lead with kindness

Six tips to lead with kindness

We are the same people outside and inside our job. We may tone down certain parts of our personalities to have a more professional demeanor or hide offbeat hobbies that we don’t care to publicize, but the one thing we shouldn’t tone down is the core values that drive our life.

I had a clear role model since I was very young. As a teenager, I read a book by Primo Levi that shook me up. In If This is a Man, Levi — an Italian Jew — relates his experience as a prisoner in Auschwitz, and the horrors he barely survived. It was bone chilling to read such a vivid account of the cruelty that men can sink to.

But what really stuck to my soul was Lorenzo Perrone. Lorenzo was an Italian civilian worker who risked his life every single day during a six-month period to bring a piece of bread or any other scrap of food he could to this young Italian prisoner, and he didn’t even accept thanks for his kindness. Primo Levi says about this humble man:

“…I believe that it was really due to Lorenzo that I am alive today; and not so much for his material aid, as for his having constantly reminded me by his presence, by his natural and plain manner of being good, that there still existed a just world outside our own, something and someone still pure and whole, not corrupt, not savage, extraneous to hatred and terror; something difficult to define, a remote possibility of good, but for which it was worth surviving.” — Primo Levi, If This is a Man.

As soon as I read this passage I said to myself: “I want to be like Lorenzo Perrone. I want to help others. I want to be kind. I want to remind others that there is some good in the world.”

I can’t even begin to compare myself with Perrone. I’m not a hero. I’m just a regular person who values kindness. As a corporate leader —when I was Editorial Director of the Americas at BabyCenter— I tried to overcome my defects and blunders by picking myself up and going back to this core value, again and again.

Here are some of the things I did and that you, as a leader, can also do to model kindness:

  • When you have a difficult relationship with a colleague or an employee, ask yourself: What can I do better? There’s always something you can improve, and that may be enough to iron out the difficulties.
  • Each person is different. Adapt your guidance to each one of your team members, to their particular needs and temperament. That requires empathy, because you really need to understand them in order to guide them properly.
  • Focus 100% in the conversation you’re having. Part of my team was abroad and my 1.1s happened through conference calls. I made it a point to not do anything else while I was talking to them, even though they could not see me. I listened attentively, took notes of their challenges or needs, and after the call, if there were pending matters, I followed up quickly with answers or solutions. I was fully present, so I could understand them and help them more effectively.
  • Don’t miss 1.1s. Yes, you may have to cancel some due to business travel or whatever else, but make it a point to re-schedule them, if possible. This gives your team members the message that they are important. Because they are.
  • If you can, make some time to mentor people who you see struggling or who need guidance. I offered to mentor the Brazil team for a year, before they were part of my formal goals. Who knows? That may be the reason I was promoted later to take on more international responsibilities. But when I offered to help, I wasn’t thinking about a promotion. I did it because I had gone through the same process of launching a BabyCenter website from scratch and I knew I could make their transition a little easier.
  • Celebrate accomplishments. People need to feel acknowledged. Take your team out to eat to celebrate a big product launch. Send an email to the company highlighting their results. Let them shine in all-hands meetings. Be generous with praise in your performance review and in team meetings. I know I could have done much more in that department. It’s never enough. If they work hard and produce great results, they deserve your gratitude and public promotion.
  • Bring on the personal touch. Give them a gift for the holidays. It doesn’t need to be big, but it should be thoughtful. Celebrate their birthdays. Let them know you don’t just use them to get page views or bring revenue, and that each of them is valued as an individual with unique traits. For example, to celebrate the one-year anniversary of the launch of the Blog de BabyCenter, I wrote a post with a very personal homage to each blogger who had contributed to its success (you can read it in Spanish if you click the link.) Your team values and remembers these things, but I value them too. It was a pleasure to let each blogger know how much I respected them.

If you are a leader, or an aspiring leader, I urge you to think about your core values in life, and be intentional about applying them at work. This is important because you are on display 24/7 for your team, and your behavior becomes an example of what’s expected of them. As an added benefit, when you treat your team with respect, they will always give you their best.

You want to embody integrity, honesty and kindness. Your shortcomings will catch up to you, and you will fail at demonstrating these values, but you have to get up the next day committed to living them better. Set out to bring a little bit of light in this, sometimes, very dark world.