Like many of us over recent weeks, I have been watching and observing the response of businesses to the current pandemic in the UK and globally. As organisations consider what next, and how do we continue to create a “mid to long term” sustainable business, one of the things I sincerely hope is enduring is the great examples of compassion, empathy and the “human touch” being evident in leadership.

“Driving Results”

This got me thinking, and as an HR leader who made the transition into business leadership some years ago, it reminded me that these interpersonal skills are, and will always be at the heart of good leadership. For too often this kind, caring approach to leadership is seen as lacking the commercial edge and has been accused of not “driving results”……well let me offer a different perspective based on my experience at one of the world’s leading companies.

I was lucky enough to lead some HR and business teams for eBay across Europe and Asia from 2011 to 2015. As part of their leadership team, I witnessed first-hand the company philosophy around how great customer satisfaction and motivated employees were the key catalysts for strong financial results. The CEO at the time, John Donahoe even went as far as to rank them in this order: customer, employee, financials; in some of his internal leadership presentations and the organisation worked and operated based on these principles. Of course, the financial results as a NASDAQ listed company were always top of mind and the companies CFO, Bob Swan ran a strong Finance organisation, but this customer/employee focus was evident through the company and became a firm part of the culture. We were obsessed with Customer satisfaction and Employee engagement and these metrics were always evident in bonus schemes and management and leadership incentive programmes.

Authenticity with a dose of compassion

Another example of great leadership with an authentic and considered dose of compassion came across my desk a couple of weeks ago. A colleague shared an article from Airbnb’s news desk which was Co-Founder and CEO, Brian Chesky’s open letter to employees explaining the rationale behind reshaping the Airbnb business. I’d encourage you all to take a look at this as it is a great example of good practice methods being interspersed with authenticity and hope.

Chesky starts this open letter to employees with candour and frankness on the business state. He then carefully walks through the repositioning of the business and a desire to have the company staying true to its roots. He then outlines clearly how they approached reductions using the companies “core values” as a compass for this and ends with real clarity on next steps, upcoming communications and final words that are honest, uplifting and human – consistent with the company he has created with his loyal companions. I responded at the time by saying that with a people focussed, strategic leader like Brian Chesky, I’m sure Airbnb will return to good times again and I remain convinced that this will be the case as we transition out of lockdown.

Digital acceleration

Another observation that I’ve picked up from my network and news stories across the globe is this concept of digital “acceleration” given the need for young and old to use technology, apps and e-commerce in a way and at a level never previously experienced. I am pretty sure some of this adoption will be sustainable, but my observation is actually around another type of acceleration – “cultural acceleration”. From my work on culture across my leadership career, there is no doubt that culture and its characteristics are partly formed from leaders and their reactions to drama and extreme circumstances. “Culture is created by shared experience, but it is the leader who initiates this process”…..Therefore, my belief is that over the upcoming weeks and as we ease out of lockdown, leadership behaviours will continue to shape corporate culture for years to come.

The “shadow that we cast” as leaders materially influences our teams from the top to the bottom of the organisation. Therefore, if you want to be known as a people focussed organisation then take the time to consider your every move in your engagement with the workforce. Each step, each word, each action will be magnified given this current set of extreme circumstances we are all living through.

A humanistic style of leadership

So, I conclude my observations by reaffirming my hope that the days of leadership lacking thought, empathy and compassion are gone, and worse still the belief that this approach “drives results” on a mid to long term basis are squashed. Of course, leadership style and approach is always going to need to be somewhat contextual and I understand that, but if we start with the premise that most people come to work to do a good job, of which they can be proud, and as leaders, we aim to reciprocate that intent, I’m confident the new normal will represent a better place in and out of work.

Interestingly, one of the insights I gained from my time at eBay was that Pierre Omidyar, the Founder of eBay started the company believing that by buying and selling through a global marketplace platform, the vast majority of folks would “do the right thing” and a guy or girl would commit to sending their “laser pen” (first item ever sold on eBay in 1995!) across the country or globe once an auction had been won……some 25 years later that belief in the human spirit is driving us through this pandemic and to a more personable and humanistic style of leadership.