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Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval

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How We Discovered The Power of Nice

Posted: 09/26/06 07:09 PM ET

We will never forget the day we gave a huge boost to our business -- by applauding a competitor.

Shortly after we started The Kaplan Thaler Group, we had a small piece of business with a large global financial company. Our client invited us, along with another advertising agency, to a meeting with the CEO. Our presentation was brief and to the point, but certainly had some sparks of creativity in our work. We received appreciative smiles from our client and the CEO, but not so much as a head nod from the rival agency.

Then the other agency presented their work. It wasn't stellar, but their presentation style was phenomenal, filled with the appropriate bells and whistles. Frankly, we were duly impressed. So when they finished, we gave them a well-deserved round of applause.

The next day our client called us, astonished. "Something happened yesterday that was extraordinary," he said.

"Well, our work wasn't that good," we said.

"No, it had nothing to do with the work," said the client. "It's just that in my twenty years of business, I have never seen an agency so genuinely proud of the company they were competing against. Do you have any idea how rare that is? I would have expected you to be stone-faced. So when I saw you applauding for them right in front of our CEO, I just knew you were the kind of agency I had to work with."

Shortly after that phone call, we were awarded several more accounts from this company. And today, they are one of our biggest clients.

When we started The Kaplan Thaler Group, we never made a conscious decision to be a "nice" company. We didn't write it on a piece of paper or put it in a mission statement. We never even said it out loud. We just knew that to be successful we had to start, not with some formalized and esoteric vision inscribed on our walls, but with a set of ethics and moral behavior. We somehow knew that kindness and consideration would be the building blocks of our success. We had both had some nasty bosses in the past, and while we saw that they frequently got results, we knew that there was a more productive, more positive way to lead. But never, when we began our tiny agency nine years ago, would we have imagined that this recipe for success would not only create an environment that was happier and healthier, but one that would make our company wealthier as well.

Or that some of the nicest seeds we'd sown actually were planted years earlier.

One day, about four years ago, we received a phone call from a woman who worked for an agency that had just been dissolved. She called us, and we assumed it was to ask about employment. We have a policy at our agency of returning every email and phone call, and invited the woman to meet with us, although we knew we had no immediate job openings. However, from the tone of her conversation, we thought it would be a nice gesture.

Little did we realize the intent of her visit. It was not, in fact, to get a job. It was to help us land a $40 million dollar account that she was working with. Her client had told her that they wanted to retain her stewardship, but that she could help choose the agency she wished to work with. Why us? Because, she finally revealed to us, twenty-five years earlier Linda was managing an account at a former agency, and had always treated her, a junior assistant at the time, with kindness and respect.

She had waited years to repay the kindness. Forty million dollars because we were nice to a woman over two decades ago! This is the true power of nice.

Unfortunately, there is a deeply rooted belief in our culture that in order to succeed you have to act like a blood-thirsty medieval warrior, and that niceness is for the weak and the naive. That's why there are books out there, like "Nice Girls Don't Get the Corner Office" and "Leadership, Sopranos Style." That's why reality shows encourage contestants to "eat their young" in order to survive.

And that's why we had to write this book.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Actually, it takes courage to be nice. It takes bravery to help your enemy or give kudos to your competitor. It takes great inner strength show compassion for someone who isn't treating you particularly well. It takes creativity to manage a difficult employee with kindness -- in the short term, at least, yelling and threatening is a lot easier.

But, when you think about it, who can afford to be mean when there is an Internet out there that can boast your nasty and rude behavior to readers everywhere? Think of Zidane's infamous "head butt" and you'll know why one negative remark or action is now under a microscope that can be magnified and mailed to millions with just the click of a mouse.

We believe that taking the energy to be nice is well worth the effort. The bullies and braggarts might appear to win in the short-term, but over the long haul nice guys finish first. Research has shown that taking the nice path will strengthen your career, your marriage, and even your health. So forget all those business guides that say you have to act like a barbarian to get ahead, and join us as we pass out flowers and chocolates. You've nothing to lose but your pitchforks.

Do you know how to harness The Power of Nice into success? Take this quiz and find out:

1. Someone under your direct supervision makes a costly mistake, you:
A. Don't say anything. They probably feel bad enough as it is, why rub salt in the wound?
B. Tell her politely, but firmly, that if this happens again she could be out of a job. Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.
C. Ask her to explain how the mistake happened, and how she thinks it might be avoided in the future.

2. You uncover information that could be extremely damaging to your competitor. You:
A. Ignore it.
B. Leak it to the press. Hey, it's just business.
C. Alert them to the problem.

3. You are offered a job that isn't right for you.
You:
A. Talk to the employer about the position, even though you know you won't take it. You don't want them to think you're not interested.
B. Don't return the call. Why waste their time or yours?
C. Suggest other people who might want the job.

4. While in a meeting with a client, a co-worker passes your idea off as his own. You:
A. Suck it up. Confronting a co-worker in front of the client is bad for everyone.
B. Politely -- but directly - state that actually the idea is yours.
C. Keep your mouth shut - until the client leaves. Then confront your co-worker in private.

5. The president of the PTA calls and asks if you could bake brownies for the school bake sale. You are in a terrible crunch period and have been working extremely long hours. You:
A. Bake the brownies. Even if it means doing it at midnight after the laundry is folded and the kids are in bed. It's important that you do your fair share.
B. Politely say no. After all, being nice does not mean doing everyone else's bidding.
C. Explain that you are incredibly busy at the moment, but offer to buy some brownies from the gourmet bake shop in the neighborhood and contribute those.

6. A co-worker announces that she is going to work for your company's direct competitor, you:
A. Congratulate her, even though you are dismayed by her lack of loyalty.
B. Congratulate her, but remain tight-lipped with her for the next two weeks - who knows what ideas she might be stealing from your company?
C. Congratulate her and give her your card, telling her to please stay in touch.

7. Due to circumstances beyond your control, you keep a prospective employee in your office waiting room for an hour and a half. When you finally invite him into your office, you:
A. Apologize and then spend about 20 minutes explaining why your day got so messed up. You want to make sure he understands just how terrible you feel about this.
B. Apologize briefly and then get to business. If he can't deal it with, then he's probably not the right person anyway.
C. Apologize, roll your eyes and say "crazy day," and then offer him a chocolate.


SCORING:

Mostly A Answers: You have bought into the idea that being nice means being a pushover. Nice does not mean letting people bully you. It also doesn't mean staying silent when you know there is a problem. Remember: You can't be nice to others unless you are first nice to yourself. Doing other people's bidding while quietly seething is not nice - it is just building resentment, misunderstandings and discord.

Mostly B Answers: You have bought into our culture's you-vs.-me attitude. You believe that the only way for you to win is for the other guy to lose. This is a very common belief, but ultimately it won't serve you well. Think of a time in your life when you were nice to an adversary; offering them a smile, a compliment or some tomatoes from your garden. Did this help or hurt you?

Mostly C Answers: Congratulations! You have a genius-level Nice Q. You seek out creative solutions to sticky problems, and always strive to resolve situations in was that leave everyone feeling good. You do this because you understand that we don't achieve happiness and prosperity at the expense of others- we get the most out of life when we help the people around us. That's the true Power of Nice.

EXPLANATIONS:
The best answer for the questions was C. Here's why:

1. Saying nothing might seem to be the nice way, but actually you're just setting the employee up to make the same mistake again. Threatening an employee with termination could very well work, but it could also contribute to a fearful and demoralized office culture - and that's never good for business. By asking the employee to give her perspective on what happened and how it could be avoided in the future, you are both letting her know that this is a serious issue while also empowering her to come up with a solution for the next time.

2. Exploiting the weakness of a competitor might seem like the most business-savvy thing to do. The problem is, you'll look like a creep. And who wants to work with a creep? Ignoring the information is fine, but the nicest thing to do would be to let your competitor know about the problem (so long as you aren't using it as blackmail!). You'll build goodwill that will last for decades.

3. You might think that you are saving time or avoiding conflict by not responding to someone else's query - but ignoring another person is actually the harshest kind of insult. On the other hand, if you truly are not interested in the job, you won't be doing them any favors by pretending to want it - then you really are wasting their time. But if you can help them by giving them leads on prospective employees, then you're spreading twice as much goodwill, since both the employer and the contact will appreciate your help. And all it takes from is a quick dip into your Rolodex!

4. When presenting to a client, it's crucial that your group present a united front. If one of your team members is treating you unfairly, the best course is to keep your lipped zipped until you can speak with him privately. Embarrassing your co-worker in front of the client will only escalate the tension. On the other hand, if you have a chance to discuss it privately, you might have the opportunity to sort out any misunderstandings.

5. Sometimes finding the balance between being nice to others and being fair to ourselves can be very challenging. You can't always say yes to every query that comes over the transom, but you can usually find a way to say yes to at least part of the request -- either by offering store-bought cookies or agreeing to help out at a later date.

6. While company loyalty is important, there is nothing inherently mean or disloyal about getting a new job. People switch teams all the time, and you'll do best to maintain a civil and congenial relationship with former co-workers. After all, in a few years time, you might want to get a job at her firm. Or she might come back - as your boss. The point is, people change, so you should never judge another person by their current title or company. You have no idea what their future holds!

7. You've already made the poor guy wait for an hour and a half - you don't want to draw it out any longer with a tortured explanation. On the other hand, it wouldn't hurt to butter him up a bit, and in cases like this a small gift like a piece of candy or a cappuccino is a nice way to say you're sorry, and that you care.

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