It's 2005 and I'm enjoying a cocktail in the swanky lobby of the W Hotel in Seattle with a friend. Our shared client is Microsoft, who's hired our strategy consulting team to help them figure out how to better sell their 12th iteration of MS Office to Fortune 500 executives. (CliffsNotes: Promote PowerPoint, Demote Access.)
Our burdens behind us for the day, we move on to discussing "life, the universe, and everything". Blame it on the W's inimitable ambient acid jazz, the (then-shocking) $13 drinks, or our jet-lag, but our conversation takes us here:
Friend: "The *worst* thing you could say about someone is that they are nice."
Me: <thinking... 'that's not very nice.'> "Uh... What now?"
Friend: "Nice is the faintest possible praise, because just about any other compliment would be a more meaningful description. If the best you can come up with is nice..."
It's taken me over a decade to muster up the perspective (or perhaps, gumption) to graciously disagree.
If I were to build a Venn diagram of 1.) my most intelligent colleagues, and 2.) my most empathic, the most successful tend to sit at the intersection. I call these folks "incandescent": Bright and warm like an indulgent, old-fashioned, light bulb.
In the short term, careers, much like stocks, can soar on the basis of short term results. Over the longer haul, however, you'll eventually be judged on your fundamentals. Do you slash and burn your way to near-term pump-and-dump profits, leaving a trail of tears in your wake, or do you operate with sustained integrity and take care of the folks all around you? The higher you go, the more you'll rely on the those "beside you and below you" to say good things about you behind your back.
You can spot incandescent folks surprisingly easily: Ask their superiors and subordinates what they think of them. If their bosses are happy with them, they're probably pretty bright. If their staff (including peers) are happy with them, they're probably pretty warm. As comedian and writer Dave Barry says best: "If someone is nice to you but rude to the waiter, they are not a nice person."
Unfortunately, incandescence can be exhausting. It's hard work stamping out ignorance, inefficiency, and ambiguity in the workplace without allowing yourself to be transactional, robotic, or even occasionally rude. It takes a great deal of restraint, and produces a great deal of fatigue, to stare today's workplace in the face and act with grace, composure, and humanity.
In fact, this exhaustion is leading some of our very best people to quit the corner office entirely. To pull a Thoreau, hit the woods, and count some soybeans.
It's imperative that you incandescent folks keep at it. You are the best of us, and our business are stronger today and tomorrow with you on board as role models.
I'm not saying, mind you, that "only kindness matters". Math matters. Efficiency matters. Results matter. Nice is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for a high performing career. You'll need a big head to go along with that big heart.
But yeah: In my 20 years in business, I've decided that life is too short to work with jerks. What you do needs to be balanced with how you do it and who you do it with.
So for me?
Nice colleagues are not a nice-to-have. They're a need-to-have.