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One CEO's Secret to Success: Always Lead With Kindness

Being nice at work can be perceived as feminine and weak. Forget all that: It's just good for business.
Image: Illustration of two hands holding a plush heart by NBC Photo Illustration
Two hands holding a plush heart on March 3, 2017.NBC Photo Illustration / Alamy Stock

In a corporate setting, kindness can be perceived as a feminine trait. Male employees may have more social permission to be swift and direct, while women who approach a situation with a softer style are dismissively equated with being less effective, or even worse, weak.

I’ve seen kindness exhibited beautifully by people of any gender. After this bruising election season, bluntness and sometimes bullying behavior have become mainstream and replaced the courtesies and genteelness of generations past. But as an entrepreneur and a CEO who has lived by the philosophy “always lead with kindness,” I’m here to tell you that you’ll never regret a day of being considerate and (gasp!) nice in the workplace.

Here's what I've learned over a 25-year career: If you lead with a kind word or a thoughtful gesture, you are squarely better off than if you bark a command or send a terse email. Not only will kindness make your business associates feel a sense of trust and comfort, it will actually benefit the bottom line.

My firm’s clients are always impressed that kindness is our company’s top core value. Without much hesitation, I’ve fired a $1.3 million client in the past because our day-to-day contact became abusive. Am I nuts, you ask? No. I’m focused on doing better business (and true to my values, a bigger and nicer client showed up the next month!) I’m proud that our business believes kindness trumps all.

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In my hard charging, fast-paced industry, unkind behavior is, sadly, commonplace. In fact, as long as I’ve been in the public relations business, I’ve seen my share of challenging personalities: Individuals who cut straight to the chase in the office hallway without a salutation, editors and producers who have swiftly hung up on me and my counterparts, agency bosses who have made it quite clear that their personal agendas take precedence over my professional priorities.

I’ve made a conscientious effort to approach each challenge or stressful situation with a kind and gentle heart. Even in tough client calls or the occasional conversation that resulted in an employee being fired, I’ve tried to approach the situation with empathy, compassion and the truth. As a result, I’ve had someone actually hug me after their termination because it went better than we both expected.

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So, you ask, what’s the trick? Well, there’s not just one. But I have found the following values hold true whether you’re hiring new talent or hunting for a job yourself.

Hire the Person, Not the Position

Being authentic and genuine is most often received with positivity. As I interview new employees, I pay close attention to how they greet my colleagues, what they reveal in their anecdotes about work and family, and even what they say and how they say it in their post-interview thank you notes. The individuals who exhibit a kind, genuine, happy personality are the ones who usually have the longest tenure. I’ve learned through trial and error that you can never train people to be nice. They either are or they just aren’t.

Practice Gratitude in All Situations

It’s sure easy to be thankful and nice when the good stuff happens at work, but it’s just as important to be thankful and kind when a bad situation hits you squarely on the jaw. You might not know why the challenge is happening to you in the moment, but I guarantee you a blessing will come out of it down the road. So instead of slamming down the phone or cursing out your colleague, focus on the lesson and move on. There’s usually a better day ahead.

Stop Trying to Control Everything

I used to mitigate risks for every situation and practice in my head 10 different scenarios to ensure successful outcomes, but I’ve come to realize that I am not in control of 90 percent of what happens in my work day. I can only control how I react and respond. So by choosing to embrace being thoughtful and loving, there’s usually little regret. I can always look in the mirror at night and not see shame looking back at me.

Be Your Authentic Self

I recently received a call out of the blue from a client contact that I hadn’t heard from in 15 years. She had a new, lucrative project and immediately thought of me because she recalled that I was always nice to work with and had a sense of “hustle” in getting the job done. I’ve seen firsthand that the seeds of kindness you plant in your past will often bloom when you least expect it.

Practice Kindness Everywhere

Selecting kindness as your top priority is good both for business and for putting your head on your pillow at night. Optimism, kindness and a grateful heart are actually quite contagious. I have learned that everyone’s going through something, and a little kindness can go a long way. At the end of life, will you look back and be proud of putting someone in their place or putting a smile on someone’s face?

Kathleen Henson is Founder & CEO of Henson Consulting, an award-winning national PR and communications firm based in Chicago. She is also the busy working mother of five children ages 17-8.