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Good Leaders Aren’t Afraid to Be Nice (hbr.org)
Author: Joe Panepinto
It only took me about three seconds to decide what to wear on the first day in my new gig as strategy director at Genuine Interactive, a digital marketing agency (jeans and a wrinkled linen shirt, duh). Deciding what books to take was a bit trickier.
In the end, I decided to bring only one: The Power of Nice: How to Conquer the Business World with Kindness by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval. Sure, the niceness principles in Chapter 1 are great, but what’s most intriguing about the book — especially for a strategy leader — is Chapter 8: Shut Up and Listen.
As strategists (and colleagues, and partners, and friends, and family members) we are often so eager to share what we think are dazzling insights that we cut things short and miss what’s important about a given interaction or relationship.
In a world filled with agencies, most of which offer the same services at roughly the same prices, the ultimate difference between success and failure is whether people want to work with your teams or not. It’s the same on the inside. Tara Back, my former boss and the new head of the event and experience lab at Google, used to say that success in an agency is when everyone wants you as part of their team.
In giving advice to customer experience professionals choosing an agency, Forrester Research advises: “Always consider how well the agency will be able to deliver a painful but necessary piece of advice or how comfortable it will be to work with the agency when something doesn’t go quite to plan.” And that’s where nice comes in. Everyone’s nice when things are going their way, but how nice are you when you find yourself in a tough situation?
In my experience, tough and nice don’t have to be incompatible. The most successful strategists are tough and intensely curious: tabloid reporters without the mean streak. The five goals listed in Chapter 8 are guides worth keeping in mind as my new team and I set strategy and I lead a new team:
Let the other guy (gal) be smarter. The person who desperately tries to be the smartest person in the room inevitably comes off as the least. During one pitch in which I was involved, the client told a strategist he reminded him of Cliff Clavin, the know-it-all postman from the TV showCheers. (We didn’t win.) I know this is a tough balance — especially for young people starting out who want to show their smarts. But that’s where a little guidance from good mentors comes in.
Keep it simple. Life is complicated enough. Clients and colleagues expect us to be expert enough to keep things simple and easy to follow. It’s a constant struggle to focus more on the story you’re trying to tell than on the slides. But by reminding myself and my team that we’re sitting down with a client to have a nice conversation, we might be able to avoid coming across as the type of people who overly complicate things or act in a way that’s self-important.
Ask don’t tell. Even if you think you know the answer already, it’s worthwhile to ask someone to articulate it for you. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you hear. In my experience, this has the added benefit of conveying respect for work that has already been done and for the people who have done it.
Don’t argue so much. Really. Don’t. Everyone has a style and way of going about understanding and contributing to a project. But in my experience, if you slip from being challenging to being argumentative, your chances of getting chosen for a project or a team go down dramatically.
Everyone is worth a listen. Don’t confuse this with the idea that everyone deserves a medal; some ideas are better than others (enough said). But pretty much all are worth a bit of a listen before moving on.
I have plenty of company in my views: Everyone from Richard Branson to Barrie Bergman has claimed that being nice is in no way incompatible with being successful in business. Need proof? For this, you can turn to another new book, Return on Character: The Real Reason Leaders and Their Companies Win, that just came out and is featured in this month’s Harvard Business Review. It’s based on a seven-year study of 84 CEOS and 8,000 of their employees. Basically, leaders who display integrity, compassion, the ability to forgive and forget, and accountability — who are what most of us would consider nice — deliver five times the return on assets of their counterparts who never or rarely display those traits.
So as I tackle my new job, I’ll be keeping these two things in mind: you can build character if you make it a priority, and nice guys do finish first.