A Renaissance of Respect

WE Communications Blog: CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin

— Melissa Waggener Zorkin, CEO 

A couple of weeks ago, I had arthroscopic surgery on my knee. The doctor made me promise to rest with an ice pack on my leg, doing nothing but recovering, for three whole days. It was a grim prospect at best, given I am convinced that sitting is the new smoking, and anyone who knows me rarely sees me sitting. But, it gave me the time to do something I almost never do: park myself on the sofa with a remote control.   

That’s how I got my first taste of reality (seriously, what could be less real?) television: something called “Dance Moms.” And strangely, as the episodes unspooled, I found myself thinking about this blog series. The lesson of the show (and its many, many siblings apparently) seems to be that you can be kind or you can be successful, but you can’t be both. I've never taken a leadership cue from a TV show, but —especially these days — I had to wonder if all these hard-nosed characters might not have a point.

After all, they’re echoing generations of managers and theorists who have argued that good people —the ones who “come to make friends,” as the Dance Moms might put it — are often at a disadvantage when it comes to effective leadership, because the qualities that make them good people, like humility, empathy, kindness and respectfulness, block what a Fortune columnist once bluntly called “the nasty streak that lets [leaders] get things done.” 

But while this might be excellent advice for an aspiring TV star, I don’t think I’ll take it. In my world, the real world, you just can’t be an effective leader unless you lead with your values. I’ve pushed to cultivate a culture of goodness here at WE, in which we stand up and take action on behalf of things that matter to us. I believe that anything that can’t be done with humility, empathy, kindness and especially respect isn’t worth doing. This is what our company stands for; it’s what I stand for, too.

At its core, WE is about relationships. Communication doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and great ideas don’t, either. That means a big part of my job is really seeing, hearing, trusting and believing in other people. One of the best compliments I’ve ever received was that I often have more confidence in people than they have in themselves: Here at WE, we see other people’s promise, and we celebrate it.

To us, this is what respect is all about. It means we have people’s backs. We ask for help when we need it, and we give it freely when we can. We collaborate. We learn from everyone around us, every day. Our colleagues are our friends and our mentors. And although we don’t always get it right, we work to create an environment where these things really are true for every one of us, every day.

Melissa Waggener Zorkin AfricaMany successful people know to focus on the big stuff, that which will really move the bar. But I also like to pay attention to certain things that don't seem so big — the glue that builds relationships. Since it’s Valentine’s Day, I can use a personal example here because I learned this in part by being a mom. My daughter won’t remember the big speeches I practiced in front of her; instead, she’ll remember how I always spoke to the gas-station attendant with respect. She wouldn’t know the difference between a very senior hire or an intern — she will simply remember who said “hi” to her when she studied in our office, or how I spoke about both with equal commitment. She never read my quarterly earnings reports; instead, we curled up in her bed with Harry Potter each night until I was so tired I was slurring my words.

Those are the moments that add up: not the splashy ones, but the quiet ones that tell people they can count on you.

Likewise, we build relationships with our clients that are purposeful and genuine. We make sure they get our best work, yes. We also remember what they like outside work, and their birthdays. We enjoy each other’s company. In fact, I have said many times to my WE colleagues that we should work to make sure that the time we spend with clients is the best part of their day. We are always in the game with them, and they know it. They can count on us. 

All this is more important now than ever. Now, especially, I call for a renaissance of respect: a reminder that a world without compassion, empathy, humility and fair treatment of others just isn’t an option for any of us. It’s not the world we want to live in, and it’s not the world WE is creating. In uncertain times, we can be sure of this: We can count on each other, and we will.  


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