by Dave Smith

The path forward requires empathy and transparency in leadership

Jun 18, 2020
IT LeadershipIT Skills

A global pandemic and a heightened state of civic and social unrest has exposed systematic inequalities. Who will take on the challenge of empathetic and transparent leadership?

leadership circle
Credit: Thinkstock

COVID-19 presented businesses with the unique challenge of dealing with a remote workforce and the converging of people’s personal and business lives. Work behaviors shifted overnight to a digital and virtual paradigm calling for a different type of management discipline: being ultra-empathetic to employees as they tried to navigate their new reality. People are at home working, raising their kids and homeschooling. Digital transformation just happened, and organizations had to adjust, whether they were ready or not. As I see it now, there is no going back. Welcome to our digital future.

Then, in the midst of this pandemic, the horrific death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police, on the heels of other similar horrific events, witnessed by everyone on TV (especially now that we’re all at home), triggered massive domestic and global protests that exposed what to many people of color has been an even deadlier and vicious pandemic: systemic racism in our society with deep roots in law enforcement, public and private organizations. Corporations across the board rushed to put out Black Lives Matter statements to show solidarity with Black people and support the fight for equality. One of the most interesting realizations of these global protests has been how racially diverse they’ve been, with all voices calling for change.

So here we are, navigating a public health crisis and dealing with fixing systemic racism in our society and organizations. There is no playbook for this. And I will say it again, there is no going back from here. 

As I speak with CIOs, IT and other line-of-business leaders, there is a new recognition of the importance of empathy, transparency and the very hard work of getting down to really understanding the impact of systemic inequality on Black people and people of color. It also needs to be very clear that while Black Lives Matter statements are good, specific actions need to be outlined by every organization on how they plan to deal with systemic racism. Employee relations, pay equality, as well as recruiting and hiring processes have to be addressed. Unconscious and implicit bias has plagued these work processes for decades. The real work needs to take place at the structural level. And these will be very uncomfortable conversations to have.

Seize the moment to move forward

The discussions I’m having with technology leaders from various business disciplines and industries reflect a certain understanding that this moment is pivotal. Since the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, there is something very different about this moment. Combine that with a global pandemic and you have a perfect storm for reimagining work and addressing the structural issues to create a better and fairer workplace for everyone.

Forward-thinking CIOs and other line-of-business leaders recognize the importance of a whole of company approach to fostering change, creating a better culture and business continuity during this global crisis.

Also, while the internal employee experience is critical, the customer experience has to be reimagined as well. Both experiences go hand in hand. The bottom line is, people want and need to be seen. Those who have suffered directly from systemic racism and social injustice and inequities in your organizations and those external to it, like your customers, need to be seen and heard. They need to be seen and heard in your employee and customer experience processes and systems.

CIOs and IT leaders have to work closely together with other line-of-business leaders, including HR, to focus on culture and real empathy for the diverse groups of people in their respective organizations. For example, it’s not just about technology implementations per se, but what is the impact of that technology on how people are experiencing work and getting their jobs done:

  • Is everyone experiencing it equally?
  • Are HR systems and processes effective in hiring and recruiting with enough transparency to promote fairness and expose any implicit bias?
  • Do those systems enable frequent and transparent feedback to see the pulse of the organization from a people perspective?

I recommend frequent weekly check-ins to see how people are doing. As COVID-19 has exposed the digital divide in the U.S., what is the impact of that divide on your employees and their school-age children in accessing the internet for work and school services?  In a recent conversation I had with Prasad Ramakrishnan, CIO and CISO of Freshworks, he intimated that this is a major part of business continuity planning that caught a lot of companies by surprise during this pandemic, as public network infrastructures saw huge spikes.

Be part of the solution

Business leaders need to recommit to a people-first approach. It will require higher degrees of transparency and empathy brought to bear equally across a diverse workforce. The global public health crisis and the exposing of racial and social inequities and inequalities have broken down the once separated walls of work, home life and social justice.  These are all now shared responsibilities that every business has to cope with and manage.

Business leaders must recognize that social injustices such as racial inequality are not just outside of the walls of the organization. They impact your employees and customers. It’s time to put forth decisive steps and actions to be part of the solution.