Tip of spear tight rope walker
Tip of spear tight rope walker

Is the tip of the spear where you’re most comfortable?

High-growth, visionary entrepreneurs share the most important lessons of this period of disruption and change, including why fostering empathy and belonging are key to success.

In brief

  • Leaders who practice empathy are more likely to attract and retain employees.
  • Empathy means understanding what each individual brings to a company and allowing people to bring their whole selves to work.
  • Creating a sense of belonging and purpose is an important element of building cohesive teams and a strong workplace culture.

Over the past two years, global events have required business leaders to re-evaluate many aspects of how they do business. Among the most critical and far-reaching: how they connect with their employees. Today, with record numbers of workers leaving their jobs or reporting their intentions to do so, empathy is being recognized as a core component of successful leadership and the employee experience. By leading with empathy, management is able to foster a sense of belonging and common purpose, which is key in hiring and retaining employees, especially during the “Great Resignation.”

Many high-growth company entrepreneurs at the EY 2021 Strategic Growth Forum® US agreed that creating a compassionate work environment has long been the key to their success. The Forum annually convenes hundreds of CEOs, high-growth entrepreneurs and other business leaders to exchange ideas about purpose and strategy, company growth, long-term value and how to lead in the future. 

“The most important leadership lesson is consistent throughout the history of leadership, I think, and it’s empathy,” said Sherry Deutschmann, serial entrepreneur and founder of BrainTrust, an organization that helps women entrepreneurs grow their businesses to $1-million-plus in annual revenue. “It’s the ability of the leader to see the world through the lens of that employee, and to experience it through what might be happening in their family life,” Deutschmann added, “and then the ability to adjust policies within the company because of that empathy.” Indeed, 90% of US workers reported in a recent EY survey that empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction. 

The personal and professional challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has wrought reinforce this way of leading, and executives — particularly entrepreneurial leaders who want to build a productive culture from the ground up and attract key talent for long-term success — must take note as they scale their companies during a period of significant workforce dislocation.

Our research finds that empathy is not only a nice-to-have, but the glue and accelerant for business transformation in the next era of business.

The vast majority (88%) of respondents in the EY survey said empathetic leadership fosters employees’ loyalty toward their leaders. About the same amount agreed that empathy leads to better leadership, inspires positive change within the workplace, enables trust among employees and leaders, and increases productivity. These overwhelmingly aligned responses make clear that the modern workforce is crying out for empathy at the office — and if they don’t find it, they’ll seek it elsewhere.

How to foster empathy-based relationships for the workplace of the future

Work to understand your employees

Many employees feel their company “talks the talk” but doesn’t follow through on its promise. The EY survey found respondents viewed empathy in their leaders as manifesting in several ways: that they are open and transparent (41%), fair (37%), follow through on action (37%), encourage others to share their opinions (36%), and are trusted to handle difficult conversations (34%).

Empathy means understanding — on an individual level — not just what value each employee brings to the organization, but also what employees themselves value, said Phyllis Newhouse, CEO and cofounder of Athena Technology Acquisition Corp., a special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).

At the Strategic Growth Forum, Newhouse recalled a question her father asked her and her 10 siblings every night before dinner: “What’s your value card?” This daily lesson deeply influenced Newhouse’s approach to leadership later in life.

“Learning how to build teams in an organization starts with understanding the value that every single person brings to the table,” Newhouse said. “Not one person has the same value card, and if you can appreciate that, learn to nurture those value cards, you can build great teams.”

Take a holistic approach to employee well-being and engagement 

Building empathy-based relationships that foster a sense of belonging depends upon open, two-way communication. According to the EY survey, there are several ways to help employees feel more comfortable having open discussions with a boss. Those methods include having regularly scheduled one-on-ones (45%), providing opportunities to give anonymous feedback (42%), participating in team-building exercises (37%) and, perhaps most simply, receiving frequent reminders that employees are in a safe space to have open discussions (36%). Participating in training or communication workshops about having open discussions (36%) is another approach.

In short, employees must feel they are not only safe but also welcomed to bring their whole selves to work, said Janice Bryant Howroyd, founder and CEO of ActOne, a leading personnel solutions company, at the Strategic Growth Forum. After all, she expects the same for herself.

“My life mantra is ‘Never compromise who you are personally to become who you wish to be professionally,’” Bryant Howroyd said. “I have to live by this for myself, and I have to encourage, in my own organization, a platform and a culture that allows others to share that same value. That’s how we’ve built the organization, and I believe it’s how we will not only sustain but grow dynamically as we look at work in a very different way going forward.”

Unite the team with purpose

As they look ahead, today’s leading entrepreneurs and executives understand that empathic leadership creates a sense of belonging that, when aligned with purpose, is crucial to building a culture and team that will endure.

“Good leadership is uniting people behind a common cause and getting them to all work in the same direction,” said Sheila Mikhail, cofounder and CEO of AskBio, a gene therapy pioneer acquired by Bayer AG last year for $4 billion. The Entrepreneur Of The Year® 2021 US National Overall Award winner added: “When you’re successful, you have an obligation to bring others along and to make sure that you give back.”

Business leaders share inspiring ways they've found purpose and success in an uncertain era.

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To foster empathy, leaders should strive to understand their employees; encourage open, two-way communication; and build teams united by purpose. 

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