The global pandemic has changed how we all live and work. For companies to survive in this new world, it is imperative they adapt a fresh approach toward leadership. I believe the key is placing humans at the center of the organization.
When companies prioritize their employees, it enables them to withstand adversity and succeed in the future.
The idea of a people-first culture is not new. We hear about empathy from leaders and see it listed as one of a company’s core values. Yet, management teams are still falling short in practicing what that truly looks like. A recent study from leadership consulting firm DDI revealed that most CEOs are not impressed with their leadership team. “Only one in three CEOs (34%) say their organization’s frontline leadership quality is ‘very good’ or ‘excellent.’” The report goes on to note the three essential skills executives need most — empathy, inclusivity and effective communication — are deficient.
To develop the next generation of leaders, founders and CEOs must prioritize interpersonal skills such as compassion, vulnerability and open communication within the organization. To me, a leader should be an effective communicator and facilitator, one who removes roadblocks and exposes opportunities for their people to function as their best selves. However, I’ve often found that leaders are not trained in this way. Many do not have the rapport with their direct employees, nor do they know what to do with that responsibility, either. Usually, a manager will think about their staff based on key performance indicators or some piece of data that tells them how the individual is performing. It’s easier than ever to quantify anything, but it also creates an environment where you’re quantifying things that shouldn’t be.
Many leaders believe they are empathetic, but true empathy is about managing people as human beings and ensuring their well-being is a high priority.
This looks like caring enough to want to learn how others are feeling and then working at understanding those emotions. In my experience, not only are many senior leaders not trained to manage in this way, but they are also not getting the resources and support from companies to do so. Having a culture that is organically empathetic starts with a top-down approach.
As a CEO and founder, it’s my responsibility to establish best practices for how the organization cares for our human capital, which, in turn, sets the company up for success. This is about creating a psychologically safe environment for everyone to come to work as their full selves. For me, open communication is having regular conversations with my leadership team, so they have the tools they need to adapt to our company processes. From watching me set the stage, they can follow suit and use the same approach with the rest of our team.
For a human-first culture, here are three methods I use to build an empathetic and inclusive environment:
Align everyone to the “why.”
Transparency is critical in leadership because employees expect visibility. When your staff knows the “why” behind their everyday tasks or can at least understand what direction the business is going in and the reason for it, they will be invested in the success of the company.
Support employees in reaching their personal and professional goals.
Be intentional about having quarterly conversations with your team members. During these meetings, map out a blueprint for the foreseeable future, and learn about what matters to them in their lives.
- Do they want to start a family in the next three to five years?
- Do they have an appetite for learning and development?
- Do they want to transition into a new role?
Additionally, inform them of the direction the business is moving in. These are things I do in my own company, and I’ve found the great thing about these plans is it’s a tool my employees use to stay in alignment with the business. Sometimes that even means working out a transition plan if they feel the company is no longer a fit for them. Regardless, I will do whatever I can to support them.
This is an active practice. That’s why I recommend providing inclusion and diversity training for your entire business and having ongoing conversations around what this means and the role everyone plays. It’s important that you set the baseline for what is expected not only from you but also from your team members.
My business, for example, is led by immigrants, and our team represents our user base, which is wildly diverse in ethnicities, sexuality and gender. We make a dedicated effort to build trust by having open dialogues about global issues and their impact on our team members. I frequently meet with our entire team to ask questions to understand their feelings, such as:
- What’s happening in the world?
- What does that mean to you?
- What are you seeing in your community that others may not be aware of?
I think this education is important, which we take and put into our business. It goes beyond training; it’s about creating the right structures to allow a diverse workforce to seamlessly work together.
If a company does not create an environment of psychological safety or one where it’s safe to be an empathetic leader, then it will be impossible for a leader to act in that way. Building an emotionally intelligent leadership team must start with each person doing their own self-assessment.
Think about how you approach empathy overall. How do you communicate with your staff? Are you asking how they are? Are you asking how they are developing? For leaders who don’t normally engage in this way, strengthening these skills does not happen overnight. It’s about building and nurturing relationships, and that takes time.
By practicing active listening, respect and curiosity, we can build human-centric workplaces that attract and retain quality talent, which is key to a business’s success.