Leading with Empathy: Supporting your stakeholders through challenging times (COVID-19 Edition)


Leading with Empathy: Supporting your stakeholders through challenging times (COVID-19 Edition)

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

Ok, we all know I didn’t coin the phrase. It was the indubitable Charles Dickens, and he was referring to a time far different from what we’re experiencing today. But the phrase takes on a whole new context when we reflect on what’s been happening now during the COVID-19 Pandemic.

Things are crazy, hectic and challenging. There’s a lot of uncertainty; and with that comes stress, anxiety, fear and frustration. Just like Mr. Dickens stated all those years ago, we are indeed facing some of the worst of times.

But look around. I guarantee it won’t take much to see that we are also experiencing some of the best of times–through the kindness, empathy and leadership of many in our communities and the world over. People, organizations, and captains of industry are contributing their time, expertise, resources and money to help those in their immediate circles and the community at large. And not just to survive–but to thrive!

In times like these, it’s easy to get lost in self-despair and our own stress and anxieties. But if you’re an entrepreneur, a business leader; if you have people that work for you or report to you–NOW is the time to lead with empathy! For me, it’s simple and it all comes down to transparency. I’m going to share ideas that I and my business partner/husband Mike are doing at Proofpoint, as well as a few real-life examples I love and admire.

1.) Be Transparent:

Pretending the world is operating “business as usual” doesn’t help anyone. Your customers and prospects want to know you see the struggles they’re facing. Your employees want to feel protected and need guidance and support. At Proofpoint, we believe in being utterly transparent; there are very few topics that are off the table. By acknowledging the reality of our world and saying, “we’ll get through this together,” you prove you can be an available, present, and stable business leader, despite the current chaos.  

One of the best examples I’ve seen through this entire pandemic is the video message by Arne Sorenson, President and CEO at Marriott International. He addressed his team as well as the hospitality industry at large (and really ALL of us), in his heartfelt video message several weeks ago. It brought me to tears, and I don’t even work in the hospitality industry! But I am affected by what’s going, and as a business leader, I am concerned for my team and my clients. If you haven’t seen the video, I urge you to take the time to do so. It is a valuable case-study in leading with empathy and being transparent in all aspects (even in the face of Mr. Sorenson’s own personal struggles).

2.) Communicate Frequently:

In the history of crises, there’s never been a leader who’s been scolded for over-communicating! During a crisis, leaders should be constantly communicating with their teams, stakeholders, clients, network–heck, even prospects! Ask yourself each day what your team needs to know. But more importantly: communicate solutions, not just issues. Tell each of your stakeholders what you’re doing for them, and what it means.

The best example I’ve seen is Delta’s communication. Not only have they put out very clear, concise and empathetic messaging, they’ve done so frequently and in a variety of formats. I’ve received four emails (March 9th, March 15th, March 22nd, March 29th) so far from the company, each outlining clearly the steps they’re taking to protect their clients and employees and address concerns regarding upcoming travel. They have an entire COVID-19 News Hub with videos and messaging updated frequently. And Delta CEO Ed Bastian has been prolific with messaging on LinkedIn.

On a personal level, I experienced great customer service with Delta just the other day. I booked a trip to Spain for my Dad’s 70th birthday in April, and I called to cancel and obtain a refund. It took me less than 5 minutes with one of their representatives, and it was the easiest, most painless phone call I’ve ever had to make! No fees, just a 100% refund. In a time like this, most customers don’t want their money tied up in a product or service they can’t use.

3.) Make yourself Visible and Available:

During a crisis, leaders should be visible and accessible. In a time like this, when almost all non-essential workforce is working from home, leaders can do this in several ways:

  • Set-up virtual office hours, so anyone at any time in your organization can “pop-in” to chat with you.
  • Set-up more frequent touch-bases with your employees. If you already have 1:1’s with subordinates, consider an-all department weekly meeting, and more frequent all-staff meetings.
  • Connect personally and individually with your clients, stakeholders (besides employees), and any vendor or outside partner close to your company. These are people that need to hear from you and want to know what you’re doing to keep them top-of-mind.

4.) Add Value and Be Genuine:

Does your company have online courses or other resources that are valuable during this time? Make them available and accessible to a wider audience (and ideally do so for free). The number of companies today sharing their knowledge and resources is outstanding! I can’t seem to sign-up for enough webinars, online courses and virtual Q&As with companies I respect and admire.

I recently attended the DUDE Fest Remote Workforce Summit 2020, an online summit for agency owners and marketing entrepreneurs, hosted by Chris Martinez, founder and CEO of DUDE Agency. I was thoroughly blown-away and delighted by the entire experience. First off, the event had a nominal fee ($12) of which, 100% was donated to the Red Cross. In hindsight, I would have easily paid $200 or more to attend this summit because the value derived from it and the high-quality speakers and presentations provided so much insight. Secondly, every single presenter (all of whom are talented, smart and successful entrepreneurs) donated their time and some sort of “freebie” from their company (such as free access to tools, templates and online courses), as well as discounts to products. Lastly, every single presenter made him or herself available to attendees by sharing their personal emails. No strings attached. No sales pitches. Just leaders reaching out and sharing their knowledge and experiences to help others in this time of uncertainty.

Here’s what we’re doing at Proofpoint ? to Lead with Empathy:

1.) Transparency & Communication: We’ve shared several all-team updates in Slack about the steps we’re taking as a business to secure cash-flow, minimize spending, and continue to drive new business and revenue, and the other strategies we’re taking to position Proofpoint to be able to weather the storm (such as developing packages and going after new markets outside our ICP). We are currently working on ways to engage with and connect on a deeper level with each of our clients, including a weekly mastermind-type group.

2.) Mental Health & Well-Being: Mandatory days-off: Each person in the agency will take a day off of their choosing, over the next 10 weeks (one person per week). This is in addition to any time-off they have planned or need to take. The goal for this personal day off is that they try to do something for themselves (outside of family stuff) and also we are encouraging our team NOT to watch the news or read work-related updates on their day off. Truly just take a day off! 

3.) Family First, always! We are loosening our expectations during meeting times. Actually, we’ve thrown away the pre-Covid meeting playbook! Employees have our blessing to have kids present during both internal and external meetings, and/or attend to their kids’ needs on calls by muting their video and stepping away from the camera to tend to their family during this time. We have one employee who has an infant who still sleeps a lot, so we’ve told her it’s totally fine to have her baby in her arms or hold her in a front pack while on calls, and just mute if the baby gets loud or starts to cry.

4.) Safety at home: Mike and I wanted to do something special to help make this time a little less challenging and stressful. We purchased a year subscription for each of our employees to either Shipt or Instacart for grocery delivery. We hope this small gesture will alleviate stress and time of having to drive to the store, juggle kids/family, work, and also alleviate the need to have to leave the house and potentially feel unsafe by doing so.

5.) Exercise and a little competition: We are a fully remote team to begin with, so working from home is not new to us…but these circumstances are certainly challenging. We set-up a Slack channel in which our team is participating in a 30-day challenge (we’re doing Squats!) with a prize at the end. Once that challenge is up, we’ll pick a new one and start again, for as long as the team wants and/or as long as we have to be practicing social distancing. 

6.) A little bit of fun and downtime: We scheduled weekly (virtual) Happy Hours through the end of April with our team and a number of the contractors and freelancers we work with. The idea is to get everyone together and talk about everything but work! Just a fun online hangout. No agendas, no set topics. Whatever anyone wants to bring to the table. One of our employees loves to cook, so she said she would gladly do a cooking show for the rest of the group!

7.) Surprise and Delight: Randomly, we sent our team a box of gourmet cookies (via Amazon). And the other day, we sent everyone a $10 gift card to Starbucks. And throughout the next few weeks (and possibly months), we’ll have a few other surprises up our sleeves.

8.) Compassion through helping others: As a business, we are offering free marketing consultations to any small business that would like to talk through marketing decisions/struggles during this time. Completely free, no strings attached. Just doing our part to help other small businesses that are really struggling right now: https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6646057580760223744 

9.) Leadership and curiosity even in the dark: We are also doing an informal survey among business and marketing leaders around marketing and spending this time, and once we collect enough data, we’ll make the findings available and public to anyone on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6645404899653795840