How to Lead a Team with Empathy and Kindness
Empathy and kindness aren’t normally seen as qualities you need to lead a team.
But I believe in them so much.
A lot of people think of leadership qualities as “paternal” — qualities like being aggressive or stern. I think of them as maternal. I think the best managers have caring, empathetic personalities.
Most people overlook the importance of being able to show emotion.
Even if you think of yourself as an empathetic or kind person, becoming a leader will change how you exercise that empathy.
At VaynerMedia, we’ve got 700+ employees. And as CEO, it’s my job to make sure that they feel safe at work.
Here are some things I think about when I lead my team:
1. Don’t ask people to “earn your trust”
Giving trust is offense. I think people say “no” too often because they fear ramifications.
Many are also driven by ego. A lot of people don’t want their direct reports to be better at something than them because they’re insecure.
I empower my team to make their own decisions. For example, Andy runs my personal brand team. And I don’t talk to him much at all.
I give feedback, but I let him lose and win on his own and learn.
Empowering people to make decisions is how you scale. I’ve always thought that someone else doing an “86” instead of my “100” is better than not doing it at all. Plus, how will I ever learn if someone is capable of executing without giving them the chance?
Eventually, you have to let your kid swim. Eventually, you have to let them swing the bat and let them win or lose on their own.
The reason I give trust so easily is because I’m completely not driven by fear, and most people are.
Now don’t get me wrong — even though I give trust, I also take it away. Trust is lost if you prove yourself to be incapable, or not worthy of the challenge.
But expecting an employee to “earn” trust before you give it to them just makes you go slower.
Trust also allows me to see what people do naturally. To me, the ultimate scale is allow people to roam free and expose themselves — whether good or bad.
2. Build great culture to generate speed
The biggest incumbents in every industry have never been quicker to copy features from startups to stop them from winning.
That means you have to move even quicker to penetrate your market than ever before.
And what a lot of people don’t understand is, speed in business comes from great internal culture. The biggest things that will make your company go fast is 1) continuity and 2) lack of politics.
Go audit every single employee in your company, and figure out which employee makes the other ones miserable.
It doesn’t matter if it’s your number one salesperson, your best developer, or your co-founder.
With cancer and politics comes lack of speed. You’re not spending time executing if you’re bickering with your coworkers or wasting time wondering if someone’s trying to ruin you. Your company will get slow if people are stressed about having meetings with certain individuals.
Negative internal culture makes people go slow.
The problem is, most businesses don’t know how to build culture.
You don’t build culture by having offering free snacks or a gym membership or open seating. You build culture by talking to people one by one, and understanding what they care about. What you’ll learn is, some people want money. Some people want time with their family. Some people want a fancy title. Some people want creativity.
And it’s your job to know every one of those things about every person, every single day.
It’s what we do at VaynerMedia. We’ve built a dictatorship around culture. We force it. If you’re toxic to the other people in the company, you’ll get fired — no matter how good your “numbers” are.
I talk about this more with an employee here:
It’s why the number two person at the company is not the CFO. It’s not the COO. It’s our Chief Heart Officer (or “Head of HR”), Claude Silver. And it’s the biggest variable to my business’s success.
Claude leads with her heart. If there’s any debate between doing something that’s good for our bottom line that doesn’t help our internal culture, she’ll win that debate 9 out of 10 times.
Most companies have problems with this because playing a short term game. Building culture takes financial commitment.
If your top salesperson is toxic, you need to be willing to sacrifice profits in the short term for long term culture. If your investors are measuring you on 90-day returns, you need to find a way to justify why you’re spending money on a team bowling event, or taking time away from pitching to spend talking with employees.
That’s why most companies never do it.
3. Set the expectations for new hires
When you scale a business, there are usually only two things holding you back:
- Your inability to operate, or
- Your ego.
For a surprising number of people, it’s their ego.
Business owners set their own level of talent as a basis of hiring for their employees — and then complain that they can’t find any “good” employees.
It’s a fun game to play. You set an arbitrary benchmark that nobody’s hitting because you put yourself on the pedestal,.
But it comes at the mercy of building a bigger business. If your impression of them as an employee is based on some interpretation of how you decide they model your behavior, you’re just scratching your own itch of how great you are.
People think I play on ego, but in reality I play on confidence. It’s what allows me to scale. I don’t hold anybody to an arbitrary metric that has no reality other than what’s playing in my own head.
I’m not holding people to some fake Mendoza line that I’m the judge and the jury of.
It’s the reason I have 700+ employees with high retention. I don’t hold them to my standard because they don’t need to be me.
NAVIGATING THE TRANSITION TO A MANAGEMENT ROLE
Transitioning to a management role can be a very difficult thing.
There are many incredible executors who yearn for the financial upside and the title that comes with leading a team. It’s actually the thing I fear most in VaynerMedia.
There are a few things that people struggle with when they make the transition to a management role.
The first big mistake is micromanaging.
I hate micromanagement. But it’s a big struggle, especially if you’re a great executor and you know how to cross those T’s and dot those I’s. When you see someone on your team who’s not great at executing, it’s hard not to micromanage.
But here’s the truth:
Most things don’t matter. It’s what I tell my managers, and it’s a mental shift that many struggle with.
The other mistake a lot of people make when they get into a management position is that they think other people work for them.
They act like “bosses” instead of “mentors.”
But the reality is, all the best managers are actually mentors. All great managers have mentorship DNA within them.
A lot of things come with being a mentor. It means you need to be the bigger man or woman in every situation. 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 your is best for your team. You’ll have to learn how to take blame. You have to be willing to accept responsibility for your failures. No one likes a boss who passes the buck to an employee in a tough situation.
When you go from being an executor to a manager, you go from trading on IQ to trading on EQ. And a lot of people can’t make that transition.
The reason VaynerMedia has grown so much is because I disproportionately focus on EQ as a CEO, and the “motherly” skills you need to run a company.
Last reason people fail as managers is lack of self-esteem.
There’s no place for insecurity in leadership.
If you didn’t have self-esteem instilled in you as a kid, or if you didn’t develop it along the way, you need to find an outlet to create it.
It’s what I do with managers in my company. I try to instill self-esteem by talking about the positives 90% of the time.
Your self-esteem “outlet” could take a lot of different forms. You might be a great soccer player, or a great improv actor, You might even find someone to date who instills that.
Regardless of how you get there, it takes empathy, self-awareness, kindness, and self-esteem to be a great leader.