Don’t Forget to be Human

With an ever-increasing focus on disruption comes a paradox. If it is true that technology (3D printing, the rise of the machine, self driving cars etc.) will lead to greater efficiency (and a corresponding shift in employment choices) how can we create environments where imagination is amplified and everyday workers can be disruptors? And as per last week’s post disruption needs love; how do we counter the sterility of virtual reality with kindness, compassion and empathy.

Okay, on to some reflections.

Here’s my first: We definitely need new, different, more relatable sources of ideas and inspiration about the future of business and leadership. Is it me, or does it feel like Silicon Valley, which has had a chokehold on our imagination over the last ten years, has entered a moment of crisis? The series of violations and misdeeds by Uber…The “bro culture” of many other high-profile startups…The uneasy feeling that too few companies have too much power over too many parts of our lives…

Today, more than ever, we need a new cast of characters, a new set of management principles and a new set of stories about disruption and transformation in business.

There’s a second reflection I’d like to stress, closely related to the first: In a world being reshaped by technology, what customers and colleagues truly crave is a deeper and more authentic sense of humanity. So many of us spend so much of our time figuring out how to be more clever—nifty products and services, slick mobile apps, new uses of social media. It’s great, I urge everyone to get with the program. But it’s also worth remembering, and this is one of the key messages of Bill Taylor’s evocative book Simply Brilliant, that it’s more important to be kind than to be clever (a theme also often explored by the doyen Tom Peters – “to be hard is soft, to be soft is hard”.

One of the more heart-warming stories to zoom around the Internet the past couple of years involves a young man, his dying grandmother, and a bowl of clam chowder from Panera Bread (a US version of Bakers Delight). It’s a little story that offers big lessons about service, brands, and the human side of business — a story that underscores why efficiency should never come at the expense of humanity.

The story, as told in AdWeek, goes like this: Brandon Cook, from Wilton, New Hampshire, was visiting his grandmother in the hospital. Terribly ill with cancer, she complained to her grandson that she desperately wanted a bowl of soup, and that the hospital’s soup was inedible (she used saltier language). If only she could get a bowl of her favorite clam chowder from Panera Bread! Trouble was, Panera only sells clam chowder on Friday. So Brandon called the nearby Panera and talked to store manager Suzanne Fortier. Not only did Sue make clam chowder specially for Brandon’s grandmother, she included a box of cookies as a gift from the staff.

It was a small act of kindness that would not normally make headlines. Except that Brandon told the story on his Facebook page, and Brandon’s mother, Gail Cook, retold the story on Panera’s fan page. The rest, as they say, is social-media history. Gail’s post generated 5M (and counting) “likes” and more than 122,000 comments on Panera’s Facebook page. Panera, meanwhile, got something that no amount of traditional advertising can buy — a genuine sense of affiliation and appreciation from customers around the world.

Marketing types have latched on to this story as an example of the power of social media and “virtual word-of-mouth” to boost a company’s reputation. But I see the reaction to Sue Fortier’s gesture as an example of something else — the hunger among customers, employees, and all of us to engage with companies on more than just dollars-and-cents terms. In a world that is being reshaped by the relentless advance of technology, what stands out are acts of compassion and connection that remind us what it means to be human.

As I read the story of Brandon and his grandmother, I thought back to a lecture delivered two years ago by Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, to the graduating seniors of Princeton University. Bezos is nothing if not a master of technology — he has built his company, and his fortune, on the rise of the Internet and his own intellect. But he spoke that day not about leadership, computing power or brainpower, but about his grandmother — and what he learned when he made her cry.

Even as a 10-year-old boy, it turns out, Bezos had a steel-trap mind and a passion for crunching numbers. During a summer road trip with his grandparents, young Jeff got fed up with his grandmother’s smoking in the car — and decided to do something about it. From the backseat, he calculated how many cigarettes per day his grandmother smoked, how many puffs she took per cigarette, the health risk of each puff, and announced to her with great fanfare, “You’ve taken nine years off your life!”

Bezos’s calculations may have been accurate — but the reaction was not what he expected. His grandmother burst into tears. His grandfather pulled the car off to the side of the road and asked young Jeff to step out. And then his grandfather taught a lesson that this now-billionaire decided to share the with the Graduating Class: “My grandfather looked at me, and after a bit of silence, he gently and calmly said, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.’”

That’s a lesson I wish more businesspeople understood — a lesson that is reinforced by the reaction to this simple act of kindness at Panera Bread. That’s what’s really striking about the Panera Bread story — not that Suzanne Fortier went out of her way to do something nice for a sick grandmother, but that her simple gesture attracted such global attention and acclaim.

So by all means, encourage your people to embrace technology, get great at business analytics, and otherwise ramp up the efficiency of everything they do. But just make sure all their efficiency doesn’t come at the expense of their humanity. Small gestures can send big signals about who we are, what we care about, and why people should want to affiliate with us. It’s harder (and more important) to be kind than clever.

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