Trust in leadership and empathetic relationships

As part of the recent commentary on the characteristics of effective leadership and the four attributes of trust, IQA CEO Kylie Fahey discusses the importance of empathy in both life and business outcomes.

Earlier this year, the Institute of Quarrying Australia (IQA) invited me to present a monthly article, based on one of the seven core characteristics of effective leadership.

Rather than write all seven of these scenarios myself, I chose to invite a number of people to make a contribution, from a diverse demographic and a number of industries, which I hope you have found interesting.

This is the seventh chapter, with a personal story from Kylie Fahey, the Chief Executive Officer of the IQA, who selected empathetic relationships for her stories on becoming an effective leader.  

I suggest that you find a comfortable spot to sit and enjoy a coffee while you read this enlightening piece.

 I offered the following brief explanation for Empathetic Relationships in my book:

Empathetic leaders have the ability to recognise, understand and share the thoughts and feelings of another person. They acknowledge the story without judgement.

– Mike Cameron

EMPATHETIC RELATIONSHIPS – KYLIE FAHEY

I was very humbled when Mike asked me to write a story on empathetic relationships. Empathy is an extensive concept and when I started to reflect on the topic, I realised just how complex empathy and being genuinely empathetic is. I have deliberately raised the notion of genuine empathy and will come back to that later. This story is a little about my journey in developing an understanding of empathy and knowing how powerful and important it is in achieving outcomes in business and in life. It also acknowledges that our ability to engage in empathetic relationships requires a willingness to constantly reflect, learn and adapt.

Empathy may be summarised as the skill of recognising and understanding others’ needs, feelings and perspectives. In any meaningful human relationship this is important. The ability to empathise means you have an awareness of the other person’s feelings and how they impact their perception. Being empathetic does not mean you have to agree with their views or perception. Rather, being empathetic means that you are willing and able to appreciate what the other person is going through.

I have had the absolute privilege of working with some of the least empathetic people and others who are genuinely empathetic and a true inspiration. Experiencing the spectrum of empathetic behaviours during my career spanning nearly 30 years, I have learnt the true value of relationships built through empathy and the outcomes that those relationships bring.

My career kicked off in my twenties and I undertook a variety of roles. I was the “yes” person. If there was a project going or an opportunity to do more I said “yes”. I was not cognitively climbing the corporate ladder, I just wanted to work hard, constantly work on new things and learn as much as I could. I took every opportunity and often jumped in boots and all.

I accepted a promotion into a public affairs role, an area in which I had very little experience. In my second week, I was tasked with preparing briefing papers and speaking points for my manager to give a live interview on ABC radio about a highly sensitive and very contentious issue. I knew the topic. I knew the angle. I knew the defence tactics. And I knew that I had thoroughly briefed my manager. At 8.57am, I was pushed overboard with no life-ring and told by my manager that I was doing the interview – live and on air in three minutes.

There were a few more “ums” during the interview than I would have liked, but I got the key points across and survived. Most importantly, I learnt a valuable lesson that is critical in building and maintaining empathetic relationships. Everyone has fears.

Seniority does not mean you are fearless and do not doubt yourself. I realised it was fear of failure that caused my manager to behave like that. Often leadership is associated with the CEO, a captain or board directors. Hierarchy does not equal leadership, and leadership does not equal empathy.

Building empathetic relationships requires us to acknowledge our own limitations and confront our own fears. You need to get outside your comfort zone to push yourself. By doing this you create opportunities to develop emotionally. Some of the challenges I have taken on include stand-up comedy and endurance sports. These things scare me. But they force me to overcome that voice that says “I can’t”. By getting outside your comfort zone you will find that you can achieve many things. You will develop a deep understanding of yourself and this will help your ability to empathise.

As a middle manager climbing the ladder in my twenties more often than not, I had a very clear preconceived notion of how things should be done. Looking back this was a very narrow position to take. In my mid-thirties my anatomy finally decided to work the way it was supposed to, and I began using two ears and one mouth. I began to listen. I started to realise that to form a relationship, much less an empathetic one, you need to listen. Not just to what the person is saying, but to what they are not saying, the words they use and do not use and their body language while they are saying it. I realised that by listening you actually get a deeper sense of the issue, an ability to understand and make better decisions. Listening resulted in a huge shift for me. All of a sudden the opinions of others were genuinely influencing a better outcome. When you take the time to understand what those around you need and build relationships based on these needs and feelings, as opposed to what you perceive is required, you get a much better result. I have a silly saying: “A + B = C and C is always better.” This is about seeking diversity of opinion and understanding the tangible and non-tangibles in any situation and being emotionally aware of what is happening for the people involved.

In my forties I was killing it. Now in the C suite club as the Group CEO, a founder Red Dot property. Graduated with a Master of Business. Completing an invitational leadership course. Endurance sports. International travel. Busy! Busy! Busy! So busy. I was busy being busy. So busy I did not realise that I was failing to display empathy in most of my professional relationships. It was like I was racing to the finish line, but I did not know where or what the finish line was. I was not taking the time to empathise and listen. So I made a conscious decision to slow down. Slowing down is not about stopping. For me it was about reframing how I engaged and what I prioritised. Empathetic relationships require you to be present. I removed the word busy from my thinking, I became present, and this presence slowed my mind, allowing me to achieve more and ensure I had the emotional space to empathise.

Trust is vital in meaningful relationships and is being recognised more and more in business as essential.

A recent report by Deloitte highlights the commercial and long-term value of trust by consumers, staff and the community. Empathetic relationships create a safe space for people to acknowledge when they need help, when they make a mistake or to openly share ideas and innovate. By being empathetic you can use mistakes to engage the person and create an environment for people to learn and grow and to improve the performance of the business.

I want to come back to the notion I raised at the start, of genuine empathetic relationships. To have effective empathetic relationships you must be genuine. “Fake it ‘til you make it” will never win out in the long run as at some point people will realise that you are not genuine and you are not showing empathy.

Through empathy you can build and develop stronger teams. I love sports and love the concept of doing the one percenters. Small gains over a season add up to big improvements for the team. I have successfully grown teams using this philosophy. Set the KPIs and support the team to achieve them. Through trust, empathy and communication the team will themselves lift the bar and achieve more. Empathy is critical. To improve, individuals have to develop confidence in themselves. You cannot force this. It occurs through supporting your people as they realise their potential. I look back and am proud of team members who grew into senior management roles, took on increased responsibility, recognised their talents, gained promotions externally or challenged themselves to get outside their comfort zone. 

I know that individuals will seek to achieve more and get the best out of themselves when they know that praise is genuine, feedback is constructive and they are understood.

I look back on the achievement of some teams I have led with pride. Building teams that were autonomous and high performing. I saw individuals achieve personal goals. The philosophy I use is to set the bar above where the individual/team think they can reach. To improve individual performance people have to develop confidence in themselves. You cannot force this. It occurs through supporting people to realise their potential. Through trust, empathy and communication the team will themselves lift the bar and achieve more.

As a senior leader, I am accountable for delivering a result. I have signed on for this level of accountability and I am okay with it. The results I am required to deliver will vary depending on the organisation, but it always has a financial aspect. Be it a profitable return to shareholders, value to members, preserving cashflow or growing revenue. The bottom line is a critical result in any organisation. Financial objectives can often be a source of disconnect, or even conflict, between staff, teams and management. Some of the biggest tests I have faced have been times when the bottom line outcome required hard decisions that impacted people. At times it is my job to make a hard call, but it is how you do it that is important. When I reflect on some hard decisions, empathy may not be the appropriate term. Ensuring my decisions considered the impact on people and communicating fully and openly was important.

Now as I edge closer to the golden age of 50, I am just starting to understand this thing called empathy. For me it starts with being honest with myself. I know what I am not good at and what I need support with, and I easily call that out. I believe that to build empathetic relationships you need a level of personal braveness. I am not afraid to say when I disagree. I am not afraid to surround myself with people who are smarter, better at the detail or technical areas and learn from them and I am brave enough to try new things and challenge myself to fail. •

EFFECTIVE LEADERS – AVAILABLE NOW

Kylie Fahey’s chapter and other chapters on effective leadership published this year in Quarry form part of a new book – Effective Leaders: Four attributes that underpin the core characteristics Of Effective Leadership, written and edited by Mike Cameron.