personality really time-consuming? It can be. But if approached strategically, it can make a real difference, allowing people to engage with CEOs, give the brand personality and reach prospect groups in a way which shows how your company is different. After all, social media should be used like any other communications and marketing tool: in a targeted, strategic fashion. Occasionally CEOs will dismiss social media as ‘frivolous’ – and there’s no doubt that it can be – we’d never ask John Chambers to spend time posting his holiday snaps on Instagram, for example. However, you need to look at it more as a serious engagement tool to show off your company and talk to prospects.
– Help! I don’t trust my senior execs not to put their foot in it: We’ve all seen disastrous posts from senior staff admitting their views on anything and everything and generally portraying the company in a bad light. Make no mistake: whilst you can delete social media posts, the chances are that someone will have seen it and taken a screenshot. Your executives – whether that’s a brand evangelist, the CEO or the chairman of the board – are the public faces of the company, and there’s little difference between them getting drunk and making a scene at a customer event and posting a bad post on Twitter (although bad tweets can go a lot further than a bar). It’s a real risk – and our responsibility as communications professionals to consult and mitigate this risk.
– We don’t have an online business: You’re in a rare position. But let’s be honest – you might not have an online business, but the chances are, someone is talking about you online, affecting your reputation and commercial prospects. In all honesty, it’s been a while since the online and physical world were considered separate; but digital is just another channel. A few obvious exceptions aside, it’s a bit like arguing that a major tech company shouldn’t sell through resellers as well as directly – it’s just another route to your audience and the market.
– Is there a risk of spreading their name too thinly? Every time your senior executives tweet, post a blog or a LinkedIn post with a link, they increase the possibility of someone clicking through to your company website – which is a good thing. But of course, if you read our latest blog on Google’s Panda algorithm update, just having them spam out tweets with links will actually harm your brand – both from a prospect and SEO perspective. Limit networks and content to relevant channels, avoid overt sales pitches and provide unique, interesting content and you’ll not only make them look good, but you’ll boost the SEO of your overall brand as well.
– How do I fight off the question about why this doesn’t result in leads? This one’s simple. It can … but only marketing qualified leads rather than fully-fledged sales leads. Not only can Google Analytics (GA) and UTM-coded shortlinks tell you if your digital content is being read, but you should also be working towards creating ‘free content people would pay for’ which can be downloaded in exchange for an email address, feeding the marketing pipeline. Don’t have any content like this? Consider whitepapers, controversial opinion articles and the like – you’d be surprised how many brands spend their marketing pounds on content that they only use once, or spend a disproportionate amount on content creation compared to distribution. You might want to think about amplifying blog content through paid social channels as well for a month – then see what happens to your GA website hits.
Of course, because social media and digital tools are still a bit new and poorly understood, it can be tough to keep people informed whilst also keeping the spark of the brand alive.
But once you’ve considered some of these questions, the fundamental ‘why’ and online ‘where’ of digital strategy should feel a little more manageable. And the commercial crux of the relationship between your brand and digital often falls down to this:
Should your brand be on all social channels? Not necessarily
Should your brand be where the prospects are? Absolutely
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