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Executive View: Today's Business Leaders Must Be 'Human'

A woman talking to another woman in an office.

​Empathy. Soft skills. Social intelligence.

Lately, these are big buzz terms in corporate C-suites.

They've been the subject of many recent surveys, studies and news articles. They're being discussed at conferences and in boardrooms. And to hear workplace experts tell it, they're now critical ingredients for successful executive leadership.

New research by the Harvard Business Review (HBR) concluded that it's become necessary to "develop greater clarity about what it now takes for C-suite executives to succeed."

HBR analyzed nearly 5,000 job descriptions from executive search firm Russell Reynolds Associates so researchers could study current expectations for company chief executive officers and four other key leaders in the C-suite: chief financial officer, chief information officer, head of human resources and chief marketing officer.

One of the top findings was this: When companies scout for new leaders, companies assign less importance to technical expertise, superior administrative skills and success at managing financial resources, and more importance to strong social skills. By that, the researchers meant "a high level of self-awareness, the ability to listen and communicate well, a facility for working with different types of people and groups, and what psychologists call 'theory of mind'—the capacity to infer how others are thinking and feeling."

The Empathy Epiphany

Many executives can tell you about the time they had an epiphany about leadership—a moment when they realized that winning an employee's trust requires understanding, openness, transparency, or vulnerability.

For instance, Johnny C. Taylor, Jr., SHRM-SCP, had that epiphany almost 15 years ago when he was an HR executive. When a top employee's performance faltered, Taylor—now president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management—felt it necessary to start the progressive discipline process.

It was 2008, the Great Recession had just hit, and the employee confided to Taylor that her husband had just lost his job, she had to pull her children out of private school, she feared they might lose their house and she was now the sole breadwinner.

"I realized that she was not performing poorly. ... She was just performing less well than she had before," Taylor said. "I had to step back and say, 'OK if she's now 8 out of 10 ... 8 out of 10 isn't bad, Johnny, so for this time, you need to understand what's going on in her world.'

"I began to pay more attention to the concept of the need to be an empathetic leader. I had to start focusing not on how I was experiencing 2008, but on how the people around me were."

It was also about 15 years ago when Teresa Hopke first became an executive. Her mentors taught her that leadership meant exuding confidence, not vulnerability.

But Hopke, now the Americas' CEO for Talking Talent—a global coaching firm that focuses on making workplaces inclusive—discovered that being candid with her direct reports about her own daily struggles encouraged those workers to trust her.

"It may not feel good. And it can be seen as a sign of weakness," Hopke says. "But it creates a culture where there isn't fear of failure or a desire for perfection. That culture of authenticity allows people to bring their best selves to work."

Dick Burke is CEO of Chicago-based immigration-services provider Envoy Global. To win the trust of his employees, he realized he needed to make some changes to his office routine.

"I don't have a private office," Burke says. "I sit on the floor. I know everyone's names. I am deliberately self-critical in public so people can speak candidly about what works and what doesn't—to be an approachable human, acknowledging frailty and weakness."

What Workers Expect of Today's Executive

Empathetic leadership was a keen topic at the SHRM Annual Conference & Expo 2022 in New Orleans.
At one conference session, Humana Chief Administrative Officer Tim Huval described how he was in the hospital being treated for an ailment that doctors said would probably end his life.

But after Bruce Broussard, CEO of the health care company, arranged a visit with Huval at the hospital—along with Humana co-workers and Huval's family—Huval's spirits were so restored that he eventually recovered.

Huval described Broussard as "one of the top CEOs in the country."

"If you asked me for his top 10 attributes," Huval said at the conference, "nine of them would be based on a human element."

Empathy, inclusion and humility, Huval said, are now expected of executives.

Check In with Workers

At another SHRM Annual Conference & Expo session this summer, Jennifer Lee shared how to lead workers through tough times with empathy.

Lee, who is executive director of learning and development at JB Training Solutions, told conference attendees that as companies, managers and workers navigate out of the pandemic and the hardships it has caused, stress and burnout are affecting workers more than ever.

Check in with them, she advised. "Don't ask, 'How are you doing?' Ask, 'How are you doing today?' because that should draw a more pointed response than the standard 'I'm OK' reply."

Empathy, she said, "is the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of others." 


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