The 2021 CEO Needs to Be a Chief Empathy Officer

Because focusing on the intangibles is the most tangible thing you can do


I confess. I’m an addict.

I wasn’t before but the all-pervasive doom and gloom caused by Covid-19 has led to this. And I’m not ashamed to say it, so I’ll say it straight — I’m addicted to The Bold Type on Netflix.

If you haven’t been fortunate enough to inject the above-mentioned drug into your veins, let me set the stage. TBT is centred around a trio of millennial women, working at a fictional women’s global magazine in New York who juggle their careers, romance, friendships, and big-city life while finding their own voices. You can call it ‘Not Sex in the City’, but that would give your age away.


The Reason For My Addiction

Positivity

For me what is refreshing about the show is that it is humming with positivity. Yes of course it has conflict thrown in regularly to make it interesting, but one gets to witness ‘Focus on the problem instead of attacking the person’ regularly in the series.

Maturity

The other wonderful thing we get to see is spades of maturity. Friends who are genuinely supportive of each other, who help in whatever way they can, without imposing their point of view on the other person.

Friends who are able to be with each other through thick and thin while allowing each other the space to process things in their own way — to retain their individuality while being a part of a group and to chart their own paths.

Almost unimaginable, right? No wonder it's fiction!

The X factor

The star of the show for me however is the character Jacqueline Carlyle (played by Melora Hardin)— editor-in-chief of the magazine. For starters, it’s lovely that a woman boss has not been portrayed in a negative or insecure manner.

Unlike the cold, calculating ice queen that is Claire Underwood from House of Cards or the seemingly heartless Cruella De Vil that is Miranda Priestly of The Devil Wears Prada, JC actively empowers other women. I can’t think of anyone — man, woman, or coffee machine — watching the show and not wishing they had a boss like her.

In fact, there are a bunch of leadership lessons that I’d love for bosses in the real world to pick up from JC’s playbook.


How the Drug’s X-Factor Works

Walking the talk

JC leads by example. She takes the tough decisions and stands up for what she believes in, even at the risk of being unpopular. She also acknowledges when she is wrong and isn’t afraid to show her vulnerable side.

She is firm, articulate, confident, and yet approachable. She keeps lines of communication open.

She recognises potential and while she always has your back, Jacqueline knows when a team member needs to be left in the deep end so he can struggle, grow and come out stronger at the other end. She has empathy, is emotionally supportive, and yet doesn’t push team members to share unless they feel ready.

Humanity first

JC always treats her employees like individuals. While she does not ease up on what she needs them to deliver, she recognises that they have lives and dreams outside of work and she encourages employees to pursue them.

Almost always, JC is able to put herself in the shoes of the person she is speaking to and look at issues from their point of view. She goes so far as encouraging an employee to go seek a job in a competitive firm because they presented the employee an opportunity that Jacqueline’s own magazine would not be able to. JC treats her team members as human beings first.

We are living in a time when there is tremendous strain, stress, and pressure because of the pandemic. People are faced with many additional challenges, both physical and mental, while trying to balance work and home. Particularly in my country, India.

So before you make any decisions for your teams, ask yourself, ‘What would Jacqueline Carlyle do?’


What I’ve Learned From Dosing Myself

I think some of the things Jacqueline might do is take steps that tick off the boxes of physical and mental well-being and a workplace of the future, while ensuring communication is frequent and the organisation is empathetic.

Physical well-being

She’d have doctors on call on the company payroll, have medical insurance in place for everyone, and offer long-term support to family members in case of an unfortunate passing of an employee. There would be a system in place to help people with access to critical medical supplies and a standard procedure for how employees could access them.

Jacqueline would not overwork colleagues and decrease their productivity. She would not congratulate colleagues who are working while sick, thereby encouraging a toxic work environment and implying that people should push themselves to work even if they are unwell. She would also actively encourage people not to come into the office and would not praise people for risking their lives and those of others by leaving their homes.

Mental well-being

JC would have mental health counsellors and psychologists on call as well as a helpline for people who wanted to speak anonymously. She’d encourage people to share their experiences and form support groups if they needed.

JC would reach out to her teams regularly to let them know that the organisation is looking out for them. She wouldn’t fire anyone, especially the financially or socially disadvantaged. She would cut her own salary before she docked anybody else’s and ensure that any pay cuts start at top management level. She’d be self-aware and try to be seen as a fellow employee and not someone sitting in an ivory tower.

JC would routinely send out group emails congratulating teams on their effort and collective performance. She’d never admonish anyone in a group email and she’d never pit colleagues against one another by routinely praising some on group emails, while overlooking the work of others — especially those whose work is ‘invisible’ or less glamorous.

Workplace of the future

People would be allowed to work from anywhere, the concept of a working week would be scrapped and teams would be empowered to keep the hours they wanted as long as they delivered their work. Jacqueline would let people take unlimited leave and if that wasn’t an option, she’d let team members donate their untaken days off to others and let them split the work between themselves, however they wanted, to ensure the job got done.

She’d offer her staff learning and development opportunities that could be accessed online and allocate a budget for people to set up their workspaces at home.


How Will You Get High?

I think Jacqueline’s ethos would be to recognise that this is a difficult time for everyone and she’d be as patient and understanding as she possibly could.

What do you think she would do?

More importantly, what will you do?


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This article was originally published in The Economic Times