Stephen Cannon became president and CEO of Mercedes-Benz in 2012. Though he was convinced about the quality of his cars, he recognized the success of his brand was rooted in the kindness of his people.
Cannon understood that the company, the true essence of Mercedes-Benz, was embodied by the people who sold and serviced the cars, including how generously they behaved.
"Every encounter with the brand must be as extraordinary as the machine itself," Cannon said.
Cannon believed almost every touchpoint of the brand involved a personal encounter with a human being in a dealership. Representatives could act in ways that were memorable and honoring, or repetitive and dismissive. This was a grand vision, but how could Cannon impart a culture of connection and compassion to 23,000 employees at dealerships nationwide?
"There is no scientific process, no algorithm, to inspire a salesperson or a service person to do something extraordinary," Cannon said. "The only way you get there is to educate people, excite them, incite them. Give them permission to rise to the occasion when the occasion to do something arises. This is not about following instructions. It's about taking a leap of faith."
Kindness is Contagious
In this leap of faith, Cannon challenged dealers and employees to perpetuate a grassroots movement that scattered kindness like a contagion.
This included spontaneous acts of generosity, like a dealer who noticed a buyer's birthday on his closing documents and included a personalized cake when the customer came for the car. Or for a woman who panicked over a flat tire on the way to her son's graduation. When mechanics could not locate a replacement tire for her model, the service manager jacked up the showroom model, removed one of its tires, and sent this mom on her way in a flash.
"We have so many stories like this," Cannon says. "They're about people going out of their way because they care enough to do something special."
Beyond encouraging "extra mile" efforts, companies can build a culture of kindness in three areas:
Giving Back to the Community
Businesses that sponsor volunteer days enjoy team building, civic pride, and a more personal investment in their neighbors.
Today a growing number of companies participate in a one-for-one model: for every product sold, they give one matching item (or dollar amount) to a person in need. Or for every hour an employee volunteers, a matching dollar donation can be given as well. For example, Microsoft employees serving as Boy Scout leaders can simultaneously "bank" corporate dollars into scout scholarship accounts for those in need.
Offer Employee Autonomy
If you want generous employees, healthy working conditions are essential.
Younger people especially enjoy working for companies that allow flex scheduling, remote working options, or some ability to shape their physical environment. When employees feel empowered, they generate better results. When you convey a sense of trust in your employees, they'll perform beyond expectations.
Build Personal Ownership
It is more natural for employees to show kindness if they are motivated by pride in what they do.
When Mercedes-Benz realized that nearly 70 percent of its front-line employees had never driven a car out of the dealership, the company put 800 new cars in the field, offering 48 hours of fun to each staff member. People drove their daughters for sweet 16 parties, chaperoned grandma on her 90th birthday, and snapped selfies to chronicle the adventure.
"The reactions were out of this world," said general manager Harry Hynekamp said. "Sure, people got to know the cars very well. But the biggest piece was the pride piece."