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6 “secret sauce” ingredients for empathetic leadership

Sam Smith — founder and former CEO of finnCap Group — argues that a culture of empathy will help superscale any business.
Black-and-white portrait of a woman with an empathetic gaze and a black frame, set against a green patterned background.
Aaron Blanco Tejedor / Unsplash / Sam Smith / Big Think
Key Takeaways
  • Entrepreneurs can fall into the “tunnel vision trap” of focusing on the day-to-day without considering the culture they are building.
  • Empathetic leaders understands that culture, rather than solely monetary reward, is the driver that people are looking for.
  • When empathetic leadership is coupled with inclusive culture you have a formula to drive superscale growth.

Our ability to superscale a business globally has been made simpler by our increasingly interconnected and technology-driven world — however, they alone do not guarantee sustainable growth. It is the skills and behaviors of leaders that define an organization’s ability to scale. I argue that empathetic leadership has the greatest power to drive global growth. 

When you prioritize empathetic leadership, you not only build an organization united around shared goals, but relationships are grounded in mutual respect, trust and inclusion, which directly improves collaboration and productivity. 

What is empathetic leadership?

When growing their business, entrepreneurs can fall into the “tunnel vision trap,” focusing on the day-to-day without considering the culture they are building around them. Empathetic leadership emphasizes the importance of workplace culture, belonging, active listening and awareness of impact on others. It recognizes that to build sustainability, you have to commit to building the team you need, sharing your vision with them and creating the culture that will make them the best they can be as they grow with you.

Empathetic leadership understands that culture, rather than solely monetary reward, is the driver that people are looking for in the modern working world. A truly inclusive culture that makes people feel uniquely valued is what will set you apart from the competition. Cultures that properly align team interests with that of their leaders will create better businesses and build long-term sustainable growth. 

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Whilst empathetic leadership encapsulates all of the actions you take to make teams feel valued, heard and appreciated, it particularly prioritizes the small things. Inclusion and good culture are about knowing what each individual needs and demonstrably caring about that. In my career, I remember when a close friend was diagnosed with cancer and I wanted to visit her in hospital after a (thankfully successful) operation, but instead, I was asked to stay at work late. It was then I decided that I was not prepared to let that happen again, to me or anyone who worked for me.

If businesses truly put their people first, what might be achieved? That is the type of culture that builds loyalty, trust and enthusiasm, but, most importantly, it can also scale your growth. 

For me, there are six “secret sauce” ingredients for creating a culture that is grounded in empathetic leadership, to supercharge growth.

#1 Inspire your team with your vision

Purposeful organizations integrate the “why” into their mission and vision. The reason for building a business is the thing that connects your team to the company, so that employees feel aligned with that purpose and are willing to give more.

When employees and leaders are intrinsically connected by a shared vision and purpose, they collaborate more effectively and feel an innate connection to their work. Productivity starts to improve and that, together with ensuring your culture has growth all the way through it, will allow your team to focus on how they can individually perform to grow the business.

Empathetic leaders take time to inspire their team, understand the vision of each individual, and work with them to align this with the organizational vision. They also work on their internal communication skills, making time to communicate the vision in various different ways so that it is heard by all employees at all levels. 

#2 Purposeful motivation

Empathetic leadership strengthens connection to purposeful work, motivating teams by encouraging them to see the bigger picture and the positive impact their work is having towards the shared goals. KPIs (key performance indicators) and individual goals should be set to align with the culture and vision. This ensures everybody has a direct connection with that vision. It is important that every team is considered here — at all levels. 

It is only when every employee is connected to the vision that a business can start really maximizing its growth potential. Leaders will also ensure that their teams are fairly rewarded for their contributions, and that monetary reward is tied to the goals that are aligned with the vision.

#3 Engage people in an inclusive culture

Proactively building an inclusive culture is essential to empathetic leadership. This needs to be led from the top and instilled in your managers as you grow the business. People who are engaged will generate ideas, as long as you have created a good environment for ideas to be generated. If people feel their ideas are truly welcome and will be properly considered, they will be more engaged. 

Empathetic leaders will create feedback loops, actively listen to concerns, and respond appropriately, because without inclusion, your team will not buy into your long-term vision. The feedback loops are important to ensure ideas don’t disappear into the ether. It is fine not to always take them on board, but communicating why and what has happened to those ideas is critical. Taking people’s views into account is a huge way to ensure people feel valued — a valued team goes the extra mile. Small incremental improvements are just as relevant as one big new growth idea in the scaling journey.

#4 Energize your people

Fun and energy at work is not at odds with business growth. In fact, it is a key way to continue motivating your team when the initial excitement has died down, through good times and bad. 

Does your team feel excited about going to work on a Monday? How can you help bring that energy into the business so that it feels like more than work? It takes time and energy to focus on this — but it is worth the effort. It is this energy that can really get you through the ups and downs of the growth journey and allow people to dig deep when times get difficult. 

Finding out what the energy is like within the company is important, especially to empathetic leaders. Pulse surveys are easy (they need to be simple and quick to get a good response rate) and can be used to find out where effort is required, especially in underperforming teams.

#5 Spotting your future leaders

Empathetic leaders listen to the career goals of their teams and work closely with them to cultivate their bespoke path through the business. By recognizing that one size does not fit all, leaders can align the career paths of the team with the wider organizational agenda, so individuals are not only achieving personal milestones, but they are actively contributing to the organizational purpose. 

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Having a bank of future leaders is extremely important in the growth journey. Developing them and building loyalty takes time, so identifying them and letting them know they are on a fast-track path will motivate them to give more. Building talent from within will ensure your culture is running through the business as you grow it. 

Getting senior promotions right is key. Senior positions need to be made with EQ  (emotional quotient) skills in mind. Coaching should be given, and a really good 90-day success plan implemented, so that the transition goes smoothly. The wrong people in senior positions at an early stage can really impact growth.

#6 Empathetic exits

Unfortunately, leadership does require making difficult decisions and sometimes this includes redundancy or senior figures leaving the organization. Empathetic leaders recognize the profound impact these decisions can have on individuals and the wider organization, and take proactive steps to ensure these decisions are handled with care and respect. 

Redundancy especially has the potential to cause huge mental health problems, so it’s crucial to balance the by-the-book advice with the human element of what’s happening. Exits also impact those who are not leaving so also be empathetic to their concerns, minimize uncertainty and be available for questions throughout. 

Those that have left will also talk about your company. They are your alumni — potential future referrers of business or people that will bad-mouth the company. Empathetic leadership ensures you make the most of your alumni and maximize good outcomes. 

The power of empathetic leadership to drive growth

Empathetic leadership embraces the power of people-centric business. When your people are your key to sustainable growth, it makes strategic business sense to place them at the heart of everything you do. Listen intently to their individual purpose, goals and vision; energize and motivate them; and create an inclusive culture that celebrates everyone’s contribution to build a truly empathetic environment. 

A valued team, where the small things really matter, will lead to happier employees, and they will in turn be more productive and drive growth. When empathetic leadership is coupled with inclusive culture you have a formula to superscale.

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