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Amid a pandemic and a historic racial reckoning, a tech leader confronts the limits of empathy

The founder of NetSuite shares his journey of leading by listening and learning.

Amid a pandemic and a historic racial reckoning, a tech leader confronts the limits of empathy
[Source photo: kieferpix/iStock]
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As a white male, my journey to where I sit today has been very different than a person of color or anyone in a minority or marginalized group.

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I’m aware of that, and I have always strived to be empathetic and compassionate. But 2020 gave me a fresh perspective, and it’s changed me as a leader.

When COVID-19 forced employees of my company to shift to working remotely, in many ways it felt like an experience all of us were having together. But I recently saw a quote that really struck me: “We’re not all in the same boat. We are all in the same storm.”

I’m a parent of older children, and I live in a house with a quiet office that allows me to isolate. My experience is different from my colleagues raising young children, some of them single parents, as well as those who live in small apartments with roommates, who have spouses who are essential workers, or who are also caring for their parents. Our boats are very different.

And when the protests for racial justice started growing and spreading this summer, being an empathetic leader was hard—because I can’t begin to know what it’s like to be Black in America.

As the pandemic drags on and racial justice once again fades from the headlines, company leaders can’t be lulled into thinking we’ve reached a different normal. Work-from-home stresses are still piling up for many, and the frustration of seeing racial issues once again retreat from the spotlight (but not from reality) is painfully familiar for many. I know I need to continue to focus more time and attention on certain areas:

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LISTEN, THEN LISTEN SOME MORE

For people of color, the acts that spawned racial protests worldwide brought to the surface painful personal experiences and the gut-wrenching realization that so many—including their coworkers and company leaders—still just don’t understand.

I realized that expressing empathy for an experience I have not had and about biases I will never face would ring hollow. So I started holding listening sessions. Employees were very honest about their experiences with racism and bias, and hearing those stories was hard. I’ve learned about things that have happened in my own company that distress me, and I am now focused on ways to prevent such things from happening in the future. But I wouldn’t have known if I hadn’t listened.

We have to take the time to honestly check in with employees and listen to their experiences and concerns. You might learn that a tweak to a long-standing company policy can make a huge difference to employees. But first, you must listen.

ACKNOWLEDGE EMPLOYEES’ UNIQUE CHALLENGES 

The range of ways that employees’ lives have been upended during this pandemic—sick friends or family members, a changed work and home life, lost freedoms, plans obliterated, no social life, hugs forbidden—is quite stunning. While we’re all facing loss, some are truly struggling under the stress.

So many of our employees are working parents who are having to hold down a full-time job while caring for young children and adapting to distance learning. Many of our single employees are isolated and bearing the brunt of an endless workload and really struggling to “turn it off.” Burnout is a real risk for everyone.

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Just because an employee appears to be fine during this pandemic doesn’t mean that the heightened emotions and pressures aren’t taking a big toll. As a leader, I try to keep in mind that people don’t wear these pressures on their sleeves.

TALK WITH OTHER LEADERS

In discussions with other business leaders, I’ve learned that while the people may be different, the concerns and challenges are very much the same. That’s why I look to other leaders for ideas.

One CEO I spoke with started hosting a regular “ask me anything” session for their employees. It’s a great way to give employees an outlet to voice their concerns or give overall feedback. It’s important to listen and make them feel heard.

We’ve adopted something similar at NetSuite with an “AskEvan” email alias where employees can send me questions or comments any time and I’ll answer. Keeping an unguarded line of communication is so critical to establishing a good relationship with employees. Especially now.

It’s also important for leaders to share what’s happening in their lives. At the beginning of the pandemic, I sent out frequent communications where I would relate a few anecdotes from my home. Like how my son regularly beats me in our competition of chipping golf balls into a planter. How my extended family bridged the isolation gap by having a DJ dance party via video, with my brother-in-law spinning on Twitch. How my family and I are having family-friendly “Mandatory Happy Hours” that include puzzles, games, and walks in the neighborhood. And how I struggle to keep track of what day it is in this repeated Groundhog Day we’re living.

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SPEAK THOUGHTFULLY

Words carry weight, particularly when people are feeling vulnerable. More than ever, I need to think carefully about the intent of my words and actions and consider the impact they may have. I hope to be able to say things that are inspiring, but sometimes simply being honest is the most appropriate thing—as in, “thank you for telling me about your experience. I had no idea. I am learning a lot.”

I don’t know where we are headed, but there are two things I know—the lessons learned last year will not be forgotten and compassion and empathy will never expire.

Evan Goldberg is founder and executive vice president of Oracle NetSuite, a provider of enterprise resource planning and business software to more than 24,000 customers.