Building Engagement Through Purpose And Empathy

Too many leaders think they need to maintain a distance from their people in order to preserve their authority. But when it comes to engagement, the opposite is true.

It’s often said that “people don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” So if you’re seeing significant turnover in a team—or among your direct reports—then the source of the issue probably sits with you, the leader, not the team.

I have found that if you want to build engagement that lasts, you need to work on yourself as much as on your people—to be part teacher and part student. This is as true when you’re starting out as a leader as when you’re already the CEO.

Two areas on which you should focus are personal values/purpose and empathy.

Personal Values and Purpose

Great leaders get clear about their own purpose, not just the organization’s purpose. You may believe that you already know your purpose—perhaps your current job or industry felt like a calling from the beginning. However, the constant treadmill of work and personal commitments, and the energy required to meet monthly or quarterly targets, can often get in the way of deep reflection on issues such as purpose and values.

Think about the important choices you’ve made in your life and the way you’ve responded to significant challenges and opportunities. You may have self-talk or a stated set of goals that you fall back on, but your actions in times of stress are a bigger clue to what’s really important to you.

Similarly, think about the personal values that define your character—for example, integrity, courage, care for others, dependability and grit. Now consider: have you earned your colleagues’ trust by always acting in ways that are consistent with these values?

Talking these issues through with a coach, mentor or trusted friend is a good way to get the ideas out of your head. Or, consider actually writing out your answers to a few key questions, in a document that only you will read.

Before becoming CEO of Westpac, I prepared a ‘Personal Leadership Statement’, using an approach outlined by Terry Pearce in his excellent book, Leading Out Loud. The questions outlined in the book were enormously helpful to me in clarifying my own purpose and motivations, and over the course of the next few years I often referred back to this document to help recenter myself when things got tough.

While part of this self-examination is to set aspirations that go beyond today’s reality, the most important thing is to be honest with yourself about what’s really true and important to you.

Once you’re clear on your personal motivations, make sure you think carefully about how they line up with the leadership role you’re performing and the mission and values of the organization. You made a choice to take this role, and to be a leader in this organization—make sure you can explain why to your team members. If your people don’t understand your thinking, they will make assumptions and fill in the gaps for themselves, and not necessarily in a positive way.

Ultimately, you need to be able to say to your people, with conviction: ‘Here’s what I’m about; here’s what I stand for; here’s why I’ve chosen to be here; here’s what I believe we need to do as a team to fulfill the organization’s mission; and here’s why I believe in our ability as a team to achieve it.’

Empathy

When I reflect on the leaders I’ve known who consistently build highly engaged teams, one personality trait stands out: empathy.

Although some people seem to be born empathizers, certain aspects of leadership can play against the development of empathy. The more senior you become, the more removed from the day-to-day activities of your people you may be. Likewise, as people move up the ladder in an organization, they may find themselves responsible for people from different walks of life who perform roles that they themselves have never done. And there’s also the phenomenon of people not wanting to complain or give bad news to more senior people—thereby allowing the false conclusion that things are okay.

The challenge for leaders is to stay curious, open-minded and willing to feel uncomfortable. Ask open-ended questions, while resisting the temptation to be in ‘telling mode’ all the time. Spend time with parts of the organization that you don’t normally deal with, walking in their shoes whenever possible. Meet with people in their environment, rather than yours, so that they are more likely to open up. And don’t be afraid to ask dumb questions about things you ‘should know already’, and to try your hand on the tools.

Too many leaders think they need to maintain a distance from their people in order to preserve their authority. When it comes to engagement, I believe the opposite is true.

Look for symbolic ways to show that you understand your people and their jobs, and that you honor and respect them for it. Walk the floor at random, and don’t just talk to the senior people. Show up unexpected at events and celebrations that are important to them. Donate to their causes. Listen humbly to complaints. Attend funerals. Wear green on St Patrick’s Day, if that’s a thing at your workplace. And don’t EVER use your seniority to cut the queue in the local Starbucks or coffee shop. (PS: Getting to know the staff at the local coffee shop is a great way to find out how people are really feeling!)

The more your people respect you as a person, and believe you understand how they feel, the more they will put their heart into working for you and the organization. Your authenticity and commitment will do wonders for your team members’ personal commitment, confidence, and loyalty to both you and the organization.

Brian Hartzer is the author of THE LEADERSHIP STAR: A Practical Guide To Building Engagement. He is an experienced executive and leadership mentor who served as CEO of the Westpac Banking Group from 2015 to 2019. Earlier, he spent 15 years in senior executive roles at the Royal Bank of Scotland Group and ANZ Banking Group. Hartzer has also worked as a financial services strategy consultant at First Manhattan Consulting Group in New York, San Francisco, and Melbourne. He is currently an advisor and investor to several Sydney-based startups, including Quantium, a data-science company. Hartzer, who graduated from Princeton University and is a Chartered Financial Analyst, holds dual U.S. and Australian citizenship.