Why Leadership needs Empathy

In my past four and a half years I have been very lucky to have had a wide range of managers. If I count the number of managers and their managers (with whom I also interacted), I count about 7 different people. That's 7 different management styles that I was fortunate to witness and to deal with! 

And while I know that four and a half years are maybe just 10% of the years that I will be spending at work throughout my entire life, I already look back on some lessons that have strongly influenced my understanding of leadership and the way how I interact with others (at work and beyond). Let me start with a story.

Before I joined Google in Dublin back in 2009, I had already absolved about 5 different internships, most of which took place in German work environments. I say German, because I perceived those environments to be very structured, hierarchical and traditional – some of the characteristics "Germany" is known for. But when I then had my very first career development conversation with my manager, maybe one month into my employment, he said something that made my jaw drop: "Omid, I want you to get to such a level in the next 18 months that at least three other teams come and make you an offer – from inside or outside of Google ". Wait, what? Ok, he wanted me to grow and perform... but he wanted other teams to make me offers? And potentially see me leave? "Why would he want that?!" I thought. 

What looked contradictory to me, turned out to be a very empathy-driven approach to leadership. My manager truly cared about me as a person more than he did about me as an employee. Something I saw in him and in some of the managers I had afterwards was that they really put people first. They understood that employment was more than a job and that it was part of my self-fulfillment process. They understood that they could only get me to perform at my best and thus have me help the team achieve its goals if they helped me achieve my personal mid-to-long-term objectives. They didn't care about policies or what they were "supposed to do", they cared about me.

At Google, this type of leadership is facilitated by something called PDP (Personal Development Plan) which you compose with your managers and as part of which you define personal goals such as "I want to work on more projects with the Marketing team" or "I want to develop my analytical skills by participating in Courses X,Y and Z". But it's one thing to have a manager who does that as part of his job duties and it's another thing to have a manager who makes you understand that he puts your personal goals first. 

With that approach, he completely gained my trust. Knowing that my manager truly cared about me and my personal interests made me even say things like: "I don't know what is best .. I trust you to make the best decision for me". I felt I had a supporter and advocate who often knew better what was good for me than I knew myself. Of course he would do his best to help me achieve those goals within the big scheme of things (i.e. the team's goals as well as the team's realm of possibilities), but he was not scared to see me leave.

These managers that I had were not short-sighted and just focused on goals, but they understood that helping me realize myself would only reflect positively on them in the long-run. Up until this day I walk through my organization and talk about them as my biggest mentors and supporters. I unintentionally contribute to that aura of theirs that helps them get things done in the organization. 

The common wisdom is that a manager would not want you to leave. I mean, why would he want to invest in you, teach you, have you grow and then see you leave? Actually, that's something I see a lot with the companies I work with in Latin America. Employee fluctuation is one of the biggest business risks a company faces. Very often, the business owners are very afraid to invest in their people or to promote them. They are afraid because they would have to pay them extra money and potentially see them leave because with a promotion, those employees could negotiate better offers from other companies. Changing their mindset turned out to be extremely difficult for me. One powerful story that I often shared with them was: 

CFO asks CEO: "What happens if we invest in developing our people & then they leave us?" 

CEO: 'What happens if we don't, and they stay?"

Coming back to my own experiences, I came to understand the importance of putting the personal interests of the employee first. You cannot stop someone from leaving. In the end, they will all leave ... so why not i) help them achieve their personal objectives and simultaneously ii) make them give 110% while they work for you because they feel they are on the right path of self realization? 

This by the way reminds me of a really interesting business practice that Zappos has! Zappos hires new employees, it puts them through an intensive four-week training program, immersing them in the company's culture, strategy, and processes. Then, about one week in, Zappos makes what it calls "The Offer," telling newbies, "If you quit today, we will pay you for the amount of time you have worked, plus a $3,000 bonus."... talk about sifting chaff from the wheat. 

This is how I came to experience how an empathy-driven approach to leadership could differentiate a good manager from a great manager. I saw how truly caring about someone as a person could unlock an infinite amount of trust and authenticity. It could tear down walls of fear and bridge oceans of uncertainty. Seeing how my manager wanted the best for me was my biggest motivation to exceed his expectations day after day after day.