Padilla President on Empathy from the C-Suite
“If you don’t communicate effectively, people aren’t going to change behavior, and you won’t accomplish business outcomes,” says Padilla president Matt Kucharski Photograph courtesy of Padilla

Padilla President on Empathy from the C-Suite

Is there a disconnect between the skills that get leaders to the C-suite and the attributes needed to communicate with employees once they get there?

Ambition, intelligence, and business results may power a leader into a CEO role. Yet Padilla president Matt Kucharski says the pandemic, racial equity issues, and other societal factors are forcing many C-suite leaders to reassess how they lead their employees.

Padilla, which advises companies on employee and external communications, did a study in mid-2022 to learn how communications were changing. A firm was hired to survey U.S. executives and employees online, then Kucharski personally interviewed 25 C-suite leaders for in-depth assessments.

The overarching takeaway is “a fundamental shift in how leaders are leading and how they are communicating,” Kucharski says. The responses to two survey questions illuminate what’s occurring.

Leaders were asked which qualities they believed were the most important in communicating effectively to their employees. They were, in order of importance, credibility, authenticity, confidence, and ethics.

They also were asked to rate which attributes had become “somewhat” or “extremely” more important in their leadership style over the past two years. Social issue advocacy, empathy, flexibility, and vulnerability were all rated 70% or higher.

Kucharski says leaders need to place a priority on these types of communication skills and values because neglecting them could lead to disengaged employees or workers simply leaving the company.

“A major change [in business operations] requires people to change their behavior,” he says. “If you don’t communicate effectively, people aren’t going to change behavior, and you won’t accomplish business outcomes.”

Showing more empathy

Kucharski offered his top advice on how C-suite executives can enhance their soft leadership skills.

“No. 1 is to listen to and acknowledge what is on employees’ minds,” he says. “In some cases, it’s simply a stated recognition that the leader understands what employees are dealing with, whether it is at work or at home.”

The pandemic has created “virtual water coolers,” so leaders can now get feedback on Slack, Teams channels and chats, and in other digital locations, he says. Employees are watching how leaders are interpreting their feedback and whether action is taken in response, such as a new policy, change in approaching project work, or directly addressing misunderstandings.

Exercising flexibility

While many employees have pressed for flexibility in their work schedules, Kucharski says flexibility also means the ability to pivot if a business plan needs adjustment.

“The pandemic really helped companies exercise the muscle of fast change, because you literally week to week didn’t know what was coming,” he says. “Good companies and good leaders are seizing that skill and using it to make faster adjustments,” he says, creating a change-resilient culture.

Employees can be receptive to change after they learn it’s needed and that they can drive change, he says.

Being transparent

“Good leaders are acknowledging when they don’t have everything figured out,” he says. “The leader expresses the vision, expresses where they want to go, but may say that they need help in getting there.”

The vulnerability of the CEO is linked to transparency within the business. During a planning and decision-making process, he says, it’s helpful for employees to “see essentially some of the sausage being made.” Employees become aware of the process and what considerations are in play, he says.

Taking stands on issues

Whether it’s racial justice, climate change, or other key issues, Kucharski says that C-suite leaders increasingly need frameworks for determining when they should get involved in a social issue.

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A company may conclude an issue is closely linked to the livelihood of the business and it needs to take a “front-and-center” external position. “It’s an intersection of business pragmatism and it being the right thing to do.”

C-suite-LeadershipQualities That Are Increasing in Importance vs 2020