This article is from the September/October 2023 issue of Outreach magazine. Subscribe today!
It was the summer of 2020, and I’d been commissioned to interview Elizabeth Comstock, the first female chair in GE’s history, for the Global Leadership Summit, the conference I host annually.
Professionally, this was something I was very much looking forward to because I’m a storyteller at heart, and I love interviewing interesting people. But personally, I was a little anxious, because it was my first time back in NYC after losing my job as a TV correspondent at ABC News and moving my family from the Big Apple to South Carolina. I was also expectant because I’d been chewing on the possibility of forming my own company and felt very ill-prepared to do so (said every entrepreneur/founder ever). So the chance to pick her brain about leadership was exciting.
What Comstock told me that day would forever stay with me, and it’s influenced who I am as a leader and founder, and how I treat my teammates.
Asking the Hard Question
You hear it all the time, and a simple Google search will produce countless articles on it: The most important leadership trait is empathy. Some of the other important traits include communication, vision and inspiration. I would make a case that all of those actually fall under the category of empathy. Caring enough about the other person to lead, communicate and inspire.
So, what does empathy in action look like?
After rising in the ranks at GE, Comstock became the first female chair at the storied company. That’s no small feat. At the time of the interview, she’d also been named among the world’s top communicators and was on Nike’s board of directors. So essentially, she’d earned a seat at the table and found her voice. How’d she do it? By asking one simple question, a question that has become the foundation of my own leadership as the founder of CARRY Media, and a question that can become your foundation, too.
This question is a great place to start building: Can you tell me something I don’t want to hear?
During her employee reviews, she would ask her teammates that question: “Tell me something I don’t want to hear.” Now, this question can be tough to answer, because if you ask it properly and have created a space where people feel valued and heard, you’re not always going to get the answer you’re looking for. It can hurt.
But here’s what asking that question does for your team and your leadership:
* It creates a safe space.
* It creates an environment where people feel seen and heard; their voice matters.
* It shows you refuse to lead in a vacuum.
* It shows you’re listening to your team—and, if you listen well, they’ll tell you just about everything you need to know as a leader.
* Most importantly, it says that you care.
I ask this question of my CARRY teammates during our monthly employee reviews and I’m never not holding my breath when I ask it. It’s tough. Because I know they’re going to tell me something I don’t want to hear. And they have. But we don’t get better as leaders without listening and learning from the people we’re working side by side with. We don’t get better without caring enough to lead with empathy.
Even if you’re not in a position of leadership, this is an effective question to ask, because it reveals blind spots and almost always shows areas we can improve upon.
Listening With Empathy
Another question I like to ask is this: “How can I best support you right now?” Again, you’re leading by listening with empathy.
We’ve all been burned by bad leadership. You’re probably already picturing that person at the mere mention. I’ve been there. To be honest, I’ve probably learned more from bad leadership than good leadership. What not to do can sometimes be the most important lesson.
Even in my own research at CARRY Media, which advocates for moms in the workplace and provides load-lessening content, the companies that are listening to their people with empathy are the ones that aren’t getting left in the dust.
Here are a few other ways to practice empathy in leadership that I’ve found helpful:
* Take an interest in your employees’ lives outside of work.
* I know of some CEOs who have gone on “listening tours” where they go out for dinner or coffee with a group and ask them to explain what their experience is like at the company.
* Encourage one another publicly and be each other’s biggest cheerleaders and champions. When it comes to discipline, do that privately.
* Ask for feedback on company culture.
* Ask for ideas.
Nearly two years into leading CARRY, I’ve made my share of mistakes. And I’ll continue to do so, because you can’t succeed without failure. But, I’m so grateful for what I was taught that summer day in NYC. As long as I’m listening and leading with empathy, as long as I’m asking that foundational question, I’ve already succeeded.