Why I’m betting on kind companies.

San Francisco, March 2020

Author’s note: I originally drafted this article in early June, right before the rising civil rights movement. It then felt like the wrong moment to publish it. But today, as AirBnB goes public, I find it worth revisiting.

In San Francisco, March 8, 2020 was the kind of early spring day that made people want to flock to the parks, linger with friends, consume piles of food foraged from local shops, and wait in line at Bi-Rite for ice cream cones they could consume at just the right pace because the temperature was that breezy, balmy shade of in-between that marks early-summer days.

It was a full nine days before the city — and 12 days before the state — would begin a shelter-in-place mandate. There was an inkling in the air that coronavirus was going to impact us, but the idea of not leaving our homes for weeks on end wasn’t a thing, nor were we collectively aware of the massive health and economic disruptions to come.

But, just a day later, on March 9th, Delta CEO Ed Bastian sent a letter to his customers in which he clearly recognized the immense impact the virus would have. “For more than a decade, Delta has been preparing for this scenario,” he noted, before describing safety measures the company was taking, committing to transparency and flexibility, expressing pride in his team, and ending on a personal note: “Thank you for your continued trust in Delta, and I look forward to seeing you in my own travels throughout the year.”

One thing he didn’t do: ask anyone to fly.

Something about the note made me think: Delta is not only going to survive this crisis, they’re going to thrive in the long run.

I was reacting to a genuine display of kindness with a healthy dose of preparedness. And both of those qualities, especially in anxious times, go a very long way.

Since then, I’ve been paying close attention to Delta and other companies whose actions have struck me as similarly beautiful. I’ve noticed a few themes.

NPR conversation with Delta CEO Ed Bastian

Do the right thing

Paul Marvin, the fourth generation CEO of family-owned Marvin, a building and architectural materials manufacturer, spoke with Twin Cities Business about their commitment not to lay off anyone during the pandemic. Describing the measures the company was taking, including providing health cover during furloughs, eliminating his own salary, and offering generous sick-leave policies of at least two weeks, he said: “I cannot stress enough the anchoring of our values. The first one is ‘do the right thing.’”

Doing the right thing will look different for every company. Airbnb couldn’t avoid layoffs, letting a quarter of its employees go in early May as the travel industry screeched to a halt. But, as CEO Brian Chesky shared with employees, they did it with guiding principles, including “do as much as we can for those who are impacted.” And they did a lot: changing equity cliffs so that all departing employees were shareholders (which must be feeling good right about now, as the IPO target price exceeds expectations), establishing a public job board where prospective employers could search exiting employees by skillset, offering health coverage for a full year (in the US), and letting employees keep their laptops because “a computer is an important tool to find new work.”

Be vulnerable

All of the aforementioned CEOs have not only done their version of the right thing, they’ve done it with vulnerability. Chesky, on announcing the layoffs, anticipated a 50% drop in revenue from 2019, something he didn’t need to disclose. He also evoked gratitude and an underused business emotion, love, in a message to employees: “I have a deep feeling of love for all of you. Our mission is not merely about travel. When we started Airbnb, our original tagline was, ‘Travel like a human.’ The human part was always more important than the travel part. What we are about is belonging, and at the center of belonging is love.”

Marvin was also upfront about business impact, noting that “orders for the company’s products have fallen by 15 to 25 percent, depending upon the product line.” And he reflected on how his leadership is based on service to others, a value he learned at his Jesuit college, Holy Cross.

Be proactive (make your own plan)

That vulnerability and its partner humility likely led to the next trait: proactivity and preparedness. All the companies above got out ahead of the situation, not waiting for government mandates to implement policies that support customers and employees.

Patagonia, another company I tracked, flat out stated it: “We’re going to be cautious about the way we open up — we’re not going to necessarily follow what the state decrees are,” said Rose Marcario, then CEO, in the New York Times. Their stores closed before any sheltering mandates, on March 13th, and are still closed for the most part (while most offer curbside pickup, only a few are open for in-store shopping), as many other retailers have opened up again.

In the same Times article, Todd Stoller, head of Patagonia’s global logistics and supply chain, noted that workers in distribution centers (they still offer online shopping) are generally separated by about 30 to 50 feet, significantly more than the government-recommended six. He estimates a product is “touched only three times in the course of processing and shipping.”

The team at Marvin began planning for a pandemic 10 years ago, according to the same Twin Cities Business article. In it, Marvin notes: “This is a serious thing that can bring not only a world and nation, but a company, to its knees, and we want to be prepared. We’d already done the homework to know this can get really bad, and you can’t wait to see how it unfolds.”

As a result, Marvin noted: “We acted very quickly to err on the side of employee health and well-being. We created new sick leave policies. We don’t want employees feeling like they have to come to work, if they are sick, or they are needing to take care of loved ones.” Early on, they also implemented contact-tracing to reduce spread of illness.

Be kind

At the end of the day, all of the above principles are variations on a theme: be kind. Leaders who start with that philosophy will do well, and I’m willing to bet their companies will thrive. So willing, in fact, I’ve invested financially in the ones I can.

As Marcario of Patagonia noted in the New York Times, the first principle is taking care of people: “We were one of the first to shut down, we might be closer to the last to reopen fully — I don’t really care. We are doing everything we can to ensure that our employees are taken care of in the best way possible.”

These traits may not look radical, but taken together as principles for navigating a company through a crisis, they just may be.

There’s an expression an Irish friend once shared, “nice gets nice back,” that springs to mind as I consider these companies’ pandemic strategies. Many of the decisions each leader made are no doubt eating into short-term earnings, and they certainly could have found cheaper ways to do the same thing. But, while each CEO is clearly driven by their sense of service to others, I believe they will ultimately be rewarded financially.

Because while every leader is being forced to make hard choices right now, the nice ones, by spending more to take care of people now, are surely making it easier for themselves in the long run, by retaining the respect and support of their employees and customers.

Delta on-board safety updates, summer 2020

Back to Delta: when a family situation compelled me to fly across the country in the middle of the pandemic, I hesitated. Though an avid traveler in the past (I recently accumulated the equivalent of nine 24-hour days in the air over just six months), I was nervous.

But, I was willing to take a chance on one airline, the one whose CEO was preparing as if his own mother was flying: Delta. As the gate agent thoughtfully re-seated guests to ensure maximum space between people and the pilot personally greeted and reassured us, I realized that what could have been a highly stressful experience had turned into a delight and an adventure. Not only did I feel safe, I felt the thrill of traveling again in a way I hadn’t in a long time.

A company that can stir up a little preparedness, mix in some kindness, and turn an experience from terrifying to delightful: now, that’s a company I’m willing to make a bet on.

Amy Bonsall is the founder and CEO of Nau, a business focused on increasing the humanity in workplaces, building on the principles of design thinking, mindfulness, and behavior change. She’s also an IDEO alumna and the co-founder of Creative Collisions: a collective making optimism contagious during the pandemic. In keeping with her views noted above, she’s also a recent (and happy) shareholder in Delta and hopeful shareholder in AirBnB. The rest of the companies are privately held (coincidence?). This article does not reflect any stock advice.

I help companies weave in kindness, creativity and humanity using human-centered design. Founder of Nau (www.inthenau.com) and Creative Collisions, IDEO alumna.