Creating Empathetic Leaders in a Fear-Filled Time

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"Leading from the Heart" -- a session in She Runs It's virtual event series "Lessons from Leaders," which aims to guide women in media and marketing through the challenging realities of Coronavirus (COVID-19) -- provided an essential lesson at this time when our collective heart is a little broken.  Claude Silver, the aptly named chief heart officer for Gary Vaynerchuk's VaynerMedia, hosted the session.

The ongoing questions many are solving for include, "What does leadership look like in the current climate?" and "What are the new rules of conducting business and keeping staff engaged and inspired?"  Silver's answers revolved around her advocacy for maintaining high touch.  In a virtual world, this approach often requires that leaders show vulnerability and authenticity that can feel counterintuitive to traditional management styles.

When asked by one attendee how to deal with a less-than-empathetic "superior," Silver bridled, "The word 'superior' makes my skin crawl."  Her explanation summed up her stance for going forward in today's new reality.  "This world today has changed forever," she said.  "The fact that we now are looking at each other on FaceTime, working together and collaborating takes empathy.  It takes patience.  It takes vulnerability and letting someone into your personal life.  My hope is that those people who think they can lead from an ivory tower [will learn] they just can't."

To this chief heart officer, words — and empathetic actions — matter.  She is not a fan of the phrase "soft skills" in describing communication or people skills, for example, and instead prefers "life skills," for which employees should be affirmed.  "Being the bigger person in every situation might be considered a soft skill," she explained, "but it's very much now what I'm equating with a high performer" versus a micro-manager or bully.

Empathy is a skill that leaders need now more than ever — especially those who are learning the flexibility dance — in realizing that the world we're in today will likely continue as a revolution in future times, with more employees shifting to working from home.  And that means understanding that there are dogs to walk and kids to feed during the workday.

As hiring managers adjust to virtual interviews, one need only take a page from Silver's approach, which she established many years pre-COVID-19 as a good option to adopt in updating old ways.  At Vayner, she renamed the human resources group the People and Experience Department.  Her team is composed of "Culture Champions," in part because she feels hiring for skill-set fit (hard or life skills) and culture addition (not "fit" as in sameness) is essential for company growth and diversity.

It's still possible to observe a candidate's qualities such as body language and focus through the screen, and those words that matter come through, too.  For example, Silver listens for signs that telegraph Vayner's core values of curiosity, possibility and optimism, in prospects' language.  She likes those who use more "we" than "I" to indicate a team mentality, and asks many open-ended or emotionally focused questions, such as "Tell me a time when your team failed" or "How do you celebrate success?"

Without the ability to have candidates or staff travel to offices for the in-person, high-touch treatment of traditional meetings, "We use all different types of technologies to understand what it is they're going through," Silver said.  She wants to communicate around "feelings like anxiety, or like 'I can never shut off because I'm always on,' with people texting at 10 at night."

Her Culture Champions create fun ice breakers through Skype or Zoom meetings, so they can see other's faces — what she calls "12 to 12."  That's 12 people gathered for 12 minutes at 12 o'clock.

For those still looking to make their career mark who may be concerned about showing their own vulnerability, her advice is "be who you are. Continue to let yourself shine.  That doesn't mean shine the light on you.  Shine the light out of you, so you're bringing this goodness to other people.  It will be noticed, and you will find a sponsor, a Sherpa, a guide to take you forward into your career."

That Sherpa may take the form of a mentor, which has been a core component of She Runs It for close to 25 years.  Silver refers to Vayner's "We, not I culture" as one that also demands mentoring.  "Leadership isn't dictating what needs to happen," she says.  "Mentors need to come together and share best practices, share learning, share challenges … and create more effective programs, more effective skills and tools."

For staff to "manage up" and influence culture and leadership empathy, Silver shared the following advice.  "Change takes a groundswell ... two, three, four people to get together on the fringes and start doing things, a women's network within your organization or an improv group," she said.  "If you have this group of people [who] are passionate about bringing more so-called 'soft skills' to the organization, then leadership will take notice once people start flocking to it; once there are enough people who say, 'Can we have a Pride event here?'  'Can we have an art show here?'  But it does take action."  Even if, these days, it has to start as a Slack channel.

Finally, to "face the fear and do it anyway," Silver cited The Little Engine That Could.  "In taking the first step in a pivot, remember, 'I think I can, I think I can,'" she suggested.  "A big part of overcoming fear is what you put into your head.  Saying things like 'I am worthy' could be corny, but mantras or affirmations that will ground you in some way are very, very important.  You're either going to let fear propel you and turn that fear into motivation, which then turns into possibility, which turns into action, and then you do it and it becomes a habit, and wow!

"Or are you're going to let the fear keep you on the couch and shuffling through the channels all day?" she asked.  "We all have that choice every single day."

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