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Four Ways CEOs Can Lead With Empathy

How do we engender more empathy into our own leadership? Here are four ways to apply empathy—and produce a more energized, satisfied, and forward-thinking C-Suite.

four ways for CEOs to show empathyMany years ago, I was elected president of our company’s field leadership association. Brimming with new ideas about how to make our company better, I attended a strategic planning meeting between field officers and company executives and felt my innovative contributions were dazzling. On the drive home I asked the executive vice president, who was traveling with me, for his thoughts on how it had gone. I was looking for affirmation. I got something more precious: criticism.

“Pepper, you are bright and energetic and your ideas are spot on,” he said. “It’s just that there are too many good ideas. You’re moving faster than the rest of the room. Slow down. Triage the top two or three ideas we can all contribute to and let’s make them happen. Remember that while you are in association meetings, you are their president. Don’t act like a manager. Try being more ‘presidential.’ Be curious and invite others into the solutions. Build the teams and let the teams do the work.”

I didn’t exactly embrace this feedback right away. It took months of reflection to process what I thought was criticism, but later recognized as a gift. It was a coaching session loaded with insight and integrity. I had been the recipient of applied empathy.

My EVP knew I was new in this role, overly eager, anxious to show my bona fides. He could have chided me and dismissed my enthusiasm. Instead, he reinforced the reasons I had gotten the job in the first place as he offered sound advice on how to best move forward. We are all predisposed to “brace ourselves” for feedback, to only focus on the negative. But when someone truly shows they care, they understand where we are coming from, even taking negative feedback can come off as an overwhelmingly positive experience.

I have often observed bright, talented corporate stars, some of whom have made significant contributions to their companies, burn out prematurely. They are either regulated to a non-contributing role or asked to leave. When I ask those who decided why someone so bright didn’t eventually work out, I inevitably hear things like, “They just don’t know how to play well” (i.e. not a team player) or were clunky in his dealings with others. Organizational shifts are slight at first: “It’s just easier to do a work around them” becomes the mantra, until eventually the executive stops being asked to join key project teams.

How could the executive miss what was happening? How could the team not see their workarounds were contributing to the premature exit of someone who at one time had been viewed as invaluable? Simple. Everyone was focused on their own view. So the executive was surprised by his or her early departure, and the team was unaware how they contributed to the executive’s professional demise by withholding feedback and creating workarounds.

No one wants to be the person who one day wakes up and realizes they are being frozen out at work—and that their involuntary exit is already in the works. So how do you develop more awareness, more understanding of what is happening in the corporate culture around you, and how you can fit better into it?   One word: empathy.

The power of empathy

Last year, a colleague and I attended The Future of Storytelling’s annual gathering in Snugg Harbor, New York. We were checking out various breakout sessions when we stumbled into one about empathy. Empathy? As a business tool? I’d never heard of such a thing. Curious, I sat in and was captivated by Michael Ventura’s talk about how his Manhattan design firm had helped GE increase a product line’s sales by employing empathy. GE applied empathy to change the patient experience, resulting in greater demand for its machines and their enhancements to the patient experience. I was intrigued. If empathy could increase sales by changing the experience, how might professional development incorporate applied empathy to increase the productivity and retention of our most valuable resource: talent?


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