Do you think you can be nice and be a good leader? Nice and be successful?
We’re talking about redefining success and leadership in this episode with media executive, startup investor, and bestselling author, Fran Hauser.
Fran is redefining success in leadership and business and talks with us about how you can be nice and successful, setting boundaries, self-care, and wellness.
When Fran ran a digital business for People Magazine in 2009, she had an “aha moment” related to the idea that women needed to show up at work in a certain way. There was this myth that if women were “too nice” at work, they wouldn’t be able to accelerate their career. As a mentor, she spent so much time talking to other women about this concept. As problematic as it was, she was only seeing books out there that reinforced this concept.
Fran’s book, The Myth of the Nice Girl, was written with the intention of giving women permission to show up to work authentically, not checking qualities they may hold like kindness, compassion, and empathy at the door. Her book was written with the intention of giving women permission to bring all of their qualities with them, knowing that being nice doesn’t equate being weak or a pushover. In fact, you can be both nice and strong; those two things can live side by side. The most effective leaders actually lead with both: they’re both kind and they’re strong.
Although she had the initial idea for her book around that time in 2009, Fran put it on hold for a while. She came back to it a few years ago when she had more flexibility in her life and bandwidth. She’s glad she waited, though, because it feels like this book is even more important now with everything that’s going on in the world, compared to 10 years ago.
Fran’s message really comes back to being aligned with who you really are, which is a core tie between so many of the Feel Good Effect’s guests. There’s research supporting this idea that living out of alignment with who you are causes a lot of psychological distress. Particularly relevant for women, if you feel that you are a kind person yet in an environment where you feel as though that quality is unwelcome and misaligned, it has a huge impact on yourself as well as the people around you. In contrast, Fran’s frame of mind for this book is around effectiveness and realizing your full potential at work. Misalignment between one’s environment and their values can feel very uncomfortable at work, affecting one’s confidence, and subsequently affecting their work by not feeling comfortable in their own skin. Being in a context that doesn’t align with your values causes anxiety and depression, among other difficult circumstances.
When people find themselves in these situations of misalignment at work, Fran reminds them that it’s often the CEO who sets the culture in a place of work. And unfortunately, if there’s no sign of change from the CEO, it’s unlikely that the culture will change. In that case, you have to ask yourself, “Is this the kind of culture that I want to work in and can thrive in, or do I need to move on?”. Sometimes, the right answer is removing yourself from a toxic environment.
There are times when change is possible, and even times in which you can be that change agent, but often it’s not something you have control over and you have to make that hard call, weighing the pros and cons. If you choose to stick it out, have self-awareness as to why. Sometimes the answer is to go, though, in order to find an environment that will allow you to thrive and value your work. It’s a really important conversation to have with yourself if you’re in a misaligned environment.
The Myth of the Nice Girl is powerful, offering women tools to make that difficult decision of what is best for them and how to show up in a way that is aligned. For starters, “nice” has a negative connotation. In fact, Fran and her co-writer, Jodie Lipper, spent hours defining “nice”. This was an important step though because if we don’t know what we’re talking about, we cannot make any change. Some of the key points in their definition of a “nice” person in the context of work include:
Someone who elevates the people around them.
Someone who has an abundance mindset (meaning that they feel like there are enough opportunities to go around).
Someone who is compassionate, empathetic, and collaborative.
Someone who is magnetic and warm, drawing people in.
There are all of these beautiful words and adjectives that they use to describe “nice”, in contrast to the many negative connotations around the word. One of the things Fran wanted to convey on the cover of her book was the differences between common labels that are associated with being “nice”, like “pushover”, “passive”, or “weak”, and labels on the other side that are associated with being too “strong”, like “pushy” or “aggressive”.
You don’t have to be a jerk to be powerful. You can be nice and you can still be strong. You can care about your team or others and still have high expectations of them. You can be inclusive, but at the end of the day, you have to have the strength to make the call and to stand firm. Fran’s message is to help people open up their minds to this idea, moving away from the either-or standpoint of being nice or strong and successful; these things are not mutually exclusive.
The idea that you can be both nice and strong is so fundamentally challenging and disruptive (in a good way). The forced-choice falls in with some of the work Robyn does with a false dichotomy, black-and-white thinking, and the damage it causes. An example of this is communicating difficult feedback: you will get the best outcome if you do it in a way that is both kind and direct. The amygdala is a part of the brain that is all about sensing a threat and triggering fight-fright-freeze when a threat is detected. If you’re in a position where you have to give someone tough or difficult feedback and you do it in a way that triggers a response from the amygdala, they’re not going to be able to process what you’re saying. Instead, if you start the conversation in a kind, supportive way, it will be so much more effective. If you can make someone feel like you’re really on their side, they’re able to listen and process. When you give feedback, it’s important to specifically say what you feel is holding them back, are there skills that you believe would be transformational for them if they invested the time to develop them. Be direct with a kind tone of voice. One without the other doesn’t work and you’re not going to get the outcome that you want.
In the way that Fran defines “nice”, the only way to be nice is to be direct. It’s never easy to give difficult feedback but it’s generous because it’s easier not to give the feedback. If someone is giving you feedback, they really care about you because it is so much easier to sweep it under the rug.
The way Fran divides her book into chapters is that idea of both: “Ambitious and Likeable”, “Speak Up Assertively and Nicely”, “Give Feedback Directly and Kindly”. It’s really a toolbox. Another chapter, “Boundaries and Caring”, is something that people really struggle with. We’ve gotten to a place where, as women, we tend to feel like we have to do it all, which leads to problems like not sleeping as much as we should, we’re not connecting with others in a meaningful way as much as we should, nor are we taking as much time for ourselves as we should. We’re not setting the boundaries that we should or protecting the things that are really important to us.
Boundaries are about protecting the things in your life that you really care about and want to be spending your time doing. We all need to say “no” to more things that we don’t really care about doing and aren’t going to move the needle for us in a big way.
Be intentional with what you say yes to and what you say no to.
When the request comes into your inbox, don’t just react and agree to it. Really take a minute, pause, and think about if it is something you really want to do, if it is aligned with the priorities that you’ve set for yourself, or if you might be saying yes because you’re afraid to say no, not wanting to let somebody down.
First, identify the things you care about that you want to protect. When requests come in that fall outside of those priorities, be very intentional about saying yes or no.
You can say no in a really nice way: “Thank you for thinking of me (you do not have to apologize) but I’m head down working on this right now so now is probably not a great time for me”.
Wish them the best, keeping it short and sweet. We really do not need to over-explain, and we can still be nice, show gratitude, and respectfully decline. This mindset shift can be life-changing. We likely have women in our lives who are burnt out, stressed, and feeling like they can’t do anything well because they’ve taken on so much, perhaps hearing, “I feel like I’m doing everything and I’m not doing anything well”. Yet, they’re doing so much AND they’re doing it great. What kind of unreasonable standard must we be holding ourselves to? We need to change the conversation and set boundaries; saying no is imperative to our health and ability to show up and do the things that are actually important at work or in our community. It’s hard to reconcile it, and it does mean disappointing people, but it also means not having to do the things that aren’t valuable to us. It’s really a joy of missing out instead of a fear of missing out.
There’s also this weird thing about wearing busy as a badge of honor, but you can make time for the things you want to do. Someone who very comfortably says no is a person who has the confidence to not have to do it all, has nothing to prove, and cares for themself. Setting boundaries is the best form of self-care.
When it comes to worrying about letting someone you care about down, sometimes there’s a sweet spot between yes and no, where you say no but offer a smaller role: “I cannot attend the event but I’d love to post it on social media to help you promote it”. If you really care about this person or it strategically makes sense, finding smaller commitments is always another option.
This is something that women really struggle with that impacts everything from wellbeing, to mental health, to the ability to show up in their own lives. Another challenge that women are running into when it comes to saying no is this movement of women supporting women.
For Fran, to still support women who want to get together and pick her brain, she waits until she has a list of about 10 women and she invites them all to go out together for a mentor circle. Everyone brings an offer and an ask and even though they come together for Fran, they build beautiful friendships and end up helping each other. Then, instead of spending one hour with each individual, she spends one hour with everyone together. For people who wanted to meet with Fran to talk about writing a book, she and her writing partner put together writing workshops that people can attend. She has come up with these scalable ways to really scale her time and make sure she’s valuing her time. Find creative ways to scale your time. If you’re getting a lot of requests, how do you prioritize when you want to help or be involved? Instead of being robotic, be intentional with your time and energy (your most precious resources). There are creative ways to scale your time and creative ways to bring people together in ways that are less robotic and more about meeting a need in a way that is a win-win.
Fran has been working on a thought leadership platform where she’s been doing a lot of speaking, over 100 talks since the book came out three years ago. It’s been fun and wonderful for her to connect with so many women, as well as financially rewarding, which she wasn’t expecting. Fran is an investor and advisor for a number of companies, many of which are women-run. She loves that a lot of it can be done from home, which is important to her as a mother to an 8- and 9-year-old. She spent the first part of her career working at different companies and now for the last six years she’s been working for herself and it’s been such a gift having control over what projects she gets involved with and who she works with.
We’re never fully balanced, but it feels good right now. It’s her mission to be thoughtful in how she spends her time. Women are redefining what success looks like by living it, which creates permission and opportunity for that to be the new normal.
On what it really means to be healthy:
“Saying no is the best form of self-care because it frees you up to do the things that you really want to do, it brings joy into your life, and it allows you to really dedicate the time to being with the people you want to be with”
Fran Hauser is a long-time media executive, startup investor, keynote speaker and best-selling author of The Myth of the Nice Girl. Best known for her role building PEOPLE.com – one of the biggest media brands online – Fran made the leap to early-stage investing in 2014, funding and advising consumer-focused companies such as The Wing, HelloGiggles, Mogul and Meditation Studio. 18 of the 20 companies in Fran’s portfolio are founded by women, highlighting her broader commitment to increasing the representation of female founders and investors.
Fran’s first book, THE MYTH OF THE NICE GIRL: Achieving a Career You Love Without Becoming a Person You Hate (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) deconstructs the negative perception of “niceness” that many women struggle within the business world and has resonated with thousands of women who are looking to lead authentically and take their career to the next level. The Myth of the Nice Girl was named Audible’s Best Business Book of 2018 and one of Amazon’s Best Business and Leadership Books of 2018, among other accolades.