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Leadership lessons on…empathetic leadership

As evidence mounts that demonstrating EQ is as important as IQ when leading a firm, Insider Engage talks to industry executives about the strategies they employ as empathetic leaders

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Empathetic leadership - Key takeaways:

- Empathetic leadership isn’t just innate, elements can be learned

- Building trust over the long term is key

- It’s not all touchy-feely; there are structural approaches too

- Consistent communication is paramount

As the first wave of Covid-19 begins to subside, a whole host of headlines have declared that female leaders have outperformed their male peers in terms of both the death count from coronavirus and public perceptions of their handling of the crisis.

Germany’s Angela Merkel went viral for her concise and no-nonsense approach to describing the R0 factor in gauging infection rates.

New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern has kept Kiwis up to date with a series of Facebook Lives from her home, successfully walking the line between being casual and credible.

And Erna Solberg, prime minister of Norway, addressed her country’s children, winning praise for telling them that it was “OK to be scared”, acknowledging vulnerability whilst displaying her aptitude for leadership in a crisis.

Compare this with the US’s Donald Trump, whose often incoherent ramblings have led to countless parodies as well as explosions of anger, or Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who dismissed Covid-19 as “little flu”. The UK’s Boris Johnson also came in for criticism both at home and abroad, with the UK public scoring him a net approval rating of -6 at a particular low point in June, and overseas critics’ descriptions ranging from “complacent” to “idiotic”.

A number of columnists hailed the successes of Merkel, Ardern, Solberg etc. as an example of empathetic leadership trumping more macho approaches – EQ over perceived IQ.

Executives’ understanding of empathetic leadership is changing. It’s no longer just about displaying “soft” skills and “active listening”. Deployed effectively, it leads to faster decision-making, with longer term results and – importantly in times of stress – setting a tone of reassurance and certainty.

Defining empathetic leadership

There are no hard and fast rules for defining empathetic leadership skills. EQ leadership looks different for different types of leader.

For some, such as Nicolas Aubert, head of GB and CEO of Willis Limited, empathetic leadership is a long-term play around enriching people’s engagement.

"For me, empathetic leadership means to be in a situation where your relationship with your colleagues and your teams is recognised as accessible, frank, direct and reachable. It’s about building a proximity,” he says.

“A lot is dependent on the personality of the leader – it’s not something that can be built in a few days or weeks, it’s something which is connected to your reputation as a leader. But most of all it’s a relationship of trust and confidence.”

Markel International’s HR and communications director Joanna Browning agrees that trust is crucial.

“I think you can learn to build trust - I don't think [building that trust] comes naturally to some people,” she says.

She recalls a recent example where Markel Corporation decided to introduce a more relaxed dress code at work, and how, initially, board-level employees got “terribly caught up in the detail”, wondering if they needed to mandate certain rules about particular work situations.

What they ultimately realised however, was that they could trust their staff to apply common sense to their dress code.

“The message was really clear: we are trusting you to exercise good judgement. And actually, that then gets repaid in spades because when you do trust people, they do repay that with common sense.”

This underlines the core principle behind empathetic leadership for Browning, which is that you need to listen, not just tell.

“I think the stereotypical view of leadership is you need to be decisive, and you need to show that you are in control. What the last few months have reminded me is if you listen first, then ask questions, your decision-making and the path forward becomes easier.”

For Chris Lay, Marsh’s CEO for UK and Ireland, empathetic leadership is not something to be dabbled in – instead it should be at the heart of a healthy business culture, and a long-term concern.

“The number one priority is setting the right culture for a business, because everything flows from the culture. If you get a really good healthy culture, I think it’s empathy at the core of that.

“At Marsh in the UK we've got 7,000 people so you can guarantee that how that number of people all individually want to experience working in Marsh or how they want to serve clients is going to be different.

“You're constantly trying to figure out how people experience things, how they would like to experience things and how we can be as inclusive as possible. So in a way empathetic leadership is about getting that inclusivity right.”

Julie Page, Aon UK’s CEO, has a slightly different take on empathetic leadership. For her, it’s about bringing your staff along on the company’s journey.

“[As leaders] often we roll out strategies but we don't help everybody understand how the role they perform connects with the strategy, or what they can do to influence the outcome. Most people feel unable to support or deliver a strategy if they don't know how to influence the outcome that you're trying to achieve,” she explains.

Much of that is down to communication, and ’de-jargoning’ your leadership messaging.

“Take one of the big subjects right now: cash flow. Using those words doesn’t mean very much to many people in the organisation. If you're talking to large groups of people, talking about liquidity and cash flow, you’re leaving large groups of people behind.

“But if you’re talking about the importance of being able to raise invoices on time, to make sure they're accurate in order to make sure that the cash comes in, in order to meet the outgoings that we have, it helps people recognise the role they’re playing in contributing to the organisation,” she explains.

“It's always about putting your message into the head of recipient and seeing if they understand it – if they don’t, change your message.”

Elsewhere, Waleed Jabsheh, president of IGI, believes it’s all a question of balance. Often, people are quick to associate empathy with weakness – as a “touchy-feely”, or “soft” skill, he says, but in reality, empathy is more of an innate character trait that can be difficult to master.

“Leadership, therefore, is a balancing act. The best leaders understand how to balance what is best for the whole organisation with being kind, considerate and compassionate to individual employees. They understand how to be empathetic without being emotional, which can impact decision-making and judgement,” he says.

Strategies and execution

The execution of empathetic leadership can look very different at different firms. For some, it’s a very hands-on approach, about developing personal relationships with as many stakeholders as you can.

For others, it’s a more structural approach, collecting and interpreting data on a regular basis and using that insight to inform decision-making, rather than dictating policy from a small group of executives.

Willis’s Aubert is most definitely in the former camp. People-reach, as he defines it, is critical – and that goes beyond your mandatory network of your peers, your direct reports and your boss.

“One way for me to create these types of relationships is to reach out across the whole organisation,” he says.

Aubert has, for at least the last 15 years, held regular monthly leadership breakfasts where he dines with talent from across the company. There’s no agenda for these discussions: he will usually open proceedings with a candid update on the business and then throw it open for discussion.

“I ask them what is important to them, their worries and their hopes. It’s very active listening – and that’s critical for an EQ environment,” says Aubert.

“This isn’t something that you can bluff anybody about, you have to be very close to the details. You might consider those details irrelevant to your role, but they’re important to your colleagues.

“When you do that, you create an enormous network of people you’ve maybe only seen once or twice, but it means you’ve literally seen hundreds of people who now know who you are as a leader, and more so than just seeing you speak at a town hall.”

These relationships are important for two reasons, he argues – firstly, they’re more likely to follow you when you have to make tough decisions, but also they act as your ambassadors within their parts of the company.

“When you have a crazy situation like we do at the moment [Covid-19], you can clearly identify that everything you’ve built over the years has generated a leverage,” Aubert explains.

“You maximise the quality of that relationship during a crisis, because you have to communicate over the more formal mechanics.”

He explains that since the start of Covid-19, he has emailed all staff fortnightly, and strongly believes that his emails carry more credibility given that hundreds of his staff have this personal relationship with Aubert from these previous engagements.

“This is why EQ is critical - when you need the contact at a time where you can’t really have contact, it means that an email becomes very important and something people are truly reading because they are used to you talking to them in other environments.”

Marsh’s Lay is a fan of in-person catch-ups. Alongside his regular meetings with his immediate team and the company-wide town halls, he has introduced what he calls “the second cup of coffee” routine.

This is where, when an employee is due to settle in for their second cup of coffee, usually around the late morning, they use that as an opportunity to check in with someone else.

Lay also uses his weekly town hall with the entire company to give others in his firm a podium on which to talk.

“I might bring in eight to 10 other people, so it’s not just me trying to communicate to us, [it is] really the organisation communicating to itself.”

Markel’s Browning certainly sees the merits in the personal approach – she details how several staff have been trained about the importance of storytelling in bringing about any sort of change management.

Through lockdown, Markel International introduced a newsletter which featured real life experiences of their execs, including managing director of wholesale James Hastings, where he had to work out of his in-law’s spare room as he was in the middle of moving house when lockdown hit.

But she also advocates a more structured approach, using technology and data to feed into decision-making.

In the company’s future of working initiative – fantastically timed with the peak of Covid-19 and shifting everyone to a home-working environment – they started off conducting surveys, then created focus groups, which led to the creation of four work streams.

Those work streams allowed practitioners at the coalface to test out some of the leadership’s working assumptions at an early stage, and feed back quickly.

“Running a project in this way has actually taken less time. And that allows us to get to answers quicker, which we're hoping will mean that we’re able to offer a better service.”

Another outcome from Markel’s regular analysis of its staff has been its wellbeing survey, run every fortnight, which asks employees how they’re feeling on a scale of one to five, before asking questions about support from the company, communications from leadership and resources to help them do their job.

“We thought, after a while, we'd get some survey fatigue. But actually, the numbers have stayed constant all the way through. And that has been incredibly helpful for informing what we do because people have used it as a cry for help, where they’ve needed to,” says Browning.

IGI’s Jabsheh says he can recall "many instances over the past twenty years when an employee has been faced with sad and unfortunate circumstances such as loss or sickness".

"We have always stood by them, just like a family member would, and given them extended leave periods, paid by the company to come to terms with their tragic circumstances," he says.

"We have seen again and again these people come back to the office more loyal, dedicated and hardworking than ever before. Empathy is understanding the difficult times of others and supporting them through them."

Creating certainty

Perhaps the biggest gain from empathetic engagement in the current environment is a sense of certainty. Reassuring, human words from the people at the top – through regular, unrobotic communication – goes a long way in a pandemic.

“It's a scary place – uncertainty creeps in and just sucks the oxygen out of the air,” says Aon’s Page.

Marsh’s Lay agrees: “The one thing that is constant in life is change. And the one thing that most human beings don't like is uncertainty. So the best way of navigating that is communication.”

A simple way of keeping that reassurance going in uncertain times is reminding people of long-term strategies.

“One of the things that we have set out right at the beginning of the crisis was this idea that you have a North Star as a business,” says Lay. “Now you're going to face all sorts of things every day. But you always have to come back and say, you know, am I keeping an eye on my North Star?

“At a time of crisis, it's really important that you can say to your team, ‘You know, we are with you’. [And then] when we're gonna have to make decisions around expense control, or working policies etc… we've gotten that North Star that we've agreed on.”

As a final piece of advice for those considering upping their EQ, all of our experts agree that self-awareness is key. Understanding yourself, your strengths and your limitations is the first step to truly empathising with others.

At Aon, executives are put through the Leading Aon United programme. Page explains: “The talent development strategy around Leading Aon United is about self-awareness. It’s understanding who you are in all the situations that lead to better outcomes for colleagues, better outcomes for clients, better outcomes for society. And the way you work is the first step to understanding the impact you have in any given situation.”

The programme also looks at understanding how you create a diverse team to make sure that you have the range of skills and capacity for every situation, and importantly when you delegate versus do.

“I have some colleagues in my leadership team who have been outstanding leaders through the first four months of this crisis… they’ve enabled us to trade on uninterrupted and communicate effectively, taking all the uncertainty and all of the insecurity out of decisions,” says Page.

“Some of us are listening. Some of us are telling. It’s all about clarity, eliminating uncertainty and reinforcing the safety and wellbeing in everything that we do. My job is making our colleagues in the UK, feel safe, certain and able to bring the best of themselves to work.”

Finally, for IGI’s Jabsheh, empathetic leadership should extend beyond the parameters of your company’s walls – it’s about being part of the wider community too.

As well as providing the necessary support to its employees during the government-mandated Covid-19 lockdown, IGI also extended its support to its broader communities by supporting mobile medical clinics, donating to health institutions to assist in dealing with the pandemic, and fundraising for our charitable causes.

“As leaders, it is vital that we set an example and become role models,” Jabsheh says.

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