Empathy As A Skill: The Springboard To Great Leadership

By: Meet in Place content team

As a founder, Andra Vaduva understands the challenges and opportunities of entrepreneurship. Andra is the founder of Hiboo, an exciting AI-enabled, empathy-based solution that reduces workplace exclusion, anxiety and depression for women in the workplace.

After building a career in tech at various early-stage and VC-backed startups in NYC, Andra started a consultancy called Empathy Global, where she helps entrepreneurs – predominantly women – advance their businesses with applied empathy.  Andra has advised numerous founders and startups, helping them gain greater clarity around the audience they serve.

With Andra, we discussed the importance of empathy from a business perspective in this complex and ever-changing environment. We touched on leadership, purpose, values, self-reflection, engagement…and more. Here’s Andra:

You’re obviously an expert when it comes to integrating technology and empathy. How can we use empathy to identify with – and respond to – some of the burning issues of today, from COVID-19 to the protests currently taking place?

Building true rapport with your audience is key right now. I think we forgot about that, we skipped it and went straight to the bottom line. Our job as leaders is to make our internal and external partners (employees and customers alike) feel heard, respected and understood.

Acknowledging concerns shows empathy and understanding, and is essential to great communication and great leadership. And that is just the first step to purposeful action. To get there we need to constantly remind our audiences both internally and externally to think of themselves in the other’s shoes and solve conflict.

Empathy can be learned but it takes patience and dedication to change how you see other people and their experience of life. Essentially, it takes self-accountability and awareness. The way we put empathy into practice in a real setting is how we conceptualize and build the technology at Hiboo. That’s why this new empathetic technology takes a complex team of people to envision and execute.

Another thing is to work on seeing the similarities between yourself and the other person. Can you identify with their needs and interests? Is it possible to understand that they may have experienced something difficult or uncomfortable or are you able to see some of their emotions in yourself? By doing this, you bring the person closer to you instead of creating further barriers that stop you from constructively resolving or preventing conflict. We all know what it is like to feel isolated, excluded, disappointed and angry and we all have very similar needs and interests. We all just want to be seen.

Our job as leaders is to make our internal and external partners (employees and customers alike) feel heard, respected and understood.

Something that I don’t find much in the business setting is active listening. As leaders we should engage in the simple act of listening.  Let the other person speak about their point of view. Acknowledge their difficulties. Confirm that you have heard their emotions and encourage them to trust you enough to be vulnerable.

Empathy is much an external effort as an internal effort. Real empathy takes time and practice and a constant eye on your own reactions and responses. Using it in a conflict context to communicate can encourage participants to deconstruct the perceptions that condition our responses and to build bridges between us for better understanding.

We’ve seen a challenging environment for companies and leaders as a result of the upheavals across the world. In your opinion: what’s changed forever, and what will we go back to doing in the same way we did before?

We realized – I hope – that shoving problems under the rug, pretending we are not facing a crisis, and taking advantage of the status quo, turns into a ticking bomb. We have to find the way back to a compassionate normality.

Smart and caring leaders have already integrated self-reflection and self-checking into their daily routines. Same as meditation and exercise, evaluating yourself, managing your emotions, aligning your behavior with what you preach must be an everyday exercise. It’s time to put effort into purposeful relationships, products, things that people actually need and bring real value to their lives throughout, think holistically of the entire marketing and sales funnel.

We will go back to being humans driven by emotions sometimes, and that’s okay as long as we practice self-checking and build upon that.

We cannot lose the human connection. If we have to take a virtual meeting we should make sure we are present, both in body and in mind.

On a practical note now. How can leaders use both data and empathy to connect with various stakeholders, from employees, to the media, to investors?

I always say we are informed by data, but driven by empathy. Big data is worthless without real customer empathy.

Today, businesses stand at a crossroads, where companies working in silos without the capability to be design-driven or use customer data correctly are falling away. The challenges are usually related to collecting relevant data and using it appropriately.

By bridging empathy and data you have the ability to understand human behavior, the context, the goals, and make recommendations. It’s unbelievable to me how much marketers know about their consumers, and how unhappy consumers are. The majority of businesses don’t know how to leverage the internet and data in a meaningful way.

I’ve created a webinar on how to create digital empathy for businesses that I am teaching to startups because of this reason. I don’t see another way to convey worthwhile discussions with your shareholders and stakeholders – which by the way, we should start calling “partners”. We must meet at the intersection of user-centered design, data science and empathy to create a more equitable world.

Empathy, personal connection, building relationships...these are really important values. Traditionally, these are often achieved through face-to-face meetings. As we discussed, our world has changed significantly, so what is the future of the face-to-face meeting, and how will it integrate with the way technology is moving?

My vision is that technology will serve us if we learn to embed empathy and hold ourselves accountable.

So tech will have a participatory role in facilitating the human connection even if we don’t get to meet face-to-face.

For now, we cannot lose the human connection. If we have to take a virtual meeting we should make sure we are present, both in body and in mind. Don’t check your phone or the news, try to keep eye contact with the camera, and acknowledge the answers like you would do in person.

As a leader and a founder, how do you ensure your team stays synced, motivated, engaged and focused?

We take time to meet the right people, because Hiboo is a special product and company and we want to keep it that way. I’ve been fortunate enough to have people stay focused and engaged out of pure passion. Especially during Covid, I’ve seen a great deal of outreach and support, volunteering and pats on the back. In fact that inspired me to create Founder to Founder Empathy Talks tailored to women and minority founders, where we navigate the challenges and solutions of being a founder during and post #COVID, learn inclusive leadership to build cohesive high-performing teams, and improve mental fitness.

I like to sit down with each person in my team and ask the uncomfortable questions: “Are you okay with the direction we are going in?”, or “You seemed off last week what happened?”. The majority of the companies I worked with in the past had no interest or capacity in terms of enabling these conversations which eventually resulted in me leaving the role. That’s why one of the most important skills to teach leaders today is empathy. And I am on a path to do that with Hiboo and beyond.

About the Author:

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