Should kindness be back at the top of the leadership agenda? Baringa’s Managing Partner Adrian Bettridge proposes that leaders who do, deliver significant economic benefits and growth for their organisations.
A client CEO visiting our office recently noticed our signage in reception: ‘Be Kind, Be Curious, Be Great At Work’. “How clear, simple and motivational,” they commented. “I love it”.
We discussed how, over the past few years, society has become more fractious. Everyone seems to have less time, less patience and less empathy for others.
The remedy, we concluded, is simple. It’s time to bring kindness back to the top of the leadership agenda.
Every leader can be kind
Our work on ‘The Economics of Kindness’ is a rallying call to remind us all – myself included – that when we lead with kindness, we generate lasting success for ourselves, our clients and our businesses.
We believe kindness is the lead domino that unlocks the path from ‘good to great’ in our teams, our businesses, and our client relationships. We all know instinctively, and from our own experience, that one small act of kindness can change someone's life. Just imagine the difference a whole leadership team can make when acting with kindness across the entire organisation and beyond.
We see kindness as a practice, not a personality trait – which means it can be practiced. All of us can practice kindness and bring about lasting change within our teams and companies. It is not about trying to be perfect, but it is about having the right intent. As a leader, people will forgive you for your mistakes and any clumsiness, if your underlying intent is one of kindness.
"We see kindness as a practice, not a personality trait – which means it can be practiced."
Driven to distraction
The pressure for growth ‘at all costs’ over the last 30 years has distracted leaders away from kindness by creating unrealistic demands and unrelenting pressure. This has led to short-term leadership behaviours that, when we step back and reflect on them, haven’t worked – and, at a human level, haven’t felt good.
Of course, leading with fear or with an ‘iron fist’ can deliver bursts of productivity and short-term results. But ultimately, those results aren’t sustainable. In such company cultures, we see that people don’t perform at their best, don’t feel safe enough to take risks, and ultimately resort to ‘colouring in between the lines’. Creativity, problem solving, and innovation slowly evaporate.
What’s left is a transactional and bureaucratic culture that lacks the depth of personal and institutional trust required to act with agility and deliver outstanding results. Leaders struggle and get replaced more often, increasing attrition of up-and-coming talent, and short-termism prevails. That’s a firedrill-to-firedrill existence with no room for kindness and leads to poor company performance.
Performance is, at its core, a leadership challenge
Last week we published our research on the economic performance of kindness. We found that 47% of companies considered ‘kind’ doubled their EBITDA in the decade to 2022, whereas only 35% of companies considered ‘unkind’ did the same. The data also showed that kind companies enjoy more consistent growth over time, with 55% of them experiencing a minimum of 5% growth every year over the last 10 years.
This resonates with my experience gathered through 25 years of consulting to dozens of different clients. I’ve observed that what at first seems like a performance challenge is often, at its heart, a leadership one. Leadership teams create the culture people work in to deliver products or services – and, if you haven’t created a high-performance culture, you can’t have high-performance and sustainable economic results.
At Baringa we believe that “Leadership drives Culture drives Performance.” It’s supported by research from the Hay Leadership group, which found 50-70% of variance in a company culture can be explained by differences in leadership style – and that up to 30% of variance in financial results can be explained by differences in company culture.
These are huge swings in performance outcomes, and it all starts with the leadership team.
Kindness: a critical skill for all leaders
Kindness is the entry point into EQ. Being smart is important. Being smart and kind is how leaders make the biggest impact on the world. I’ve worked with some very smart consultants and clients, but truly differentiated leaders are clever and kind too. That combination of IQ and EQ makes them stand out.
“Wherever there is a human being”, Seneca said, “there is an opportunity for kindness.” This is so true, especially for leaders. Leadership is about making others perform and feel better as a result of your influence, even when you aren’t present.
Kindness provides an immediate ‘feel good’ factor and has this lingering influence on the engagement and motivation of a team. Leaders who act with kindness at their core create a psychologically safe culture, maximising the learning and personal growth of their team.
"Leaders who act with kindness at their core create a psychologically safe culture, maximising the learning and personal growth of their team."
In a culture of kindness, people feel empowered to take risks and be creative, and to innovate with autonomy when problems arise, delivering new ideas and opportunities. Experiencing kindness facilitates the development of deeper personal connections and longer-lasting, loyal relationships. Kind leaders are more likely to create sustainable success for themselves, their teams and their business.
Jim Collins describes the most outstanding leaders as those with deep humility – ‘level five’ leaders – and what better way to demonstrate humility than by thinking of others and being kind?
Kindness delivers tangible results
Among the bright lights on the horizon is the emergence of B-Corp companies giving equal weight to people, planet and profits, and, taking a much broader and longer-term view of their strategic purpose and their business decisions, fast-becoming a force for good. While not applicable to all organisations, Baringa’s own journey to B-Corp certification – which we achieved two years ago – has had a hugely positive impact on our business, bringing greater balance to our decision making and more thoughtful consideration to our strategy and long-term growth plans.
At Baringa, we’ve always seen positive results from putting kindness at the heart of our culture. Our employee engagement scores, for example, are in the top 10% of professional services firms worldwide and our attrition levels in the bottom 10%. And the benefits aren’t just internal – our client NPS scores of 85% in the last quarter are in the top 5% globally and, last year, more than 90% of our sales and revenue came from loyal clients who were repeat buyers. This has fueled a 5x growth in our profits over the last 10 years.
In our experience, kindness drives employee engagement and client loyalty, which delivers significant economic benefits and growth – a virtuous, self-perpetuating flywheel of ‘People-Clients-Commercials’ in action.
"In our experience, kindness drives employee engagement and client loyalty, which delivers significant economic benefits and growth."
Join the kindness movement
The world is changing. Now is the time for leaders to bring kindness back to the top of the agenda.
The rising generation of talent will want to join organisations that align with their values and have a deep sense of kindness woven through their purpose. Customers are willing to spend more and will remain loyal to brands they share values with and perceive to be kind.
Kindness for leaders is about treating people as individuals, showing gratitude to those you work with – a simple thank you goes a long way. It’s about creating an inclusive environment, showing consideration and understanding, where all perspectives get heard – and offering a helping hand when someone needs it. It’s about pushing for the right outcome even when that requires difficult conversations.
So, as a leader, what act of kindness will you practice today?
About the author
Adrian’s been with Baringa since 2007 and serving as Managing Partner since 2014. In that role, he brings his 25 years’ experience as a consultant to bear on ambitious plans for Baringa’s growth: moving into new markets, creating new parts of the business, and always looking after our people who make our business thrive.Learn more about Adrian
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