we asked four senior STEM women to share their experiences and advice when it comes to having empathy for colleagues, clients, and yourself.
Would you rather work for a company that values empathetic leadership or get paid a higher salary? It turns out 57% of employees said they’d choose empathy over cash, according to the recent Businessolver’s 2020 State of Workplace Empathy. Businessolver has been in the “business” of researching workplace empathy since 2016. In their recent report, their findings suggest the pandemic has only heightened the need for companies to be aware of the importance of creating an empathetic culture. But that’s not happening; 64% of employees said that it could impact their job security if they came forward with a mental health issue.
Is empathy something a leader is born with or is this a trait he/she can develop to foster an empathetic environment? The data suggests it can be learned, which is why we asked four senior STEM women to share their experiences and advice when it comes to having empathy for colleagues, clients, and yourself.
1. Empathetic Leadership for Colleagues
Colleen Athens, former engineer at GE Aviation.
As vice president and general manager of Supply Chain at GE Aviation, Colleen led 29,000 people in 12 countries, which would not have been possible without using empathetic leadership with a firm sense of purpose.
“You have to strike a balance between being an empathetic leader who listens and seeks input and knowing when to step up and direct if you want to get something done,” explains Colleen. “You have to know when it’s time to say, ‘We’re going in this direction, and this is what we’re doing.’ And then it’s about having a team of people who are ready to follow you.”
Lorraine Bolsinger, former president and CEO of GE Distributed Power and GE Aviation Systems.
Lorraine was one of a handful of girls who attended an all-boys school. It was an environment that nurtured her leadership skills and heightened her understanding of the role of empathetic leadership.
“Sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves and be part of your team to make sure that you are not only the boss but also willing to be in the trenches with them,” explains Lorraine. “The challenge is to know when you need to be the boss and when you need to be the doer. I mixed those up a few times even when I was a CEO, and I would get sucked into closing deals. I enjoyed that because I love the art of the deal, but I needed to be firm and let my colleagues do their jobs. My issue, or challenge, was that I couldn’t live with failure, but you need to hold people accountable. I learned that sometimes I went to the other extreme of empathy and started doing my colleagues’ jobs. I needed to stay out of the sandbox so the team would learn through tough examples.”
2. Empathetic Leadership for Clients
Susan Whiting, former vice-chairperson and CEO at Nielsen Corporation
When you hold senior roles in the company, you inevitably have to make tough decisions that sometimes lead to sticky disagreements with clients. Resolving those tense moments required an empathetic outlook.
“When you’re in a leadership role, the most challenging experiences will teach you your best lessons,” explains Susan. “When I was CEO at Nielsen, we had a very public disagreement with an important client over a significant change in how we measure television. I learned how important it is to understand your stakeholders, find as many advocates as possible and be as transparent as you can about a change and why you’re doing it. That doesn’t mean you won’t have bumps, but it does mean that you’ll understand why they might happen. We were caught unaware of what a very significant client could do, and that never happened again. I learned about the importance of preparing for all possible reactions.”
3.Empathetic Leadership for Yourself
Gloria Cox, senior partner at Cambridge and former executive vice president of Client Services at Nielsen
Gloria knows what it’s like to be “the other” in the room and the negative self-talk it can encourage. It’s at those moments you have to be kind to yourself.
“It’s very important to have self-care,” explains Gloria. “As a Black woman working in this country, you need to protect yourself from microaggressions and be aware that [racism] is institutionalized. Unfortunately, it’s part of our history; at times, you may not realize it’s there, but it’s in the air we breathe. That said, give everyone a little grace, but don’t let them into your head and get you off your game… I tell women of color that they have a superpower. They have resilience and an ability to see the other—even though the other may not see them.”
At Gotara, you’ll find a kind and empathetic ear when you come to us for advice. We’ll help you foster that skill to help others and yourself. Join today (it’s FREE!) and access our advice and nano-mentoring services with top STEM+ leaders.