How to lead with kindness, according to PepsiCo's chief design officer

Mental health in senior leadership is taking a severe hit – here’s how to leverage compassion as a skill

How to lead with kindness, according to PepsiCo's chief design officer

It’s a tough time for senior managers, with sweeping layoffs impacting the morale and mental health of those responsible for making the cuts. Speaking to Mauro Porcini, senior vice president and chief design officer at PepsiCo, we asked him how managers can go about protecting their own mental health whilst looking after their people too.

“We often talk about the mental health of the people that lose their jobs,” he says.

“And we absolutely should be – that’s a priority. But we also forget that there’s many leaders forced to manage those situations. If you’re a loving person, an empathetic person, you’re also very sensitive – and the process of laying off people can be somewhat traumatic.”

‘It’s about finding people who you can talk to’

While research has long found that layoffs have a huge impact on overall employee productivity – specifically regarding survivor syndrome – there’s little data analyzing how terminations rock the mental health of those in charge. In reality, HR leaders making those cuts are left in a very difficult position.

Speaking in a previous interview, John Adamcik, director of human resources at the Baptist Children’s Homes of NC, labelled it “the worst part about being in HR” – a process that inevitably leads to practitioners either becoming depressed or emotionally detached.

As Porcini tells HRD, we need to get better at discussing it – after all, mental health should never be a taboo subject in the workplace. No matter which side of the coin we’re talking about.

It’s about finding people who you can talk to,” says Porcini. “It comes back to kindness. If you’re struggling, find someone that understands what you’re going through. Because being in the top position, being in charge of these decisions, it’s a lonely role. Everyone expects you to be tough, to have all the answers – but then you suddenly find that there’s no one there for you when you’re struggling.”

‘One of the worst weeks of my life’

This, Porcini says, is why it’s so important to surround yourself with a kind community. This realization hit hard for Porcini personally when he was going through an especially tough time himself.

“It was probably one of the worst weeks of my life,” he tells HRD. “I lost 12 kilos, I was walking around like a zombie – and lot of people didn’t even realize or care to ask about it. Then, one day, I remember being in a meeting with our then CEO Indra Nooyi on strategic planning, when she turned to me and asked me if I was okay. She asked me to look at her like a mother, like a sister, like a human being – not a CEO.”

Nooyi told Porcini to take some time off, giving him a series of feedback and advice. She even followed up with him afterwards to make sure he was feeling better.

“When you have that human leader in front of you – a person who’s able to relate to your own struggles and help you through them – it makes a huge difference.”

Kindness as a skill not a weakness

Porcini has never forgotten the power of kindness in the business world – and the massive impact it can have on both individuals and organizations are large. His book, The Human Side of Innovation. The Power of People in Love with People, is dedicated to this very topic, looking at how to deconstruct the nature of kindness and innovation in order to create meaning with craft, courage, intelligence, and ingenuity. 

“Kindness is one of the traits we’re all born with,” he tells HRD. “Every child is born with that innately. After all, how many videos on YouTube are there of kids hugging other kids – no matter the different races or cultures. Just like we’re born with an ability to walk or run or play basketball – some people who have these traits more developed than others and some less so. It’s the same with kindness, some people will have more of it and some less.”

This is where education and awareness comes in – as do like experiences. For instance, you might have it in you to be the best tennis player in the world – but if no one hands you a racket, you’ll never know.

“We’ll never know how many Serena Williams’ there are out there if you don’t encourage people to pick up the racket,” says Porcini. “I’m using the analogy of sport because my research has found that when you relay that to kindness as a skill, when you see children that grew up in families who support kindness, it shows in the workplace. You see that people who grew up with parents who celebrated kindness perform differently than those who were taught kindness was a weakness.”

Lack of kindness drives lack of trust

Worryingly, Porcini says that in some organizations, a lack of kindness is not only practiced, it’s actually encouraged. There’s a school of thought out there that propagates the idea that conflict in ideas, that pitting employee against employee, allows in some Darwinian way for the “best” idea to emerge. The notion is that competition will result in innovation – and that not being transparent means you’ll somehow get ahead of your colleagues.

“This lack of kindness also drives a lack of trust,” warns Porcini. “It creates inefficiencies, hidden inefficiencies thar may not be visible but actually multiply the problem across the board. There’s so many dimensions to the lack of efficiencies and productivity that the initial lack of kindness actually generates.”

But is this ideal notion of kindness possible in business today? Well, it’s not the norm – because we’ve been historically taught it’s a weakness not a skill. Nowadays, where competition is more aggressive because of globalization, because of new technologies and digitization – a lot of companies don’t have the luxury of investing in kindness anymore.

“But in this context, kindness actually becomes an amazing asset to drive innovation,” adds Porcini.

“We should have every company of the world understanding that kindness is not just a ‘nice to have’ because it creates the right working environment - it’s actually enough to drive the productivity and the efficiency of your entire organization.”

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