How to Be a Mensch in Business

Bruna Martinuzzi is the author of The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow. Bruna is a certified leadership
April 03, 2009 Bruna Martinuzzi is the author of The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow. Bruna is a certified leadership, emotional intelligence and presentation-skills facilitator and consultant. Her background incorporates thirty years of experience in senior management and executive leadership positions in the resource and technology fields. She holds a B.A. and a M.A. from the University of British Columbia and has completed advanced Emotional Intelligence (EQ) training through the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University, as well as EQ teaching certification through Six Seconds, the International Emotional Intelligence Network. She also published numerous articles on leadership in Mind Tools, Warren Bennis’ Leadership Excellence Magazine, The Leader’s Edge, 1000 Ventures, Prentice Hall’s Human Resources Management, The H.R. Reporter, H.R. Online, The Personnel Journal and Business Ethics Magazine. In this interview, she explains how to be a mensch in business.

     1.   Question: What qualities define a mensch?

Answer: A mensch is an individual who is decent and honorable in all of his undertakings—he or she is the same person privately and publicly. This is a person of high integrity, someone that you would feel totally comfortable doing business with. A mensch’s word is as good as his signature. One of the hallmarks of a mensch is empathy and compassion, a genuine caring for his fellow man. A mensch will always look for an opportunity to do good in life, to be of help to the community. When you are in the presence of a mensch, you feel good about you—you sense a total absence of artifice, you know that you are in the presence of a genuine human being, one who will not deceive you, undermine you or try to diminish you in any way.

2.   Question: Are mensches born or made?

Answer: Some individuals have a natural capacity for being a mensch. They learned this at their mother’s knee—they cannot be anything else because the seed for menschhood was planted and nurtured early on in life. They may be catapulted into menschhood by some significant life experiences like experiencing a loss, surviving an illness, going through a betrayal by a business partner—all events that become a healthy trauma, that awaken one to the need to be a better human being, to function on a higher evolutionary plane. Still for others becoming a mensch evolves from a motivation to be a good leader, to do well while doing good. All of us have in us the capacity to act as mensches—it’s a part of being human. We just need to raise our awareness of how we show up in our dealings with others and ask ourselves, "Am I proud of who I am or who I have become as a person? Do I strive to do the right thing?" Self-awareness precedes self-management.

3.   Question: What is the acid test to separate the true mensches from the smooth pretenders?

Answer: There are two things at play here. The first is: Consistency. While some people can succeed at counterfeiting who they are for some of the time, if you spend enough time with them, you start to see some cracks in the veneer. You get a glimpse of the person behind the mask. It is very difficult to go through life, in all circumstances, trying to keep the mask in place. It will slip at some point. The other thought that comes to mind is that, deep down, most of us have a well-developed gut feel that sends signals to us that not everything we see is at it seems. But many choose to ignore the whispers for a variety of reasons. As Goethe put it: “We are never deceived; we deceive ourselves.” It may not be convenient or in our self-interest to believe otherwise, and, therefore, we ignore the small integrity slips, the little things we see that tell us all is not right with that person.

4.   Question: Who are some examples of mensches in business?

Answer: There are many. One, for example, was mentioned last month, by President Obama at his Address to the Joint Session of Congress. He spoke about Leonard Abess, a bank president in Florida who took his $60 million cash out bonus, and distributed it to all 399 people who worked for his bank, and not only that, he tracked down another 72 who used to work for him. When he was asked why he did it, he said: “I knew some of these people since I was seven years old. I didn’t feel right getting the money myself.”

Another example is Ted Forstsmann, CEO of IMG and the senior founding partner of Forstmann Little & Co, a leveraged buyout firm. Forstsmann co-founded The Chidren’s Scholarship Fund, the U.S.’s largest charity devoted to helping parents send their children to the schools of their choice. He continues to do work to improve the lives of children both here and abroad. Peter Peterson is another one. He is senior Chairman of the Blackstone Group, an alternative asset management and financial services company. Peterson gave $1 billion to his new foundation, the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, to help solve some of the U.S.’s biggest economic problems.

But it doesn’t just have to be about giving money: Christoper Avery, an international lawyer, founded Business & Human Rights Centre to track the positive and negative impact of over 4,000 companies worldwide. Chris Harrop, a marketing director for Marshalls, a UK stone company. He devoted his time for energetic campaigning to reduce child labor in the quarrying of Indian sandstone. Daphne E. Jones, Vice President, Information Technology and Chief Information Officer, Johnson & Johnson, is committed to helping women succeed and works to increase the number of women who work in science and technology. Linda Hunt, the Chief Administrative Officer at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center in Phoenix is a strong advocate for diversity, and the elimination of racism and discrimination. She has devoted herself to a hospital where she has an opportunity to also serve the poor and underserved in a part of the city with an ethnically diverse population. And, of course, we all know about Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Their mantra is: "Don’t be evil," which is to do the best things we know how for our users, for our customers, for everyone. As Page put it: “So I think if we were known for that, it would be a wonderful thing.” A wonderful thing, indeed, if every businessperson approached their work with this mind-set.

5.   Question: Many business people are very successful and rich and the antithesis of mensches, so why should we aspire to be mensches?

Answer: First, let’s define what the antithesis of a mensch is. This would be someone who lacks empathy, compassion and integrity—an individual who is self-serving, focused only on his own needs to succeed and acquire wealth. One would argue that those who accomplish their goals despite this way of doing business, might find success, but not significance. I love Peter Drucker’s exhortation to make your life your end-game, to ask yourself frequently: “What do you want to be remembered for?” Significance is making a positive difference in the world. Success without significance is hollow. Rabbi Hillel’s beautiful words say it best: “…if I am only for myself, then what am I?”

6.  Question: In tough times like these, is menschhood possible in businesses?

Answer: It’s not only possible, it is essential. People are increasingly more anxious about job security and the effect that the slumping economy will have on them. It’s much easier to run a business or lead teams when the economy is thriving but it is in these tough times that business people have a golden opportunity to rise above the din of the crowd as a true mensch and show leadership and ask themselves: “How can I make a difference?”

7.   Question: Can a young person, say under forty, be a mensch or does it only come with age?

Answer: Absolutely, anyone at any age can be a mensch—even a child can be taught to grow up as a mensch. And if you are a young entrepreneur for whom this concept has not been foremost on your mind, you can start right now. Develop a framework of principles and strong values that can help steer you in your daily choices and the decisions you make, a moral compass to guide you in your efforts to be a good human being, to use your many gifts to give something back to society.

8.   Question: Suppose that a person wants to become a mensch, what are the steps to take?

Answer: Here are eleven quick tips:

1.   Consistently act with honesty. Watch the   small integrity slips.

2.   When someone has wronged you, continue to treat them with civility.

3.   Are you in the habit of making hasty promises that you know, from experience, you are unable to keep? Think back on what promises you made, to whom, and see if you can fulfill some of these.

4.   Help someone who can be of absolutely no use to you.

5.   The next time something goes wrong on a project, suspend blame and ask: “What can we learn?”

6.   Hire people who are as smart or smarter than you are—whose talents surpass you—and give them opportunities for growth. Not only is it the smart thing to do but it is also a sign of high personal humility.

7.   Improve the way you communicate with people: don’t interrupt people; don’t dismiss their concerns offhand; don’t rush to give advice; don’t change the subject. Allow people their moment.

8.   Resolve to do no harm in anything you undertake. If you are certain that you don’t have the competence to take on something that is offered, consider that you might be doing harm to someone by accepting it anyway.

9.   Become aware of your stance at business meetings. Are you known as the devil’s advocate—the one who is quick to shoot down others’ ideas? Jumping in too quickly to negate an idea can derail the creative process for others. Often, valuable ideas are the result of the initial “crazy” thought.

10. Resolve to become a philanthropist of know-how. What knowledge, expertise or best practices can you share with colleagues, customers and other stakeholders as a way to enrich them?

11. At the end of each day, when you clear your desk before you head home, take a few minutes to mentally go over your day. Think about significant conversations you had, meetings you attended, emails you sent, and other actions you undertook. Are you proud? Could you have done better? Getting into this habit of introspection will pay dividends in the long run.

9.   Question: Would a mensch ever refer to himself or herself as being a mensch?

Answer: A mensch doesn’t normally refer to himself or herself as being a mensch. Generally, it is others who notice that quality about a person and might be inclined to say: “You are a mensch” or “That was a mensch thing to do.” in which case, this is humbly acknowledged. For example, last year, I was reading a tribute to Sam Sane, a distinguished businessman in Australia, celebrating his 90th birthday, during which he was referred to by those assembled as being a mensch to which he replied: “I’ve always believed I was born on this earth to be a mensch. And I’ve tried to be one.”

So the $64,000 question for all of us is, “What do you want to be remembered for?”