Kyle Norrington, president of Labatt Breweries of Canada, credits his father with imparting an enduring leadership lesson that still influences his professional interactions today: the power of empathy to inspire engagement and high performance in others.
“What I learned at a pretty young age was to be able to ask the right questions at the right moments and empathize with the people I work with,” Norrington says. “To be a great leader, fundamentally, you need to put yourself into somebody else’s shoes and understand the state they’re in. And it’s so much easier to motivate and inspire if you do that.”
Norrington has been with Labatt in various sales and marketing roles for more than 20 years, taking over the role of CEO in 2018. He says his extensive background in marketing has given him a unique perspective on what it means to practice empathetic leadership and emotional intelligence in the workplace.
While Norrington acknowledges that practicing empathetic leadership takes time, he says the benefits are worth the effort. He cautions leaders against simply practicing empathy on a surface level, as this will likely be met with resistance.
“People are already guarded when they see leaders with an empathetic approach because it can still be a bit of a foreign concept in many workplaces,” Norrington says. “So, if you’re inauthentic in leading with empathy, it can really backfire. But when those you lead recognize that it is real, it’s super empowering.”
Norrington recommends three ways of leading with empathy:
1. Empower your people
Empower employees with the tools they need to grow professionally and perform at the top of their game while allowing them to take ownership over decision-making and problem-solving within your organization. By showing people you really care about their wants, needs and professional growth, you’ll gain leadership credibility and trust.
“Find great people, empower them and then get the hell out of the way. These are the key ingredients to developing high-performance yields,” says Norrington, who credits Labatt’s culture of ownership and leadership development with keeping him with the company for over two decades.
“It’s not a 15-minute meeting or some button you press on your computer,” he says. “We sit down and we talk about strengths and opportunities. How do we empower somebody more? How do we build a piece of their skill-set that they don’t have today but they’re going to need in their job two and a half years from now?”
2. Level the playing field
Formality has a way of creeping its way into organizations and creating an unnecessary barrier between people at different levels, which stifles communication and innovation and hinders the ability to practice empathetic leadership. Norrington recommends ditching traditional corporate formality in favor of a more open, informal environment that gives everyone a voice and facilitates a free-flow of ideas.
“I’ve always believed great ideas can come from anywhere — and if you think it’s only going to come from your senior vice presidents, you’re missing the boat.”
3. Support diversity of thought and representation
Encouraging members of your organization to bring differing perspectives, backgrounds and experiences to the table will not only boost your credibility as an empathetic leader who cares, but cultivating a diverse culture truly allows organizations to thrive.
“If you’re not part of a diverse team, you’re going to miss out on a lot of great stuff,” says Norrington, who sees empathetic leadership as a two-way street in which you should gain as much knowledge as you give.
Taking an authentic, people-first approach at every level in an organization sets the stage for a culture that everyone believes in. Leading with empathy sets the stage for extraordinary success, in good times and in bad.