“Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see”- Mark Twain
Business is often associated with ruthlessness. Apple Founder, the late Steve Jobs, was a genius that almost never smiled. After returning to the company in 1996, employees avoided him like the plague fearing that any word they said, short of being a perfect fit with his thinking, was good enough reason to get instantly fired.
Business Insider mentions 18 well known executives including prison serving Weinstein Company Co-Chairman Harvey Weinstein, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison, Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and others, whose ruthless management earned them a fearsome reputation.
Kindness is typically not associated with leadership, and our world is filled with “I need results, my way or the highway” type managers and leaders.
So when I read Saba Consultant’s Editor aka Wordsmith, Maia Khoury’s “Kindness in Leadership”, detailing her company’s approach to governance from the heart, I was intrigued, so much so that an interview ensued with her and Cyba Audi, company CEO, the true culprit behind this.
A compelling story
Saba Consultants are storytellers, reputation builders, and communication strategists. And if Maia’s story was meant as a marketing strategy to transform companies’ thinking in these COVID-19 times, what it indirectly did was transform me.
“We refused to leave our employees in the dark”, “how do you break difficult news to family?”, “We are only as strong as our weakest link,” and “at Saba we leave no woman (or man btw) behind”, were ‘touching’ prompts in Maia’s story that got me thinking.
She continues with “We check each other’s “emotional temperature” and “Distance reveals the strength of bonds”, but what came next in my interview was even more transformational.
Deer in headlights
“We all had that ‘Deer in the headlight’ look and effect from COVID-19. Frozen and not knowing which way to go,” starts Cyba, explaining her original Coronavirus reality shock as owner and top manager.
“Our first thoughts were: Are we ready? Are we prepared? No business had prepared for something like this, so we had to ask or look at the essence: What is the business we’re in?”
Cyba also asked ‘If the business was not its employees, then what was it?’ and the answers she came up with was that there was no continuity without employees and therefore she arrived to the ‘easy’ decision: No layoffs!
Hmmm. That’s no easy decision for any business today!
To the contrary. “Employees need to be taken care of. They need to feel ownership,” Cyba concluded.
Employees and ownership. Not a new idea with many business concepts out there involving staff having a physical stake in the company where they work.
While this is not the case at SABA, the ownership in question here is still about ‘shares’.
Sharing the pain
SABA understood that good times is when people band and celebrate success together, while in bad times they go in onto themselves to self-protect.
“If everyone become introverts, there won’t be a business. Strength in numbers. The more we band together the more results we will achieve,” Cyba said.
Maia meanwhile described how from day 1, Cyba did everything that a manager or business owner can do to put everyone at ease.
“She looks us in the eye, gets us through with clear thinking in times of uncertainty. Many speak of business continuity, but few if any speak about what they are doing for their employees’ emotional well-being,” said Maia.
While there won’t be layoffs, still the pains of a pandemic, where slow business and lower revenues are the norm, were going to be shared.
Cutbacks across the board.
“I will lie to you if I said I will not cut your salary. I had no choice but to cut salaries. The other choice is to let some of you go, but I am not taking that choice,” Cyba wrote to her staff in an email.
As weird as this sounds, it’s comforting to hear those words from your boss.
According to Cyba, a company is the sum of its parts, made up of people and teams, where culture, and values set how leaders interact 1 to 1 or 100 to 1. What matters is how support will happen.
“Every person matters and everyone plays a role in the company. It sounds cheesy, but all for one, and one for all,” Says Cyba.
“We all recognize individual performances and the development of individuals to service his/her career, but also the performance of one is the livelihood of others. If you don’t perform well, you won’t pay others’ rent.”
Employees paying other employees’ rent. What a refreshing concept of responsibility.
“This is not something that happened overnight or post-Covid-19 or as a consequence of it. We are truly a tribe, and this is a continuation of us,” adds Maia.
So what is that SABA culture?
Maia: “We are Positively co-dependent, and we feed off of each other, with stories, values and experiences. In a group meeting you feel a sense of responsibility towards the next person. It works. I call it good guilt.”
Everyone loves a good story and SABA built their company strategy around this notion, something it applies with all stakeholders: Not just clients, but also staff.
So the WFH day starts with morning greetings, disheveled looks and all, touching base, maintaining unity sharing funnies and worries, followed by minutes for the day’s business at hand.
“I have a screen with 14 faces on it and I can tell where everyone is mentally, how they are feeling and I try to pull everyone to say something in the meeting. I call it Temp(erature) Check,” says Cyba.
2:30 pm is a coffee break (or tea, juice or bag of chips) ‘Around the Cooler’ meeting, not mandatory, for asking questions and maintaining the team spirit.
“We have been signed up to a mentorship programs daily videos that we watch in our own time, and we swap stories about those as well, and we have a once a week group zoom with the lifecoach” says Maia.
These are times when one person learns about a different side of the others, as the going gets tough.
“Anything else than being kind as a leader is bullying.” Offers Cyba. “You want a mentor and anchor in your boss. He/she needs to be there for you.”
Don’t we know it.
“When you hire someone you enter into a covenant with them: It says: ‘I give you my time, you give me money, and opportunity to learn and advance my career.’ That is not a license to bully. It’s all about bringing the best out of people. Otherwise it’s a waste of relationship. You cannot have people take ownership of their work and the rent payment of their colleague, and not be kind.”
But Cyba is worried.
“I go to supermarket and patrons there avoid each other, and avoid looking us in the eye. My worry is that people will lose kindness.”
Smiles to become extinct?
“We have a campaign on that. we need to worry about prejudice, racism, and xenophobia. We’re on the set on one of the worst sci-fi movies we ever feared.”
So what about clients? How do they fit in this picture?
“This is our USP. Clients come to us because we lead from the heart. You have to be authentic. Original. Clients are great sniffers of lack of authenticity,” Cyba explains.
“Leadership from the heart means also encouraging your clients against what they believe it to be true, when it isn’t, or the courage to offer a solution that services or benefits them more than you.”
And here Maia jumped in to add a surprising twist to this.
“Leadership from the heart is also the courage to let go of what you know and move on. Courage to make leaps of faith and let go of things you are attached to. Courage to Look beyond and grab the next best thing,”
Hit the share button on this one!
Sharing the future
Cyba recognizes that the job may not be her employees’ dream endeavor, and this applies to any business.
“But we are doing this together. I feed off of their kindness. And I am also human. There are days when I need propping up from them to continue this journey wherever it may lead,” Says Cyba.
“Mental health will bring the balance into our days and the business. We need to continue to service clients, meet their expectations and keep our wits, because our bread and butter as consultants come from selling ideas.”
The post COVID-19 future may be foggy, but businesses worldwide are learning to adjust.
“We stick together and to our essence: What our purpose, mission, and values are and how we assess success, which always apply no matter the changing environment around us,” ends Cyba.
Be kind enough and share this story with someone you care about. Lead from the heart.