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In Defense of Charm
I had died and gone to heaven. The Donald’s heaven. In 1989, as a young, impressionable reporter for The Wall Street Journal, I was treated, within my profession’s ethics, to a seat at the Trump table: early morning wake-up calls, just to gossip, from the man himself; lavish Trump-style events in perfect ’80s-style; and a front-row seat with The Donald on the inaugural flight of his Trump Shuttle. New to the beat, I learned a lot about the airline industry, not to mention the casino and condominium businesses. My experience offered a revealing window into a world I will likely never see again.
Of course, he had plenty of reasons to be this way. Courting the press is a key ingredient in any corporate titan’s skill set. But say what you will, good or bad, about Trump’s presidential candidacy today—and I’m sitting this one out—or about his business acumen (have I mentioned the airline is now defunct?), the Trump I saw circa 1989 knew that the art of the deal included some serious fawning. You couldn’t help but notice the details. The welcoming smile. The compliment for your “well-written” story. You couldn’t help but think it wasn’t 100 percent genuine, but you respected the effort behind it.
Today, of course, you don’t read about many CEOs who are even trying to be charming. Yet while so many seem to emulate the drive-’em-crazy approach that pervades the Steve Jobs era, I’m rooting for this simple and easy attribute to make a comeback. Trust me, no matter what their public personas were, quite a few corporate leaders I came across knew something about the value of kind gestures, be it an airline president nodding knowingly to the baggage handler or a CEO buying flowers for his assistants. They remembered employee birthdays, family medical problems and even if the info was supplied by their handlers, these leaders were smart enough to know it mattered to each individual employee.
The idea may have emanated from an earlier corporate era when giant companies like IBM and GE treated employees like family, with company-sponsored holiday parties (remember them?) and a slew of small but effective gestures toward valued executives. Seriously, if I ever clean out my bedroom closet, I could show you a rusted, silver-plated spoon that IBM gave my dad, an IBM lifer, when I was born.
Effective leadership is an everyday balancing act between the stick and the carrot. If you’ve been reading this issue of Briefings carefully, you’ll likely have picked up on that thread. Whether it’s a favorite schoolteacher or the chairman of the board, certain key individuals have a far more powerful influence over us than most authority figures in our lives, including politicians. How those folks wield that influence leaves a lifelong impression, often to a much larger degree than we may realize.
One CEO I recently met surprised me when he said his biggest concern among the troops wasn’t rampant turnover or poor skill sets. It was complacency. There was just not enough engagement. I wondered how he planned to deal with that. Put drones at everyone’s desk to monitor how often they get up? Count eyeball glazes at reports? That’s not happening. Companies have found all sorts of ways to measure and enhance employee engagement. But complacency is a tricky one.
And then it dawned on me. Only real inspiration can begin to crack that nut. And before all the CEO pep talks, reward systems or marketing plans, before we get down to the business of business, couldn’t that inspiration begin with a little kindness? Though the authentic leader is generally more successful, acts of kindness can have many motivations, genuine or manipulative, and still be effective. Indeed, perhaps one of the more valuable—I would argue more underrated—tools at a CEO’s disposal may not be found in the cold depths of financial finagling or brilliant marketing. It may begin with the elements of a charm school.
So please, can I get that door for you?