CEO Insider

To Build a Business That Truly Cares, Start By Truly Caring

I’m sure you’ve heard and read arguments for why, as a CEO, you should make sure your employees feel cared for.

Research backs the idea that a caring workplace boosts retention and aids recruiting. One survey shows that 60% of employees who feel cared for at work plan to stay in their jobs for at least three years – compared to just 7% of those who don’t feel cared for. Fully 90% of the former group says they’d recommend their workplace to others, versus 9% of the latter.

But here’s what I’ve learned: if you want to run a caring business, you shouldn’t do it because it’s good for business. You should do it because you genuinely, viscerally care about the people you work with.

If you do, you won’t have to sacrifice performance or anything else. But it’s not easy because we’ve all been trained to think about success first. I’ve spent the last few years trying to unlearn that. And while we at MAGNET have certainly seen results – we’ve been named a top place to work five years running and we just won a Smart Culture Award from Smart Business magazine – it is still very much a work in progress.

Here are five things I’d recommend for anybody looking to create a more caring business without sacrificing performance – starting with the hardest one:

Make caring a value and measure it. It might sound counterintuitive to turn the ultimate soft concept into something you measure. But if you want to run a truly caring, humane business, the first step is writing it into your organization’s values – and then holding people accountable in reviews. One of our values says “We take our relationships personally,” and that includes our internal teams. Then we updated our performance measurement criteria to assess how well people upheld it. Including our commitment to personal relationships legitimizes our efforts to treat people with genuine kindness and holds me accountable to doing that as the CEO.

Be a friend. Conventional wisdom holds that the boss can’t be pals with their employees. But I believe you can be a friend most of the time and still be a boss when you have to. This isn’t naivety – I know that there will always be a distinction between a boss and a true friend. Still, you can be a friend to your employees in a way that creates trust, which in turn makes it easier to communicate, lets you hear the truth about things that aren’t going well and gives you insight into your team’s personal dynamics. It also helps motivate the team because nobody wants to let their friends down. And it helps ensure that you’re giving your team what they need to succeed. Because I treat her like a friend, one of my team members confided to me that she’d always wanted to learn a foreign language, so I arranged for her to leave work early every day so she could take a Spanish class. That’s how people do their best work – by being surrounded by people who support them. It’s also how, as a leader, you can look back and say you not only built a successful business, but also made a difference in people’s lives.

Be a boss when you have to. Walking the line between friend and boss isn’t easy – and it can’t be about acting like a friend because it’s good for the business. You also have to make it clear that there will be times you have to shift into boss gear, especially when you have to tell them things they don’t want to hear. The key is to be explicit, by saying things like, “As your friend, I hate that you’re frustrated – and I would be, too; but as your boss, I have to tell you the business needs you to be more effective.” On the flip side, boss mode limits how you can talk to your employees. I believe strongly in the COVID-19 vaccine, but to be inclusive of many thoughts and beliefs, our organization chose to encourage but not mandate vaccinations. This is where caring is personally most difficult, when you disagree on something fundamental and need to rise above those arguments or challenges to remember that caring and compassion for other people is much deeper than most specific issues.

Help with employees’ personal goals. A few years ago, we added personal goals to our performance reviews. We gave each person the option of telling us what they’d like to accomplish outside of work in the next year and we look for ways to help. When one manager told me he wanted to write a book, I agreed to pay for an editor and to help him self-publish it if he got it done by a certain date. Sometimes it’s as simple as helping someone get an appointment with a particularly hard-to-book doctor, or improve their credit score. I commit to helping, and in doing so demonstrate that our company is a place where we care about each person holistically, not just for what they do at work. This also often means people can do their best work because they see how they are supported and want to give that support back in kind.

Take care of those who don’t make it. No matter how much care you show them, how much you learn about their fears and aspirations, there will be some people who just won’t meet your performance standards. But caring for them doesn’t mean you let them stick around. It means you have to let them go – and help them land on their feet. Help them think about the next best role, and then help them land it. Stay honest, stay genuine and stay committed to supporting them. In many ways it’s the ultimate test of a caring leader. If you can show you care about someone who isn’t delivering for the business, people will know you’re for real.

A few months ago, two of my best team members came to me separately to talk about purely personal challenges and I could tell that both needed a break. But both of them are absolutely critical to our organization’s success. I could cover for them if they took time off, but I would do a much worse job. The old-school manager in me wanted to tell them I understood the struggle but that we really needed them. But I fought it off and told them that if they needed some time, they should take it, and we’d figure it out.

After getting my message, both came back and decided to stick it out and now they say they’re feeling better. I’m relieved, and I’m also convinced that if I hadn’t taken the caring route I would have lost them, and their talent.

Caring isn’t just a soft, squishy goal to make your culture friendly and nice. It is a bedrock for keeping and motivating the talent you have.


Written by Dr. Ethan Karp.

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Dr. Ethan Karp
Dr. Ethan Karp is an expert in transforming companies and communities. As President and CEO of MAGNET, he has helped hundreds of manufacturing companies grow through technology, innovation, and talent. Before joining MAGNET, he worked with Fortune 500 companies at McKinsey & Co. Dr. Karp received undergraduate degrees in biochemistry and physics from Miami University and a Ph.D. in Chemical Biology from Harvard University. Dr. Ethan Karp is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.