Management by empathy

Running a business in a recession calls for a new set of skills. Honesty and trust are more relevant now than macho ambition, says Cheryl Giovannoni

Are the qualities of great leadership the same, whether you are facing the worst recession in living memory or riding the crest of a wave on 60 consecutive quarters of growth? Do the challenges we face demand different skills and qualities to cope with the decisions that have to be made?

We are all facing new challenges – motivating smaller teams to work harder and longer with fewer incentives, exercising stringent cost control, having to pitch more, give more away and ultimately fight harder for what is often a dwindling prize. Most fish float when the tide is high, not so when it has receded. As the economic climate remains in flux, leaders are grappling with a new set of dynamics that need a very different set of management skills.

Qualities that have been most prized in our business leaders during growth periods offer few surprises: acute ambition, single-minded, bloody-minded drive and determination, risk-takers with hard-nosed instincts for ‘cutting the deal’ and leaders who inspired with magnetism and control-and-command style.

But what of a new way? As the good times rolled, scant attention and/or credibility was afforded qualities that may serve as a new blueprint for effective leadership in a landscape that has changed irrevocably: a greater sense of caution when assessing risk, flexibility, integrity and sensitivity, more hands-on management and greater transparency. Qualities that many believe are more prevalent in women.

Interestingly, in a recent study it was revealed that those FTSE 100 companies with a greater representation of women on their boards outperformed competitors which did not have women at an executive level.

A Gallup Study completed in 2008 asked followers which qualities they most wanted from their leaders. The expected descriptors – vision, purpose, drive, ambition, wisdom – were largely absent.

Instead, the qualities people most want from their leaders are trust, compassion, stability and hope, honesty, integrity and respect.

The study went on to explore levels of engagement in the workplace. Where trust is absent, the possibility of employee engagement is 1:12 compared to a probability of 1:2 where leadership trust is present. And the key to building trust? A commitment to being a truly authentic leader, who always tells it like it is, warts and all.

Communication is all and when you think you are communicating enough the chances are you should still do it better. In difficult times, overcommunicating can make all the difference. Making sure people know what is going on, why decisions are being made and keeping them involved as much as possible all go a long way towards making them feel valued and respected. Even when the news is negative and may impact personally, people will respect a leader who has displayed integrity and authenticity. Lack of communication leaves people feeling depressed, anxious, negative and more likely to lose momentum and withdraw their goodwill.

Conducting regular climate surveys is a useful tool in gauging the mood in the company. One of the measures we focus on is whether ‘someone at work cares about me as a person’, and if ‘in the past six months, someone has talked to me about my progress’. People are more productive and motivated if they feel there is someone at a senior level who is looking out for them and monitoring their progress.

Compassion is key and a counter to the notion that it represents weakness in a leader. David Ogilvy once said, ‘Clients don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.’ The same seems to be true for staff who turn up for work each morning. And that’s certainly what Gallup’s research has shown.

An undervalued but increasingly important quality of leadership that people are looking for is optimism. No one wants a leader whose glass is half empty – incapable of pointing out the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, however dim and distant it may seem. Providing as much stability as possible while identifying future opportunities for innovation is far more motivating for the organisation than constantly bemoaning the unpredictable times we currently operate in.

As we tackle some of the greatest business challenges any of us have ever had to face, it is this very different set of leadership traits that is now required to create a more authentic and ultimately successful world order. It is the businesses run by those leaders that will weather the inevitable ebbs and flows more effectively in the short term, and be better prepared for the upturn when it finally comes.

Cheryl Giovannoni is European president of Landor Associates


  • Embrace change – and make the most of it
  • Keep the channels of communication wide open
  • Be transparent – share the good and the bad
  • Take responsibility for the level of trust in your organisation
  • Create a sense of hope and optimism


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