Nice Women Finish First When They Ask The Right Questions

How can you be so nice, yet still be successful? 

By Denise Restauri (CEO, Girlquake)

This post originally appeared on Forbes. It's Story #9 in the Mentoring Moments series — a collection of “you need to know” stories (each told in under two minutes) from successful women of multiple generations.

Fran Hauser knows how to pick them. She is a venture capital investor who has actively supported dozens of innovative companies including ZADY, Levo League, Halllabalu, Bustle and HelloGiggles. Before diving into the VC world, Fran spent 15 years in the digital media space, holding president and general manager positions at Time Inc., AOL and Moviefone. She played an integral role in the $400mm sale of Moviefone to AOL and in building People.com into one of the most successful women’s websites. And the big bonus is Fran’s generosity of spirit. She loves connecting people, mentoring women and inspiring ideas. She’s an advocate for women and kids.

Fran has the ultimate winning combination — she’s successful and nice. How did that happen? Here’s Fran’s answer to that question, in her words:

The dinner party at Caroline Ghosn’s San Francisco home was memorable not just for the food — gigantic grilled oysters, warm French bread, ten different kinds of cheese — but also for the question Caroline asked me after all the other guests had gone home: “How can you be so nice, yet still be successful?”

Caroline was in her 20s, had a great vision for a business and had assembled a team to execute on that vision. As the founder and CEO of Levo, she needed to deliver critical feedback to her team on a near-daily basis, course corrections typical in early-stage companies which have yet to establish key processes and infrastructure. Feedback is essential at this stage — and often challenging to deliver. “How do you do this in a way that is empathetic, yet firm?” Caroline asked.

I’d spent a 20-year career leading teams to major business milestones. And from time to time people dared to voice their puzzlement as they struggled to reconcile the “nice” me they met at dinner parties with the ruthless me they must have imagined I brought to my corporate A game. But I’m the same person at dinner as I am in the boardroom. I know from experience that it’s possible to be nice even when delivering difficult feedback.

When I was running one of the media properties at AOL, I told Caroline, our product team launched a new website whose results were lackluster. We’d met none of our success metrics: monthly unique visitors, time spent on site, or revenue. As a result, I needed to have a tough conversation with James, the team lead.

My approach was to separate the “person” (James) from the “facts” (not meeting specific goals) and to put the proverbial ball in his court by asking questions which I framed carefully: “What do you think could have been done differently?” versus “What do you think YOU could have done differently?” Shifting focus from the person to the outcome not only softens the blow, but forces the individual to look at the problem from a perspective that is less personal and more productive.

Delivering news this way lets you have negative feelings about the “facts” of the situation but still have empathy and emotional support for the person. Conversations like these often evolve into meaningful dialogues that have a positive impact on the individual and future outcomes for the business.

I’ve found that questioning is a powerful tool, not just in delivering difficult news but in everyday leadership. Asking the right question to get at the heart of something that is squishy is more empowering to the team than telling them it feels “off.” Nice guys and gals can finish first. Empathetic instincts, when coupled with operating rigor, drive a leadership style in which everybody wins.


About the guest blogger: Denise Restauri is the author of Their Roaring Thirties: Brutally Honest Career Talk From Women Who Beat The Youth Trap now available for iBooks, Amazon and Vook. Follow her on Twitter at @DeniseRestauri.