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3 ways to be a more empathic leader

The role of the CEO fundamentally changed overnight—these are the ways that two entrepreneurs have found to connect with their teams in more meaningful ways.

3 ways to be a more empathic leader
[Source illustration: tomozina/iStock]
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As entrepreneurs and investors, we spend a lot of time thinking about what it takes to build strong companies.

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But COVID forced a major reset in every aspect of our lives. That reset has given us a more authentic glimpse into the lives of our colleagues and implored us to focus on another key element for building a great business: empathy. Empathy is about truly understanding the experiences and perspectives of others.

These days, many of us work with others over video conference. While it’s enabled us to stay connected, it’s also put us quite literally in their homes. We see partners in the background making coffee, we meet their kids when they run into the frame, and we hear grandma quieting the dog who is barking too loudly.

These events give us insights into our hectic home lives and the multiple responsibilities we all juggle. With the curtain pulled back and the many facets of life laid bare for all to see, we are reminded that we have a responsibility—and an opportunity—to show more empathy, and in doing so, to build a stronger culture and business.

But how can leaders be intentional about showing empathy? Here’s what we’ve discovered works for us:

Be more vulnerable

If you open up to your employees about your own ups and downs, if you are more human, you model the opportunity for others to do the same.

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Everyone has gone through a tough time in the past year—be it the extreme stress of a personal health crisis, juggling childcare and work, contending with the stress of online education, or supporting a loved one experiencing serious mental health challenges. No matter our position, we need to be authentic to the moment we’re living in and recognize the humanity in those we work with.

Professionalism, which used to mean keeping your personal issues to yourself, has changed forever. With the shared stresses of the pandemic, we have permission to open up more. By doing so, you might find that an employee is dealing with an unimaginable loss that will allow you the opportunity to better support them.

Being more transparent can be as simple as skipping out on well-designed Zoom backgrounds in favor of showing your real environment. Recently we backed a founder who had her second child just weeks before. She felt so at ease, that she was comfortable holding her newborn during our Zoom meetings. When you create an environment of psychological safety, you give those around you a chance to share the outside forces that impact how they’re showing up at work.

Consider innovative benefits

It’s time to throw out the old rules on benefits. Now is a critical time to reassess how you are supporting employees’ whole selves. For a while now, we’ve seen an uptick around wide-reaching employee benefits, including everything from financial wellness to pet insurance.

If any of these benefits sound like true extras, research shows that employees are bringing a renewed level of attention to their benefits package. According to Prudential, three in four employees say the pandemic has made their employee benefits “more important than ever before.”

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Consider which benefits will have a meaningful impact for your team and work to ingrain empathy into what you offer to employees. Perhaps that’s a mental wellness benefit (like Calm), sponsoring an employee’s membership in a leadership organization (like Chief), supporting employees in building their families (FertilityIQ), offering a child care stipend, or building out an upskilling program to help employees adapt and expand their opportunities within your company.

When we advise founders on this topic, we recommend investing in at least one benefit that is uniquely on-brand for your team. Alexa’s company, LearnVest, worked to make financial planning accessible, so every employee was given a free financial plan and assigned a Certified Financial Planner to work with. This benefit gave everyone a direct understanding of LearnVest’s value proposition, and it helped ensure that money was not a major source of stress for employees.

Create new channels for open, honest communication

In our new working world, we’ve lost so many of the serendipitous opportunities for connection around the office. There are less chances to check in with colleagues informally. On top of that, we’ve gone through tremendous hardship as a country and in our communities over the past year—from a tumultuous election cycle to devastating natural disasters.

Make it a practice to start your meetings by taking a moment to ask “How are you doing?” These simple yet genuine check-ins give your team space to share what’s on their mind, and they give you an opportunity to listen and learn.

This learning is critical because the role of the CEO has fundamentally changed overnight. Business leaders are expected to be leaders across a range of topics, navigating everything from a company’s response to Covid to calls for racial equity and to providing more inclusive opportunity.

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One of the best tools we have as leaders is to authentically communicate about these events. They affect our teams not only on a business-level, but as citizens and humans. That is why, in the wake of the conversation around George Floyd and the senseless deaths of too many others, we opened an honest dialogue with our teams to actively condemn racism and discrimination, reaffirmed our team’s values, and established a stipend for each employee to individually contribute to a non-profit organization of their choosing to promote racial justice and equity.

The bottom line is that empathy matters in all aspects of life; it’s not just a box to check off. To build a great business, you must integrate empathy into the fabric of your company, turning it from an individual practice into a widely delivered experience for your employees, your customers, and all of your stakeholders.

Penny Pritzker and Alexa von Tobel are co-founders of early-stage venture capital firm, Inspired Capital. Penny served as U.S. Secretary of Commerce in the Obama Administration and is the founder and Chairman of the investment firm PSP Partners. Alexa founded LearnVest (acquired by Northwestern Mutual in 2015) and is the author of Financially Fearless and Financially Forward.