The Glass Hammer: The False Choice Between Kindness and Success

By Mary Chung | The Glass Hammer

Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, was ranked the eighth most powerful woman in business byForbes in 2013. Not too bad for a 38-year-old self-professed technology geek from Wausau, Wisconsin, who took the helm of Yahoo in July 2012, while she was six-months pregnant. Although there has been much written about her golden girl looks, her workaholic schedule, and her blinding ambition as she climbed her way up in a male-dominated industry at two of the world’s biggest technology companies – Google and Yahoo – nobody has ever described Mayer’s personality or leadership style as “too nice.”

In fact, the technology industry and the media were in an uproar when shebanned remote-working from home privileges at Yahoo and, in doing so, she came under intense scrutiny for this huge shift in Yahoo’s corporate culture. A lot of anger and criticism was directed towards the fact that Mayer was a woman who just had a baby and somehow that meant, as a female CEO, she had a greater responsibility to be – how shall we put it – more understanding, more flexible, possibly, nicer?

Mayer chose business goals over personal feelings when she eliminated remote working privileges and while this may not have been considered a “nice” business decision to some, it is unfair to say Mayer wasn’t being ”kind” to her employees. After all, it is unlikely that if a male CEO chose to make the same business decision as Mayer he would have faced the same amount of scrutiny.

Leading with Kindness, Demanding Respect
Societal stereotypes of the sexes have made it difficult to view female leadership decisions as we would male leadership decisions. Women leaders like Mayer have the extra burden of not sacrificing business goals to avoid hurt feelings, but also showing a level of decency and kindness towards others. The pressure women face to balance these stereotypes remains a challenging task.

Rebecca Paoletti has always found “nice” to be a troubling adjective. She spent her entire career in the technology world, and she is used to being the only woman in the room. At two of her former companies, both technology start-ups, she was the only woman, period. Today, Paoletti, an industry-leading expert in digital video strategy and monetization, is the Co-Founder and CEO ofCakeWorks, a digital agency specializing in video strategy, products, operations, programming and platforms.

According to Paoletti, the word “nice” has too many negative connotations attached to it. “It has become colored with implications like ‘not smart’ or ‘not attractive’ or ‘not effective.’ Are there times when I abbreviate social protocol to get a meeting started to be respectful of people’s time? Absolutely. Do I check on people who seem distracted, bothered or otherwise concerned for one on ones, even when I’m running late for something else? Often. Do we as a company almost always bring food to meetings for our partners and clients? Of course. But those things aren’t nice, per se. They’re just what we do.”

Instead of the pejorative connotations attached to being nice in business, Paoletti explained that being nice or kind should reflect a more positive outlook such as respect for others and empathy. She said possessing these qualities can be time consuming but helpful to business in the long-run. “Sure, the seconds add up,” she admits but, “setting a baseline of honest, open and enjoyable communication gives us a lot more flexibility to demand answers to hard questions.”

Suzy Jurist, Founder and President of SJI Associates, Inc., a design and advertising company based in New York that Jurist launched in 1991, whose client list includes DC Comics, HBO and Nikon, prides herself on being kind to others in business and to the employees at her company.

“I think you can be [kind] and at the same time you can have a strong corporate culture. As long as there is mutual respect among the team,” Jurist says that being kind “doesn’t mean you can’t be respected. If you show respect towards others, you can demand it in return.”

Paoletti added, “Companies with human assets need to treat employees and clients and colleagues humanely. I would argue that we, as women, need to not be afraid of being ourselves, to be multi-tasking operators with both vision and discipline to drive action, who also treat our teams and clients with respect and grace.”

While Jurist describes herself as being “softer than I might wish,” she points out that she attributes that not to being a woman but “because it is who I am.” While she may be softer and kind, those traits haven’t prevented her from being successful because being nice does not mean you can’t be a good negotiator or a firm leader. “I think people just want straight talk. It saves time and in the end, it is honest. That is the bottom line. Everything else is meaningless if you don’t have honesty. Be honest and true to yourself. And from there, we can do anything.”

To young women who are climbing the corporate ladder and struggling with being perceived as “too nice,” Paoletti advises them to focus not on being “too nice,” but on becoming a leader who values human decency and can also make decisions that support the business over personal feelings. An effective leader, she says, is one who encompasses both kindness and toughness.

“Kindness and toughness go hand in hand,” she says, noting that you can be a kind leader who treats people with respect and compassion and still be a tough leader who expects results and excellence.