Be tough on issues, but kind to people – the leadership lessons of Nina Bhatia

“Be tough on issues, but kind to people”. This was one of Nina Bhatia’s key messages at REED’s first Women in Leadership event of 2019. Nina was responding to a question from the audience about the pitfalls of being perceived to be “too nice” in the workplace.   This well attended event was held at the Salesforce Tower in the City of London. I would like to thank the team at Salesforce for hosting us.

Nina is an inspirational business leader.  She has a remarkable track record and reputation to match. Most recently she was Managing Director of Centrica Connected Home, which is responsible for the Hive brand and focuses on “making life easier” through the supply of smart home products and services that are available to everyone. Prior to this she was Commercial Director at British Gas, where she was responsible for all brand, marketing, product development, digital, sales and insight. Nina began her career at the consultancy firm McKinsey and Co. where she went on to become a partner.  She is a graduate in law from Cambridge University and she has an MBA from the Harvard Business School.

With these impressive credentials, Nina brought her considerable business experience and intellectual fire power to the benefit of everyone attending our leadership session.  She generously agreed to share her advice, anecdotes and wisdom, and we all learned a lot from her. Here are five key ‘take aways’ that you might find helpful…

1. “Be tough on issues, but kind to people”

An audience member raised the question that she was often concerned she was “too nice” as a leader.  Did Nina see this as an issue? “Yes”, came the reply. “Leadership”, said Nina, “is not a popularity contest, but if you want to be a good leader, you should always be courteous, kind, respectful and generous.  Be tough on issues, but kind to people.” When identifying a good leader, Nina said she would look at someone’s character and values, how they interact with people outside of their usual peer group, their skills and knowledge for the role, and their potential – both for that particular position and beyond.

2. “Authentically open your mind”

One of the slightly harder questions of the morning was, “What career advice would you give to Theresa May?” It’s clear that in the face of a very challenging political landscape and ongoing resignations, this is one job Mrs May has chosen not to walk away from. Political colours and personal feelings aside, Nina said that “it’s hard to deny her resilience – which is a key quality in any leader”. Nina’s top advice for Mrs May was to “authentically open her mind” in searching for a solution to the Brexit deadlock.  Although Nina and I subsequently disagreed about what decision this mind opening process should ultimately lead to.

3. “The facts are your friend”

Being data or evidence-led was one of four “high quality professional habits” Nina thought every good leader should develop. “These facts”, she said, “don’t always have to be hard statistics or set in stone, but using evidence to justify and drive your activity will make processes more efficient and outputs more effective.”  Nina’s other “high quality professional habits” were: “Hold your ground, develop a structured way of thinking, and write – being able to put a coherent argument together and defend it is invaluable”.

4. “Shared Parenting is something to be talked about”

When it was pointed out that the take up of Shared Parental Leave is currently just 2%, Nina emphasised that “shared parenting is something to be talked about”. The take up is currently low but the expectation is that more people will adopt this approach and talking about it will help to embed shared parenting as the new normality.  Nina made the additional point that when her husband Alessandro asked “how can I help?” she wanted to “knock his block off” because the question implied that bringing up their family was entirely her job. A better approach said Nina is to share family duties and responsibilities on a pre-agreed basis. Alessandro has apparently redeemed himself by being an outstanding cook.

5. “Take more risks”

Our closing question for Nina was, “If you could go back in time and give yourself a valuable piece of career advice, what would this be?” Her reply was simple: “Take more risks”. What’s to lose? was Nina’s message; if one decision doesn’t work out, you can always take another.  This is a theme I also picked up from Michelle Obama’s outstanding book Becoming in which it dawns on her that she doesn’t want to be a corporate lawyer for the rest of her life but wants instead to do work that brings her into more direct contact with her community.  A great audiobook if you’re looking for something to listen to on your commute.

At REED, we strive to connect the right people with the right jobs. To do this effectively, we seek to foster an inclusive and diverse workforce.   Our Women in Leadership programme is just one of the ways we’re doing this, but as Nina rightly mentioned the battle for inclusion and diversity goes beyond male/female and gender as a whole. She also spoke to us about her family background, how she moved as a child to the UK from Tanzania, and as a result how she’s always been encouraged to pursue the best education and opportunities that she could. Thank you Nina for sharing your thoughts, ideas and experiences.  I learnt a lot.