The new CEO: Chief Empathy Officer

Empathy is more than a nice-to-have soft skill – it can drive business growth by fostering stronger, more engaged teams. Consider these five tips to show empathy as a leader
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When I first joined Futurice as the new group CEO, I decided to schedule some get-to-know-you meetings with the various offices throughout Europe. In one of those meetings, I confused the Finnish cities of Tampere and Turku – a bad mistake to make among Finns. (And I am Finnish! I should have known better.) It started a storm of jokes that led to the team in Tampere immortalizing my mistake – they made t-shirts and wore them on the next group call. I’ve been paying for it ever since with the giggles and jokes that come with a screw-up from the boss.

This opportunity to be vulnerable with my teams has led to emails, suggestions, complaints, and other communications from across the company that still come to me each day. They are keeping me in the loop. It’s just one powerful lesson on how the work world has changed and how leadership needs to strategically change with it.

Being vulnerable is just one way to build trust, and it is rooted in a new era of recognizing empathy as a core leadership quality. I am no longer just the Chief Executive Officer. Now, if I really want to promote the growth and development of our company, I am also the Chief Empathy Officer.

5 ways to lead with empathy

Here are five ways to convey empathy as a leader to your teams.

1. Enable strategic connections in a hybrid world

The last couple of years have introduced a new hybrid work culture within our organization. Familiar coffee-break conversations and random discussions have been replaced with fully scheduled days of meetings behind a screen. We have amazing offices in Finland, Germany, Sweden, and the UK, designed for creativity and featuring all the amenities one would expect from a company that is leading technology innovation. Yet because of the pandemic, many of us are no longer physically in the offices every day.

[ Want more leadership advice for the challenges of the new year? Read 4 soft skills leaders will need in 2022. ]

For this reason, leaders need to provide a level of physiological safety outside the walls of the building, along with opportunities to meet the group within those walls. When we were all connected by only a video link, focusing on the company strategy helped us feel valuable to the organization. But keep in mind that without a physical connection, people rely more heavily on company leadership and the communication of their role within the organization.

2. Make people feel valuable

One of the most damaging occupational challenges happens when employees do not feel strategically valuable. This leads to the downgrade of mental health and deterioration of teams. People need to know:

  • Why am I important to this organization?
  • Why are we doing what we are doing?
  • At the end of the day, where will we end up, and how do my efforts contribute?

Top leadership has historically been responsible only for numbers and the bottom line. Profitability and utilization numbers are still important, but they generally do not motivate employees outside of the leadership, shareholders, and the board.

Similarly, the feelings and well-being of the staff have long been the primary responsibility of the HR team. This no longer works in a company that is growing sustainably. The “Great Resignation” indicates that well-being has taken on a new level of critical importance. Arguably, a key contributor to this phenomenon has been employees’ lack of emotional connection to their employers.

How can leaders help people feel their connection to the organization when they are physically separated? Empathy is the answer. The understanding of the empathetic leader bridges gaps and is a key component in communicating the personal role people have in the strategy of the company.

In short, empathy is not just a tactic. Genuine concern for people is the ultimate business strategy for growth.

Empathy is not just a tactic. Genuine concern for people is the ultimate business strategy for growth.

3. Plan meaning-making activities

A lesson that woke me up to this reality came well before we started working from our kitchens and repurposed bedroom offices.

Years ago, at a previous company, my team and I were tasked with finding out why people were using an unusual amount of sick time. Our research revealed that we were leaving too many people outside the circle of the business strategy, even though we knew it was critical to have everyone on board.

To solve this, we created what we call “meaning-making activities.” Meaning-making activities help people understand why their work is required and why we are doing things both as a company and as individuals. This also led us to understand that we can let go of things – for example, we found tasks and methods that were started 20 years ago that had become redundant.

As we built more meaning-making activities, we became more efficient and were able to show that we cared about everyone around us, which helped build a stronger organization.

4. Be transparent

Being the CEO is a big job, with little downtime. But that’s no excuse to hide in your office with the door closed. The most important thing you can do as a leader is to get out there and be available to share and to listen. And that means listening to everyone, not just other leaders.

I started holding virtual coffee breaks when I first started – not just company-wide, but with individuals and smaller groups in each office. This provided an opportunity to hear things first-hand and demonstrate my new learnings not just as a leader but as a colleague. A willingness to learn from the top experts in the business has helped me create open channels of communication for the long term and enabled us all to work in a socially safe environment.

My job as a leader is to keep that door open with ongoing conversations that I believe will lead to success and growth. It can be scary and stressful to admit your mistakes to colleagues. But it is incredibly productive strategically because the whole team will get behind you and tell you the tough things you need to know to be successful.

The most important thing you can do as a leader is to get out there and be available to share and to listen.

The best part: Being open to difficult conversations can empower the organization to do even more amazing things that support the team without the CEO’s input.

5. Focus on training

Unfortunately, empathy is rarely addressed in leadership training. To increase awareness of its importance, leaders should strive to make empathy a core aspect of workplace culture. After all, the most effective way to get the most out of people is to help them be the best version of themselves.

This also means helping leaders become better leaders. It is unrealistic to expect that all leaders inherently possess skills in leadership, executive decision-making, and business strategy – and are also empathetic and open for discussions with your teams.

Every investment into better leadership strategies will contribute to the formula for helping teams perform better.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Simo Leisti is the group CEO of Futurice, an international digital engineering and innovation company with a total of seven offices in Finland, Germany, Sweden, and the UK.