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Nice Guys Finish First

Are success and niceness mutually exclusive? Not according to Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval, authors of The Power of Nice (Doubleday/Currency, 2006) and the senior leaders of advertising agency the Kaplan Thaler Group. The authors spoke to Performance and Profits about how they managed to stay nice and still build one of the fastest-growing advertising agencies in the U.S.

Why does the word "nice" have such a stigma attached to it?

Inside every mean person, there is a nice person waiting to get out! Nice has been equated with “wimpy” or “pushover,” and it’s a myth that being nice means you won’t succeed in life. We’ve found just the opposite to be true. In fact, time and again it actually has helped us bring in big business.

Advertising is particularly infamous for being a cutthroat industry. How do you stay nice while remaining competitive?

Ambition and nice are not mutually exclusive, and we have found that we get the best out of our team when we treat them well. We win business because we’re smart and creative and work hard for our clients and yes, we’re nice, too. But being nice doesn’t make us weak or vulnerable. We focus on doing the best possible work and coming up with big ideas for our clients.

I liked your declaration that "[Nice] isn't about being phony or manipulative. It's about valuing niceness in yourself and others the same way you respect intelligence, beauty or talent." Can you talk a little bit more about what you mean by that?

In the same way we value loyalty, honesty and hard work, we believe in being nice because it’s part of our DNA. We started getting a lot of feedback about how other people thought we were nice and it was the very reason why we decided to write the book. We realized that we were doing something very basic—being nice—that’s enabled our company to grow into an agency with almost $1 billion in billings.

Your book makes the argument that being nice is its own reward, but it's also about the bottom line. For instance, you note that companies that are nice to their employees are more likely to retain talent. What are some of the other ways in which being nice delivers results?

Happier employees take less sick days. They perform better. The more they’re fully present at work, the likelier everyone else benefits. When we win a new account, we acknowledge not only the people who helped bring in the business, but we reward everyone at the agency for a job well done by sometimes giving them an extra day off. We also hold “Birthday Socials” to celebrate everyone who has a birthday in a particular month in our lounge and have cake or ice cream. Everyone counts here and we make it a point to let them know that.

Google, with its famous motto "Don't Be Evil," springs to mind as a company that exemplifies some of the principals you discuss in your book. Who are some others?

There are indeed model companies and model CEOs out there today. Howard Schultz, Starbuck’s CEO, offers health care and full benefits even to part-time employees. Ann Mulcahy, Xerox’s CEO, gives her employees the day off on their birthday. These types of gestures are not only good for morale but they’re good for business.

What does being nice mean in terms of how you communicate?

You can be nice through your actions and your speech—and sometimes by not talking at all. Take time to really listen to what someone else has to say.

Congratulate someone when he or she receives a promotion (even if you were after the job). Simply say “hello” or “hi” in the hallways at work. Acknowledge someone else’s good idea. Hold the door for someone getting onto the elevator with you. If they’re the one holding if for you, say “thanks.”

You know, it takes more muscles to frown than it does to smile. By simply smiling at someone you’re lightening the load physically, mentally and emotionally. People who are nice are healthier and happier. They live longer lives and have happier marriages. Who wouldn’t want to benefit in those ways? We could go on and on because there are so many ways to be nice in the way we communicate with one another.