A Call to Put the Love Back In Leadership

Somehow, when no one was looking, companies put profits over people and, through this single move, handicapped the entire system.

Nearly 15 years ago, I emerged from full-time graduate school with starry eyes and high hopes for the future. I was recruited to work at a large, international consulting firm in their People and Organization Practice. Essentially I was to help companies move through a major change, whether they were downsizing, reducing costs or shifting their culture. My role was to create the communications materials and processes that would best nurture people through the change process — whether the people were a part of the company’s future or not.

As you can imagine, this could be highly stressful work. I was going into Fortune 500 organizations as a young, naive woman to help them deal with highly emotional and difficult events. At one such engagement, we were reducing costs to the tune of $1B, which included massive layoffs and a bottoms-up reorganization. We had to get escorts to our cars at night because disenfranchised employees were slashing the consultants’ tires. In addition to the inherently stressful work, the hours were often long and went from sun up to sun down. There were days where I never even saw the light of day. To boot, we were typically living away from our families in hotel rooms and navigating the woes of airline travel.

People Driven Programs Make A Difference

Yet, despite the pressures, I was largely stress free. And that’s because the firm loved its people. They loved their people so much it was nearly palpable. We had ready access to training at a dedicated, five-star facility complete with dorm rooms and an on-premise bowling alley. The curriculum was sophisticated and included college-level courses on everything from systems thinking to strategic planning and financial analysis. Flexible work arrangements were the norm, as easy to get as plucking a ripe peach from a tree. You didn’t have to prove yourself worthy or in need of special treatment. Rather, the flex programs were the norm and in no way limited your advancement in the company. In fact, it was policy to fly to the client on Monday mornings, versus Sunday nights, so consultants could spend a full weekend with their families.

We also had access to a network of mentors and guides. These mentors were hand-selected members of leadership who nearly adopted you as their protégé and took personal accountability for your success in the firm. And finally, we celebrated together. Not a month went by without a formal party or social gathering that was highly attended. Over drinks we shared stories, learned about one each other’s personal lives and supported one another. Through the firm’s culture, we were a virtual family that held each other up. Yes, the job paid us and paid most of us well, but it also gave us a community from which to ground our lives.

One of my fellow consultants suffered a horrible tragedy during our tenure when her child died. She obviously needed an enormous amount of time to heal and recover. The firm stood by her, giving her indefinite paid leave. They offered her a modified work schedule upon her return and actively sought roles that she could successfully perform while grieving. They valued her as a person and an employee. Money was no object.

The Unintended Consequences of Sarbanes Oxley

Sadly, the consulting firm ended-up going down in the most spectacular accounting scandals of all time. With its demise came the Sarbanes Oxley Act and rigorous accounting controls. Companies and their auditors were rightfully tasked with much greater oversight, regulation, inspection and discipline regarding their books.

But from my perspective, it also ushered in a time of corporate paranoia, rigidity and a loss of compassion in the workplace. It is as if the increased financial rigor turned the company’s workforce from flesh and blood human beings to numbers on a balance sheet. Employee support programs began to dissolve, even as stress in the workplace skyrocketed. According to the American Institute of Stress, occupational pressures and fears are the leading causes of stress for American adults. And these stressors have been growing steadily for the last few decades.

Layer in the global financial crisis of 2009 and many companies moved away from investing in their people to implementing cost cutting initiatives. Survival of the fittest surged back as boardrooms resembled cage matches. An overall feeling of scarcity emerged and underpinned companies big and small. Rather than collaborate with one another, people fought for their fair share, even within the same organizations. This shift away from community and collaboration left people feeling, at best, guarded and, at worst, desperately alone.

Extract Love and Handicap the Organization

I felt all these changes first-hand while working at a nonprofit. Despite the company’s strong commitment to its mission, the Business Unit Presidents fought with one another for customers, revenue and share of wallet. Horizontal services that could benefit every business were bifurcated to the detriment of clients. The bottom line became the priority, as socially responsible programs were slashed in lieu of margins. And, believe me, the people suffered the most. Under conflicted leadership, we were unwittingly thrust into corporate politics and forced to make alliances. Climbing the ranks meant being complacent or often going against what you believed was the right thing to do.

While at this organization I attended a leadership-training program that proved prophetic. We were put into teams of two so we could practice giving bad news to a fictitious employee. In the exercise, I had an employee who had historically been a top performer, but hadn’t been doing well for the last several months. My task was to have one final conversation with her about her performance.

Here’s what I said to her in this training exercise:

“As you know, I love and have enormous respect for you. Yet I see that your performance has declined in the last three months. Is something going on in your personal life…”

Before I could even finish, my exercise partner visibly reeled back in his chair as his face became distorted in disgust.

“Never, ever use the word ‘love’ at work,” he said curtly.

And that’s when it hit me. What we actually need to do is embrace love in the workplace. Instead of treating people with less compassion, we need to embrace the spirit of love in both our words and our actions. We need to put the well being of each other above all else, and offer a helping hand when times get tough. It means covering for people when life hits them between the eyes, and providing them with the support needed to navigate life and work. When you take love away from people, you snuff out their souls and smother their big ideas, their commitment and their productivity. By extracting love, you handicap the whole organization.

I recently met a beautiful, spunky woman who has dedicated her working life to nonprofits. She is currently employed at a national food bank that keeps America fed. I asked her what makes a company “truly good.”

Her answer has stuck with me:

“It’s remarkably simple. Truly good companies make decisions based on compassion versus profit. And their financial success invariably follows.”