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COMPANY CULTURE

Kindness Works in Business. Just Ask Colin Powell

You might be surprised what drove the four-star general to succeed.

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For years now, in my writing and speaking, I have been making the point that a company culture of kindness and respect is not only the right thing to do, it's good for business.  I was very proud recently when one of my frontline call center workers, Linda Bean, cut out an article on this topic from a local paper and highlighted important sections she wanted me to read. 

When I have gotten to the point that my CEO message is resonating with employees so much that they point out relevant ideas they've seen elsewhere, I feel good that I'm getting through.  But when I talk to other business leaders, I find most have not made the connection between culture and profit.

So if you don't believe me, I'd say you should believe Colin Powell.  In his new book, It Worked for Me, Powell tells a childhood story about how his church welcomed an elderly priest in distress to become part of its congregation.  About a year later, the priest was able to give the sermon on Sunday and said: "Always show more kindness than seems necessary because the person receiving it needs it more than you will ever know."

Powell wrote about how that experience stayed with him; kindness is not just about being nice, it is about recognizing another human being who deserves care and respect, he says.

In another great story in his book, this one when he was secretary of state, Powell writes about a parking garage where the attendants were mainly immigrants making minimum wage. He noticed that the garage was so small employees had to stack the cars.  He wondered how they chose which car would be arranged to get out first.  The attendants told Powell that when customers drive in, if they lower the window and smile, they're first to get out.  If they look straight ahead or don't see employees doing something for them, they're going to be the last to get out.  

At his next senior staff meeting, Powell told his senior leaders: "You can never err by treating everyone in the building with respect, thoughtfulness, and a kind word."

Powell also recognizes that being kind doesn't mean being soft; every soldier fears his drill sergeant, he says.  But Powell elaborates that in addition to teaching and enforcing, drill sergeants create strength and confidence in their soldiers, and emotional bonds that last forever.  To do so, they have to have a reputation for kindness and respect; that also helps all the unpleasant decisions go down easier.

Isn't that what leadership is about?  Powell drives home the power of kindness by finishing his book with the old saying, "To the world, you may be one person, but to one person, you may be the world."

Seize the opportunity to "be the world" for your employees and business partners.

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Last updated: Jun 20, 2012

PAUL SPIEGELMAN | Columnist | CEO of BerylHealth

Paul Spiegelman is the chief culture officer at Stericycle and founder and former CEO of BerylHealth. He also co-founded the Small Giants Community with Inc. editor-at-large Bo Burlingham. You can read more at PaulSpiegelman.com.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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