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Tuesday, October 20, 2020

Executive Insider

Leading With Empathy Drives Success in Tough Times

COVID-19 has brought an economic catastrophe. The IMF predicts that “for the first time since the Great Depression, both advanced and emerging market economies will be in recession in 2020.” The World Bank is forecasting that this recession “will be the deepest since 1945-46.”

I have deep sympathy for the businesses and teams that are suffering during this crisis. The COVID-19 pandemic has been a truly seismic event, blindsiding longstanding businesses and entire industry sectors.

At my company, SafeGuard Cyber, my co-founder, Otavio Freire, and I have been two of the lucky ones. We have watched our team hustle harder during a time when things felt like they could unravel. We have continued hiring, growing, and meeting our goals.

How have we managed to thrive despite these trying times? For one, we have a great product, a SaaS security platform that is helping others secure remote work infrastructure. This, of course, plays a huge role. But our success goes deeper than the product. The mission of SafeGuard Cyber is to secure human interactions on any digital channel. At a leadership level, this sensitivity to human concerns has also been critical. Leading with empathy to the human experience has been central to our ongoing success and growth.

The Importance of Empathy

Only 48% of employees view their CEOs as empathetic, compared to the 87% of CEOs who see themselves as such. 92% percent of employees believe their organizations should be doing more for the overall well-being and needs of their workers. This state of affairs is a workplace crisis that doesn’t get the coverage it deserves. Empathy is vital to leadership.

This was true before the pandemic – but now, it is impossible to ignore or deny. The past few months have been a time when everyone has felt nervous, unsure, worried about their health and the health of their loved ones. Add to this constant anxiety, the mental load of trying to work remotely, homeschool kids, and in some areas, not be allowed to leave the house. Those of us who have been able to keep working have had to keep working – but we’re human. Even while fulfilling our responsibilities, the global catastrophe has been on our mind.

In this scenario, CEOs and executive leaders must realize that the worst thing they could do is compound social distancing with interpersonal distancing. In difficult and confusing times, your staff need more support than ever. It’s common knowledge that emotional intelligence (EQ) is important to the success of a CEO. A time like this is a stress test for that EQ – can leaders manage their people when those people are struggling? This is what it takes to continue to thrive during a difficult phase.

Leading During COVID-19: Tactics that work

At Safeguard Cyber, we developed pandemic-leadership tactics on the fly, like so many other companies. The key was, above all, listening to our employees, and thinking about their needs. Here were some of the best practices we have found helpful:

  • Communicate and listen. Empathy is one of the two greatest traits of leadership. The other one? Listening. It’s vitally important that you establish a line of communication with your team, your partners, even your customers. Let them know that as a leader, you are there to provide guidance and assurance. But most importantly, be there to listen. Hear out concerns, even if you think people are repeating something you already know. By truly listening, you are able to put yourself in another’s shoes, gain their perspective, and appreciate their emotions better.
  • Keep everyone informed. This is always good advice; during a crisis, it’s essential. Regular updates and frequent check-ins with board members and advisors keep them up to date. People who are informed tend to be more flexible in addressing challenges and quick in discovering solutions. But more than that, when things feel uncertain and disrupted, people want more information than normal. They have a deep need to be kept up to speed.
  • Check in every day. When WFH became mandatory, SafeGuard Cyber implemented an daily company all-hands virtual meeting to rally around the theme of “care and consideration.” Employees shared the latest COVID news from their regions, and updated colleagues on changes to their daily routines, such as what times of day were needed for homeschooling. Eventually our meetings also included more transparency around business conditions and customer needs. In all, everyone agreed that we felt more aware of one another and connected than before the pandemic, when we each worked in our own offices and regions.
  • Help everyone understand that we are in a crisis (and that it’s okay to recognize that). As a culture and as an industry, for months we have been operating in “sustained disaster conditions.” However, some people struggle to acknowledge this. This avoidance can often be for admirable reasons, such as wanting to be resilient and tough, or focus on the positives over the negatives. But people need to acknowledge the reality of their situation to fully adapt. For us, this meant learning that most people, being at home and with fewer commitments like a gym routine, were starting their workdays earlier and actually putting in longer hours than before. It helped us, as leaders, to learn that we needed to reset expectations about not overworking.
  • Minimize meetings. You know it, and I know it: employees hate meetings, pandemic or no pandemic. Most group meetings are a waste of time and hurt productivity. At SafeGuard Cyber, although we increased the personal daily check-ins, we reduced the daily meetings to twice a week. This was a quick way to balance our employees’ need for more personalized contact with more time to focus on their work.
  • Show that you care. At Safeguard Cyber, we are clear with our staff: take the time you need to be in a good place, psychologically. Whether you need to educate your kids from home, want to participate in protests following the murder of George Floyd, or just sit with your thoughts – strange times create new coping mechanisms, and everyone is different. Being an empathic leader means recognizing this and giving staff the space they need to stay healthy and balanced.

Empathic CEOs Make Winners

Any successful business is built on productive people. Everyone is more productive, enthusiastic, and creative when they think their leaders actually care about them. Showing maximum empathy with the people you are leading is the right thing to do simply from a moral angle. But it is also the practice that will keep an enterprise resilient in times of market turmoil or worldwide upheaval.

In a crisis, you need a work environment built on mutual trust, loyalty, and dedication. These values start at the top. During this crisis, above all, I have learnt that leadership starts with caring about the whole human being, not just the start member. If you begin with empathy, your foundations are set.


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Jim Zuffoletti
Jim Zuffoletti has been a founder of start-up organizations as both an entrepreneur and an intrapreneur for the past twenty-five years. Jim is CEO and co-founder of SafeGuard Cyber, a digital risk protection company securing brands, VIPs, and team members in the new world of social media and digital communications. Jim was previously CEO and President of OpenQ which enabled pharmaceutical, biotech, and medical device companies to discover, regulate, and leverage the social networks forged with outside influencers and researchers. Jim Zuffoletti is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on Twitter or connect on LinkedIn.