2020 saw a glut of articles – Campaign even ran their fair share – about empathetic leadership. This "empathy epiphany" stood in marked contrast to much that had gone before in our industry. Sadly, that tide seems to have somewhat turned and the focus is now office vs home and what is (mostly) best for business.
However, as we take the first steps to return to some level of office working (which so far has been brilliant), it remains more important than ever that we are understanding and respectful of our people, anticipating and responding to their needs.
In the here and now of 2021, we have to put the emphasis back on empathy.
Is the ad industry ready to champion empathy?
If I asked 18 months ago whether the ad industry was empathetic, I doubt the vast majority would have stuck their hand in the air. I've got a theory as to why: over the years, many of today's senior industry leaders have had to develop thick hides from working late, taking unfiltered "feedback" and the pressure of year-on-year growth. Whilst of course many adapted to embrace a new working culture, old working habits and expectations can die hard. Not exactly fertile ground for empathy, or empathetic leadership.
I grew up as military kid as my father served in the RAF for 41 years. Therefore, my early years saw leadership as direct, instructional and unquestioned. You are leading soldiers or airmen as a unit, not as individuals.
But last March, as lockdown loomed and we began to work from home, this form of leadership obviously wasn't right. Also being home full time, I, like many, found myself having to combine my two primary functions, as both a CEO and a single parent.
The pandemic placed a heavy mental strain on most of us and it certainly delivered me some dark days. But of course, my challenges were uniquely mine, and many colleagues were facing their own quite specific challenges. But this also gave me insight and an appreciation that sharing vulnerabilities made me more human in the eyes of those around me. I have never in my career been better placed to understand when a member of the team is having difficulties and put into motion the necessary steps to remedy the situation. Empathetic leadership is about cumulative, everyday actions that may seem insignificant, but which help our team to feel understood and, more importantly, wanted.
Policies PLUS the personal touch
At its root, empathy takes the form of sensitivity towards an individual's requirements, not treating someone as part of a unit, but giving unconditional support for an individual colleague when they need it. You can have all the policies in the world (and I am very proud of ours), but they are just the starting point. Policies enable confidence and formally legitimise conversations our colleagues didn't always think they could have. They encourage a more open culture of mutual respect and dialogue, but crucially they need empathy at the most senior levels to ensure they are embraced and don't just wither on the vine. And they need empathetic leaders and managers to see the person behind the policy, giving them the space to activate it in a way that truly benefits them.
At MullenLowe Group, our newly introduced hybrid working playbook focuses on people's individual personal circumstances and how we can support those. We make sure we employ an "ear" as well as a "voice" approach by taking regular surveys and temperature checks, to see what we are doing well and what we need to improve. We have added in a welfare section to our staff reviews to make sure we get truly personalised information on how we can help work-life harmony.
Why empathy should be part of the everyday
Of course, as a CEO I must also maintain the commercial performance of the company. But without our brilliant people there is no company, there is no community. There is no grand strategy that can be employed to encourage empathy in the workplace. Instead, empathy must be woven through the DNA of a company and the result of this – a kinder, more human company – will naturally lead to the results that we want to see in our employees: increased loyalty, productivity and happiness.
I have always argued that walking a mile in someone's shoes – particularly if those shoes look absolutely nothing like yours – will also allow for a more inclusive environment and foster diversity. Of course, in many cases this is easier said than done, but through everyday acts of empathy towards each other, we can all do our part in creating a better way to work.
Empathetic leadership therefore is a win, win, win, for our people, our businesses and our brilliant industry.
Jeremy Hine is chief executive of MullenLowe Group UK