How to Conquer The Business World with Kindness

Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval have moved to the top of the advertising industry by following a simple but powerful philosophy: it pays to be nice. In The Power of Nice, through their own experiences and the stories of other people and businesses, they demonstrate why, contrary to conventional wisdom, nice people finish first. In this excerpt from the book, learn the six power of nice principles.

The Power of Nice Principle #1

Positive impressions are like seeds.

Every time you smile at a messenger, laugh at a coworker’s joke, thank an assistant, or treat a stranger with graciousness and respect, you throw off positive energy. That energy makes an impression on the other person that, in turn, is passed along to and imprinted on the myriad others he or she meets. Such imprints have a multiplier effect. And ultimately, those favorable impressions find their way back to you. That doesn’t mean the waiter you tipped well will one day found a Fortune 100 company and offer you stock options (unless it was one hell of a tip). The results of the power of nice are rarely that direct. In fact, you may not notice any impact on your life for years, apart from the warm glow it gives you inside. Nonetheless, we have found that the power of nice has a domino effect. You may not ever be able to trace your good fortune back to a specific encounter, but it is a mathematical certainty that the power of nice lays the groundwork for many opportunities down the road. These positive impressions are like seeds.

You plant them and forget about them, but underneath the surface, they’re growing and expanding, often exponentially.

Here’s an example of how the power of nice has worked for us. Not long ago, we featured Donald Trump’s wife, Melania, in an Aflac commercial, at the suggestion of Aflac chairman and CEO Daniel Amos. We gave Mrs. Trump, as one of the stars of the commercial, her own trailer and made sure she was comfortable and had everything she needed. Our team treated her nicely not because she was married to a famous person, but because we have a policy of being polite and respectful to all the talent on our advertising shoots.

Months later, the producers of The Apprentice asked Linda to be a judge on one of the shows, in which the apprentice hopefuls were required to create a car advertisement:

Before the first segment was shot, I introduced myself to Donald Trump, mentioning that we were the agency that had used his wife in an Aflac duck commercial. Well, Trump clearly remembered his wife’s experience, because right before the shooting started, he leaned over and said, “You were so nice to my wife. Watch how I return the favor.”

Then he got on and described The Kaplan Thaler Group as one of the hottest ad agencies in the country–on network television! He then went out of his way to include me in the on-camera discussions.

All because we were nice to his wife.

The Power of Nice Principle #2
You never know.

OK, you’re thinking. So it pays to be nice to Donald Trump’s wife. But we’re all smart enough to cooperate with the important people in our lives–the people we interact with often, like neighbors and coworkers, and the people involved in important transactions, such as mortgage brokers and prospective employers. We’re much less likely, however, to worry about, say, a stranger whom we’ll never see again. Too often, our thinking is “What does it matter?”

Diane Karnett certainly never thought the young woman she met on a train home to New York City would transform her life. The woman was visiting her grandmother, who happened to live in Diane’s neighborhood, so they split a cab ride. When they arrived at the grandmother’s apartment, the woman asked Diane if she’d help her carry her bags up to the fifth-floor walk-up.

“I figured why not?” But by the time they reached the fourth floor, she could think of many reasons why not.

The woman’s eighty-five-year-old grandmother turned out to be an ex-Ziegfeld showgirl named Millie Darling, who befriended Diane and showed her New York as she had never known it. “Through the years, I was treated like royalty at her favorite jazz clubs and saloons,” says Diane.

That would have been more than enough reward for lugging a few bags up several flights of stairs. But it turns out Millie was the mother of Chan Parker, widow of the legendary jazz great Charlie Parker. When Diane was unemployed, Chan invited Diane to live with her in her farmhouse outside of Paris. Diane accepted and told her former employer about her move. They said that since she was moving to Paris anyway, why not set up shop and run a co-venture for them there? Diane remained in Paris for four glorious years, spending weekends at Chan Parker’s farmhouse, socializing with Chan’s fabulous and fascinating visitors–jazz legends, journalists, even Clint Eastwood. “I could have let that stranger on the train carry her own bags up. And missed it all,” says Diane.

When we meet strangers on the street, we usually assume they aren’t important to us. Unlike our friend Diane, we often avoid contact with the woman sitting next to us on the train or maybe even race ahead to beat her to a cab as we exit the station. The thinking is, “She’s just some woman who has nothing to do with my life. Getting the cab is more important than being nice to her.”

But how do you know that? This woman could be the sister of your boss. Or a real estate agent who knows of a home in your dream neighborhood. Or the head of a foundation that could give your fledgling charity the backing it desperately needs. The bottom line is, this woman is important to many people. You have to treat everyone you meet as if they are the most important person in the world– because they are. If not to you, then to someone; and if not today, then perhaps tomorrow.

The Power of Nice Principle #3
People change.

One common mistake people make is assuming that you only have to be nice to your peers and their superiors. There’s no need to be nice to an assistant or receptionist, much less a security guard or a cleaning person. After all, they can’t do anything for you–they have no power.

That may or may not be true–now. But you have no idea who might become quite important to you ten, twenty, or thirty years from now. A few years ago, we received a call from a woman who we thought was looking for work. We offered to meet with her, just because. As it turned out, she wasn’t looking for a job–she was looking for an agency to create advertising for two huge pieces of business she was heading up. It was a project that was worth millions of dollars to the agency. Why had she picked us? Twenty-five years before, she had worked with Linda, who had shown her great kindness and respect despite her junior status at the company. More than two decades later, we ended up winning $40 million of new business because one of us had been kind to someone starting out in the advertising business. That is the power of nice.

The Power of Nice Principle #4
Nice must be automatic.

A friend recently told us the story of three consulting companies vying for a very large contract. One was summarily dropped, even though the firm did a terrific presentation.

Why? they wondered. It turned out that when the prospective client arrived at the airport, an executive from one of the consulting firms neglected to help with her bags. He lost the contract right there. She was miffed at his rudeness and lack of manners, and decided that she didn’t want to do business with them. Here their team had worked day and night to give the client a knockout presentation, and the entire account was lost over a suitcase.

The negligent executive certainly knew the client was a VIP. So why didn’t he pick up the bag? Simple: He wasn’t skilled in the art of being nice. If it had been part of the way he treated everyone, the oversight never would have occurred. Picking up the bag for the client would have been second nature, instead of a once-in-a-while gesture granted only to clients and bosses and other important people. He would have understood that such small gestures and actions can have an enormous impact.

The Power of Nice Principle #5
Negative impressions are like germs.

Whenever you’re aloof to someone who you think “doesn’t matter,” people unconsciously react to that. You might get a better table if you scream at a waitress for service, but we can assure you that your date will silently be saying, “Check, please.” Just as positive actions are like seeds, rude gestures and remarks are like germs–you may not see the impact they have on you for a while, but they are there, silently infecting you and everyone around you.

Not spreading germs means being extremely conscientious about your environment and the people around you. Because even a simple misunderstanding can create a negative impression, as Robin recently discovered:

Claire and I were up all night preparing a presentation for a client.

One of the PowerPoint slides kept going in upside down. We were tearing our hair out trying to get it right–it seemed to have a mind of its own. But we finally got it to work, and everyone went home.

The next day, during this presentation in a huge conference room for a lot of people, the devil slide popped onto the screen–upside down!

I said, “Oh my God, Claire. It’s wrong again.” Of course, Claire knew that I was just sharing a secret joke between us–but no one else did. Everyone else thought that I had just chastised her publicly, and it created a lot of negative feeling in the room. In fact, we nearly lost the business it took months to pitch. We made light of the situation and explained what had just transpired, but it was a good lesson to us: Impressions are in the eye of the beholder, and one bad impression can infect everything else you do.

The Power of Nice Principle #6
You will know.

Even if you never see a person you have treated badly again, even if no one sees or knows of your rudeness or bad behavior, you will know. It will be in your mind and heart when you walk into a meeting and try to convince the people in the room that they should put their faith in you. Because you won’t believe in yourself, you could jeopardize the outcome of a meeting or relationship.

The power of nice is not about running around maniacally smiling and doing everyone’s bidding, all the while calculating what you’ll get in return. It’s not about being phony or manipulative. It’s about valuing niceness–in yourself and in others–the same way you respect intelligence, beauty, or talent. Niceness is a powerful force. In fact, it can literally save your life.

Let us consider an example, Susan. Eight years ago, Susan received a letter from an old friend, Helen. Helen’s niece was a severe anorexic; she was going to die unless she received intensive treatment in an expensive clinic thousands of miles from their home. The program cost, however, was way beyond the family’s budget, given that the father was unemployed and had health problems of his own. So the family sent out a letter to family members and their friends, requesting money.

Susan was both moved and a little surprised, because people, even relatives, rarely ask for help so overtly. With three kids of her own, it was hard for Susan and her husband to decide how much to give. “We ended up sending $500–which seemed like too little and, simultaneously, way too much for us,” says Susan.

But others responded generously as well. The girl was admitted into a program for treatment and survived. “Without the letter they sent, she would not have made it,” says Susan.

Three years later, Susan’s husband lost his job. He also suffered severe health problems. His unemployment period stretched out well over a year, and Susan’s family was forced to live on savings that quickly disappeared. Even though Susan was working, they were getting very frightened about their financial situation.

Then one day a card arrived in the mail from a woman that Susan didn’t know. She was Helen’s mother, the anorexic girl’s grandmother. She wrote that she had heard that Susan and her husband were going through a “rough patch,” and that she wanted to help out. She went on to write that she knew what it was like to have financial difficulties.

“This amazing woman who had raised three children on her own working in low-paying service jobs sent us a check for $2,000,” said Susan. When you truly understand the full power of nice, you realize that by treating others with kindness, respect, and generosity, your actions get paid back in one way or another–with interest.

Now you have the principles that can help you transform your life. In the next chapters, we’ll give you the tools you need to start making the power of nice work for you.

Every day for the next week, do five nice things that have no immediate payoff for you. Say thank you to others. Ask those you meet about their lives. Does your cleaning woman have grandchildren? Donate money to charity. Compliment a stranger.

The point of this is not to imagine that the cabdriver you are generously tipping will someday run a major corporation. It is to simply get into the habit of being nice–and rediscover how good that makes you feel.

Most of us don’t mean to be inconsiderate. We’re just so busy starring in our own movie that we forget that everyone else is starring in theirs. That’s why it’s extremely important to see yourself as others do–as the supporting actor in their movie. So do an inventory of all the people in your life, and ask yourself what kind of character you’d play in their movie. Are you the loving, doting grown daughter or the distracted, absentee one? The sweet, supportive boyfriend or the needy, selfish one? The office troubleshooter or the drama queen? For each relationship, write down five ways that you can make your “character” more sympathetic.

Do you admire people who do volunteer work? Who reaches out to family members and make plans to do things together? Who admires and mentor others at work? Who asks about and remembers the details of the lives of clients and colleagues? Complete this statement: If I were a better person, I would . . .

Try to model your behavior on that of the person you would like to be.

Buy This Book from

Copyright © 2006 by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval
From the book THE POWER OF NICE by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval, Broadway Books, a division of Random House, Inc. Reprinted with permission.


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