By Sheldon Yellen
It’s easy for people to associate business leaders with closed doors and dollar signs, especially when they’re constantly bombarded with images of intimidating men and women in power suits.
In fact, the typical portrayal of a business leader is someone who lacks compassion and only cares about the bottom line. But these stereotypes leave out one key fact: When leaders forget about the human element, they’re holding back their companies and limiting the success of others.
For example, as the CEO of a property restoration company, I often wore a suit and tie to work. But one day — when I found myself cleaning soot from a house that had burned and crawling underneath houses to remove damaged insulation — that all changed.
I appeared on the TV show “Undercover Boss” and learned that my suit and tie intimidated my colleagues. They were afraid to approach me with problems, which was an alarming realization for a leader. I wanted all of my colleagues, from water technicians to high-level managers, to feel like they could talk to me about anything.
So, I switched out my suit and tie for jeans and a sport coat and let my colleagues know why I did it. I was shocked by the number of conversations I had with some great people. My colleagues told me that they now perceive me as approachable and compassionate. Today, this compassion is a core element of our company culture.
In fact, one study found that companies judged to have a conscience outperformed the market by 10 times. Compassion can benefit your business internally as well.
Take the call center Appletree Answers, for example. Inspired by the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the CEO established a program called Dream On, which allowed employees to express compassion to one another on a regular basis. As a result, the company’s turnover rate dropped from 95 percent to just 30 percent within a few months.
Perhaps numbers like this explain the growing trend toward compassionate management. But it’s still a tough sell. Too often, leaders think they have to be unapproachable micromanagers to be effective, but that’s simply not true. Just look at Bill Gates. His dedication to philanthropy benefits the greater good and has strengthened his brand by fostering collaboration, boosting morale and inspiring his colleagues to show compassion.
1. Develop personal relationships. There shouldn’t be such things as “work relationships.” Take the time to get to know your colleagues on a personal level. Go to weddings, birthdays and even funerals. By showing you care, you are opening the door to personal and professional growth.
2. Listen to your people. There’s a reason we’re given two ears and only one mouth. You can be more effective if you take the time to listen to those around you. If you want to be compassionate, don’t dominate the conversation. This will only lead to more disconnect between you and your colleagues.
3. Offer autonomy. A true business leader should be able to ask how things are going and say, “Great! I’m going to let you handle this and get out of your way.” These leaders trust the people around them to make the right decisions. By doing this, they are unleashing the creativity of their colleagues.
4. Practice transparency. Leaders see their companies from unique perspectives. It’s important to respect your colleagues enough to communicate why you make certain decisions. This is especially true of controversial or tough decisions. Keeping people in the dark only leads to suspicion and gossip. Openness builds credibility.
5. Foster mutual trust. It’s important to practice what you preach and do what you say you’re going to do. If you aren’t thinking with your colleagues’ perspectives in mind, you’re more likely to let them down, and that will damage your credibility. Trust must flow both ways. Mutual trust boosts morale and increases retention.
6. Build morale through small gestures. A leader can change a life with a simple gesture. You have an extraordinary capacity to influence the lives of those around you. Small things, such as buying a colleague a cup of coffee, can greatly affect how you are perceived as a leader. When you take the time to care about your colleagues, they’ll take more time to care about the company.
7. Be humble. Perhaps the most important lesson I’ve learned about leadership is that my status and position are a privilege, not a right. It’s important to remember that the position you hold could have gone to anyone. Sure, hard work and drive play a huge role, but your circumstances and the life into which you were born are equally important.
8. Put the handshakes aside. If you are truly a compassionate person who is lucky enough to be in a leadership position, don’t be afraid to put the traditional handshake aside. Feel free to simply give a hug!
At the end of the day, leaders are ordinary people — but with extraordinary responsibility for others. Leaders who use compassion to drive their businesses will experience real-time benefits and grow a stronger network of colleagues and customers.
Image credit: Flickr/Ted Eytan
Sheldon Yellen is the CEO of BELFOR, the worldwide leader in property restoration and disaster recovery. BELFOR has more than 6,400 employees in 300 offices spanning 31 countries. Sheldon’s “rags to riches” story epitomizes the “American Dream” story of overcoming adversity and persevering in order to achieve success. Sheldon was featured on CBS’s primetime show “Undercover Boss.” His episode attracted 13 million viewers and received an Emmy Award nomination for Outstanding Reality Program in 2011. His dedication to his colleagues at every level of the company and his successful leadership style make him a highly sought-after speaker and led to him reappearing on two “Undercover Boss” reunion episodes: “Epic Bosses” and “Busted Bosses.”