As a kid, Gary Vaynerchuk had wild success with a lemonade stand and a side hustle trading baseball cards, he told today’s Talent Connect audience. Then his father, a Soviet immigrant with a liquor store in New Jersey, put him to work. But not before giving Gary his first piece of business advice.
“Before we walked into the store,” Gary said, “he looked me dead in the face and he said to me: ‘The employees are our enemies.’”
It was his first day at the store and his only job was to watch the other workers and make sure they didn’t steal.
Despite this being his first business lesson, Gary believes that the secrets to successful leadership are empathy and kindness. And with that belief, he has built his global advertising agency, VaynerMedia, with breathtaking speed and success. Just a decade after launch, the company has over 900 employees and $130 million in annual revenues.
“Empathy and kindness aren’t normally seen as qualities you need to lead a team,” Gary writes on his blog. “But I believe in them so much. I think of leadership qualities as maternal. I think the best managers have caring, empathetic personalities.”
Here are four tips from Gary on how to lead with empathy and kindness:
- Give your employees your trust, don’t make them earn it
Gary makes a point of lavishing his team with trust.
“The reason I give trust so easily is because I’m not driven by fear,” Gary writes, “and most people are.” Many people, he adds, say “no” too often because they worry about the ramifications. Others, he suggests, are insecure and don’t want their reports to be better at something than they are (see Point 3 below about checking your ego).
“I empower my team to make their own decisions,” he continues. He points out that he and Andy Krainak, who runs Gary’s personal brand team, rarely talk. “I let him win and lose on his own and learn,” Gary says.
By giving employees the space to fly or fall instead of asking them to earn it, Gary learns much more quickly where their strengths and weaknesses are.
- Identify which employees make their coworkers miserable and let them go — no matter how skilled they are
When you understand who your problem employees are, you have a chance to improve your company culture and the speed with which you get things done.
“Go audit every employee in your company,” he writes, “and figure out which employee makes the other ones miserable.” And then, he says, get rid of the ones who are becoming a cancer, even if they’re your No. 1 salesperson or your best developer. It’s a kindness everyone on your team will appreciate — and it will have a remarkable effect, he says, on your culture.
According to Gary, a strong company culture will ignite the speed at which you do business. The biggest accelerators, Gary adds, are continuity and a lack of internal politics. And both of those will improve when you show problem employees the door — of course, letting them go with kindness and empathy (see Point 4 below).
Gary has learned that building a strong culture requires financial commitment. You need to be willing to jettison the poisonous sales ace who’s boosting the bottom line, and you need to be willing to invest time talking to your team rather than pitching new business.
- Manage your ego to manage your team
In Gary’s experience, too many business leaders let ego get in the way of scaling their company properly. “They set their own level of talent as a basis of hiring,” he writes, “and then complain that they can’t find any ‘good’ employees.”
Leaders are putting themselves on a pedestal, Gary says, at the expense of the business. And it’s hard to practice empathy when you’re busy being self-absorbed.
Gary doesn’t hold employees to benchmarks, unspoken and unattainable, that are locked in his head. “It’s the reason,” he says, “I have high retention — I don’t hold employees to my standard because they don’t need to be me.”
- Use empathy and kindness for the most difficult HR tasks, such as firing people and turning candidates down
When mastered, empathy and kindness can be your most effective go-to tools for some of the hardest assignments in HR.
Philz Coffee, like Gary, is a big fan of kindness and feels that you can make the process of saying no to a candidate kinder by 1) keeping the hiring process streamlined; 2) reaching decisions quickly; and 3) communicating your rejections by email, as most candidates prefer, rather than phone calls.
And Gary has always made it clear that the way to put kindness and empathy to work when you fire someone is by 1) making sure the firing is not a surprise (have lots of improvement discussions beforehand); 2) helping the employee you’ve terminated land a job elsewhere; and 3) working with the exiting employee on the departure narrative.
Final thoughts: Kindness and empathy are not for the faint of heart
Kindness and empathy sound soft, squishy, easy. But they require discipline and confidence and enormous amounts of humility.
Leading with kindness and empathy is rarely easy. The best managers, Gary says, are not “bosses.” They’re “mentors.”
“And that means you need to be the bigger man or woman in every situation,” he writes. “It means you need to become a full-time listener. It means you need to eat dirt and have humility. There will be plenty of times when you need to swallow your pride and do what is best for your team. You’ll have to learn how to take blame.”
Gary says that when you go from being an executor to a manager, you go from trading on IQ to trading on EQ. “The reason VaynerMedia has grown so much,” he says, “is because I disproportionately focus on EQ as a CEO and the ‘motherly’ skills you need to run a company.”
And chief among them are those two very hard soft skills — kindness and empathy.