PWN Vienna: Leading with Empathy

Stephanie Wright did what Napoleon couldn’t – she conquered Russia, and not with force but with empathy.

Stephanie Wright’s background is in purchasing and supply chain management, but her career is really in leadership. If you look up the personality characteristics required to be a purchasing agent, one of the first qualities listed is not an aptitude for math and calculating cost savings, but for ‘natural leaders who thrive at influencing and persuading others.’

Stephanie Wright, Empathetic LeadershipStephanie started her career at Ford Motor Company as a global category manager in purchasing.  She changed industries at the onset of the automotive crisis in 2006 and went to Henkel to lead an organizational change management program.  She continued to climb the corporate ladder, and in 2011 was asked to come to Germany to lead a global team with members all over the world. Soon afterwards was asked to move to Vienna to become Head of Purchasing for Eastern Europe.  

The story she tells starts with this assignment - she describes it as the role that transformed her leadership style. Newly appointed as Head of Purchasing - Eastern Europe, which for Henkel included Russia and Turkey, she needed to convince her Russian team that they should “follow” her - not only the first female, but also the first non-Eastern European to hold the role; she was now their boss and they must do what she said.  

How was she going to do this - convince people who she had very little in common with historically and culturally, that she could lead them? Her strategy was an unconventional one, and not uncontroversial: Before she gave any direction to her new staff, she spent the first 90 days trying to THINK like her new employees, to feel like them, to listen to them, to experience what they were experiencing; to ask them what they needed – and to take feedback from them without judgement.

During those first few months, she was often criticized because others felt “she hasn’t ‚done‘ anything since she has been here,” a ttypical sentiment for a culture that craves instant gratification. Stephanie’s strategy, however, was clear – she was tuning into her team. She believed she could not lead them the way that they needed to be led if she didn’t try to understand their perspective first, and gain their trust. 

Stephanie came to this strategy through lessons learned from the teachings of Daniel Goleman and Simon Sinek, two of her leadership ‘gurus.’ Daniel Goleman wrote the international bestseller Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ.  During her talk for PWN Vienna’s Linkup & Learn: Leading with Empathy, she gave us a mini-seminar on empathy and emotional intelligence, and how both can be more important than cognitive intelligence in predicting a person’s success, and why it is so important for leaders. 

During her talk, the first thing Stephanie did was define empathy for us – and once you break it down, it is more complex than you may think. Empathy is not simply assuming you have had the same experiences as others, but the ability to understand another person’s perspective, sense their emotions and imagine or try to understand what that person might be thinking or feeling, and then take action. Stephanie describes three areas of empathy that must work in harmony to allow one to behave in an empathetic way:

  1. Cognitive empathy – when you focus on what the other person might be thinking - tap into their perspective, and understand „their language” when speaking with them.
  2. Emotional empathy - this is what we typically think of when we say empathy – when you share another person’s emotions – for example, when talking to a colleague who has just found out they did not get a promotion they wanted and you actually feel sad or disappointed, as if it were you that just found out this information. 
  3. Compassion - this is the part where you want to take action and may ask “what can I do to help” or “what do you need,” and because you truly want to, not out of a sense of obligation. Maybe you just listen, or maybe you offer to help, with something such as mentoring them in areas where they need development.

Having empathy requires more than just knowing the definition, and being empathetic is not something that just happens overnight, it is something you need to work at and build, like a muscle or learning a new language.  The first step requires becoming self-aware, and this is where Daniel Goleman’s lessons on Emotional Intelligence come into play. 

The concepts are pretty easy to understand, but the regular practice is more difficult. There are four main areas of Emotional Intelligence:

  1. Knowing your emotions - really embracing them and not being afraid of them
  2. Managing your emotions - this very hard to do sometimes, especially when stress is high
  3. Recognizing emotions in others
  4. Handling relationships

And this is how Stephanie went about conquering Russia – by practicing empathy and emotional intelligence. During her three months of ‘extreme listening’ she observed the perspectives of her employees, their concerns and fears, and what they cared about. In parallel, she listened to her own fears and concerns, and examined the attitudes she, as a female raised in the United States, brought with her. She could then speak to her team using empathetic language – words that reflected everything she had observed and learned during her three months of extreme listening. 

She used that empathetic language to create an environment of (emotional) safety and trust, which can only happen when people feel you understand them. Safety and trust are important because when people feel safe and start to trust others with their ideas and emotions, the result is an environment that is more creative, where people take calculated risks, which leads to progress and quite often, innovation.  Stephanie needed her team to feel safe enough with her to share their ideas and concerns - the highs and lows of the job, but without feeling judged, and even better, feeling cared about. 

These lessons came into play when upper management announced a requirement for each department to reduce structural costs, and Stephanie had to communicate this to her team. She called a ‘town hall’ meeting to announce the new challenges.

Knowing that any phrase relating to ‘reducing costs’ creates fear in employees that they will lose their jobs, she chose her words very carefully and used empathetic language. Here are some of the main bullet points of her announcement, which she used to make her team feel motivated and safe rather than discouraged; and to get them to work not just for her, but with her. 

  • WE have a job to do TOGETHER. (establish awareness of team)
  • It will be hard for ALL of us. (recognizing the truth, and that it would be difficult for her as well as for them)
  • We don’t need to agree (providing guidance & acceptance)
  • But let’s respect each other (opportunity to establish trust and commitment to non-judgement)
  • Take risks (open the door for safety to make mistakes)
  • Reward ourselves in the progress (success is in the progress made, not just the end goal)

Speaking about the need to “reduce structural costs” in this forthright and sincere way gave her team the feeling that they were in it together, and put the focus on progress and celebrating small wins along the way. Rather than feeling scared or unmotivated in the face of changes, they felt involved and supported.

Here are some other tips Stephanie gave us for continuing to develop and lead with empathy:

  • Really take time to self-reflect on your experiences – have situations been successful because you put an empathetic twist; or maybe something didn’t go well because you weren’t in the right mindset, or you didn’t use the right tools in order to connect and be more empathetic with those you were communicating with.
  • Tune in, especially during meetings - tap into the energy of the room and the unsaid emotions. Take notes, try to understand what people are thinking, what non-verbal signs they are giving: arms crossed, agitated movements, smiles, eye contact; jot down ideas on the actions you want to take later to further engage your teams.
  • Have Touch-Base Meetings, often called virtual coffee breaks – ones with no agenda, where you give the opportunity for both parties to listen and share, without judgement. 

So here is what empathetic leadership can do: When Stephanie first met her new team, the attitude she encountered from them was “absolutely no way is this going to work.” Three years later, at the going-away party before Stephanie took another role in the company, the Head of Purchasing for Russia said to her ‘I never, ever would have believed that I would be sad that you are leaving.’ What a turnaround!

Thus, for Stephanie, although her career has been in purchasing and supply chain management in the automotive and chemical industries, she says her greatest achievement so far has been leading teams from all over the world, and putting into practice every day the skill of empathy, which she believes has a positive impact lasting long after she has moved on to another position.


Author: Kathryn Nenning, PWN Vienna
Date: April 2021

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