Debby Carreau MBA CHRP
Not long ago, empathy was considered a soft skill that a leader, who had to be tough, could not afford. Now, as leaders seek to connect more directly with employees, customers and stakeholders, an ability to nurture strong relationships is essential. We have all heard the old adage. ”You can’t lead someone effectively if you can’t walk a mile in his or her shoes”.
On a recent flight I witnessed this practice brought to life. Gregg Saretsky, WestJet CEO, was flying down to Palm Springs for a mini vacation. Interestingly, instead of acting as a passenger, Gregg was working as a flight attendant (and no he wasn’t on Undercover Boss). Based on his speed and efficiency it was clear this was a common practice for him, not a token effort. Gregg worked the entire flight joking with the team, talking to passengers and soliciting their feedback. Being the curious person that I am, I pull the flight attendant working with Gregg aside and asked him “what it’s like working side by side with the CEO of a multi-billion dollar company?” “It’s really cool; he does this all the time and really gets it”. He answered.
WestJet was founded on the principle of Caring, which consistently delivers results. There is a clear the correlation here between employee engagement, customer satisfaction and profitability. WestJet continues to be the favourite for travellers, investors and employees alike. The leader of this organization truly understands his stakeholders and delivers on their needs consistently.
Empathy and expertise are a winning formula for leaders. If a leader can be curious, competent, and authentic, it sets a standard for others to follow and reinforces that everybody is motivated differently.
Many women leaders share common attributes that serve us well as empathetic leaders:
- We place a high value on relationships and judge our success based on the quality of these relationships
- We tend to prefer direct in-person communication to second hand data
- We are unwilling to compartmentalize our lives and so we draw upon the personal experience and insights, we and others, bring to our jobs
- We prefer leading from the center rather than the top and structure our organizations accordingly
- We take a long term view
At all levels of management empathy is a critical skill. Set aside the “soft stuff”, If you can imagine a person's point of view — regardless if you agree with it — you can more effectively influence them. Empathizing with your team, your peers, and your colleagues won't make you a pushover — it'll give you more power as a leader.