In my experience, the most effective leaders, those who inspire loyalty in their teams and foster an atmosphere of trust in their organisations, have a surprising trait in common: Kindness. What’s more, I believe it’s because this trait is rare in corporate culture, standing in opposition to growth-at-all costs orthodoxy, that it is so powerful.
The current generation entering the workplace, a few years older than my own children, are more focused than previous generations on finding a sense of meaning and purpose in their work. They crave workplaces and work that align with their values, and perhaps as a counterpoint to the hyper-individualist times we find ourselves in, foremost amongst those values is kindness.
A 2022 study of 1200 gen Z subjects in the U.S found that 77% of them said they would be more likely to apply for a job that described ‘kindness’ as a key company value. Amongst my coaching clients of all ages (but particularly within this younger age group), there is acceptance of the importance of kindness, and a recognition that it should be meaningfully embedded organisationally and acted upon.
In my investment banking career before I became a coach, I had my own personal experience of kind and unkind leaders. I will never forget the kindness of my boss at Rothschild, Simon, who responded compassionately to my (very late stage) announcement of my pregnancy, withheld until the absolute legal limit – a result of my fear of being seen as ‘not committed’ and losing out on a promotion. Despite my announcement creating a major headache for him, leaving him shocked, he instantly switched to supportive mode, and helped me put a succession plan together as quickly as possible. The fact that he role-modelled understanding and compassion meant a lot to me, and it made me feel loyal to him in a way I never would have done had he responded with anger and irritation.
A culture of kindness inspires loyalty and engagement in employees, and as a result, corporate examples of kindness in action have begun to attract the attention of financiers and CEOS looking for new, more sustainable ways to shape future business strategy. The poster-boy of kindness is James Rhee, entrepreneur and investor and faculty at MIT Sloan business school. His incredible TED talk describes the way that this one key value led him to step out of his job as a successful V.C, tasking himself with turning around the fortunes of a struggling, marginalised company who couldn’t secure the investment they needed to survive. In a recent interview with Brené Brown for her podcast, Rhee explains the accounting concept of goodwill, something he has taken up and run with – calling himself a ‘Goodwill Strategist’, and using his approach to reconceive traditional notions of value.
As an accountant myself, his spin on goodwill makes absolute sense to me. In a nutshell, ‘goodwill’ describes the gap between the discernible value of a product or service, and the added amount a buyer is prepared to pay for it. Rhee argues that within this extra margin, exists the value of all sorts of essential but immeasurable intangibles: the social, emotional,and meaning-related value of a business. These, Rhee points out are where real value lies, and refocusing our perceived value on this, as opposed to bottom-line net profit, is a gamechanger. He talks about the contrast between approaching leadership through the ‘gossamer prism’ of kindness, with a focus on solving problems, helping people, and kindness. This, he points out, stands in stark contrast to the traditional language of entrepreneurship as destructive: ‘war on talent’; ‘we’re going to kill this’; ‘disrupt’ etc.
Elsewhere, the appeal of kindness can be seen in the popularity of kindness influencers like the YouTube star Jimmy Darts, who rewards strangers’ gestures of kindness with financial prizes. In an interview with the author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek, Sinek describes the neurochemical pay-off not only of being the recipient of kindness, or the originator of it, but also simply observing an act of kindness. At all three points of the kindness triangle, oxytocin is released, (the neurochemical that underlies social bonding and attunement in human relationships), or, as he neatly puts it “the warm and fuzzies.”
But this way of characterising (and, like Darts, productizing) kindness is somewhat misleading. At a time where AI is replacing many of our functions, the innately human nature of kindness, something that can’t be machine learned or replicated, has added value, but the value is greatest where the kindness is more than just nice, or a ‘random act.’ True kindness in a leader means doing what you say you are going to do – following through even when it’s tough. It means being clear about your meaning and intention. It means being a true team player, and choosing not to look the other way if somebody is being treated unfairly either by another person, or a discriminatory system.
When I coach leaders wanting to embed more kindness into their organisations, I talk to them about embracing open feedback (bottom up and top down), providing mentoring, and consciously approaching management with a listening-based stance. Kindness that shows up in these real-world initiatives, aims to empower and empathize. It is just what is needed right now to reinvigorate our approach to work and life.
This is a huge tribute to my friend Genevieve Jones-Hernandez, an inspiring role model of kindness. Her genuine concern for others and relentless willingness to go the extra mile to help those in need, have inspired and touched the lives of many. Her generosity knows no bounds. At our ADAPTAA anniversary party last week, she delighted us with a fashion show, in aid of one of her eight sustainable “giving projects” around the world. Her mission is to transform the way we give, through connection, social entrepreneurship & sustainability. https://www.elev-eight.org/the-eight/ My daughter and I will be joining her in Ghana next month to meet the makers of the amazing artisanal products.
And I’m dedicating this newsletter to my beautiful friend and business partner Tatiana Poliakova on her birthday today! Here she is modelling the hand-crafted artisanal products for Amaya for Africa on the night. Happy birthday!