Leading With Empathy. In my own team leadership, I continue to exercise empathy as my company and team navigate a global pandemic. A parent myself, I understand that members of my team need extra space to navigate the perils of raising a family amid a time of educational, economic, and wellness challenges. Many members of my team are in situations that preclude in-person meetings. Understanding that remote work is the name of the game from this point forward is a component of empathetic leadership. I also appreciate the anxiety my team carries right now. “Holding space” for the sharing of concerns and the venting of stress is a facet of empathetic leadership for me.
As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Victoria Pelletier, Vice President of IBM’s North American Talent & Transformation business unit: She is a senior executive with over two decades of progressive experience in strategy, operations, growth initiatives, and business and talent development. She is a visionary leader with a passion for innovation, creativity and Diversity, Equity & Inclusion. In fact, Victoria has won both the 2020 Mentor of the Year award from Women in Communications & Technology and the 2019 HSBC Diversity & Inclusion in Innovation Award. Victoria serves as a board member for several organizations; she is also a published author, regular contributor to Forbes and a member of the Forbes Human Resource Council. She is an in-demand public speaker and appears regularly on national radio and television. An inspiring professional with impeccable credentials, Victoria is a trusted voice among peers and emerging executives.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started working at an incredibly young age — just 11 years old. By age 14, I was a manager of people. I had plans of becoming a lawyer, but while I was in university, I worked at a bank and fell in love with the corporate business environment and never went to law school. I progressed quickly and was recruited several years later for my first executive role at aged 24 as the COO and GM for a large private BPO organization. Since then, I’ve spent the last 20 years working as an executive in Fortune 500 companies, primarily focused on Business-to-Business Consulting and Services organizations.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Because I was such a young executive, I tried to hide my age and went as far as lying about it by adding a few years if forced to disclose my age; I shudder at the thought of aging myself voluntarily now! This was one of the first things I felt the need to cover or hide at work. It wasn’t until years later that I learned how critical it was to be my authentic self at work; to build strong relationships and trust with my team.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Several years into my executive leadership, I had my direct leader tell me: “Victoria, it’s okay to show vulnerability”. This was one of two significant moments in my career formation that caused me to look critically in the mirror and realize that I needed to start acting differently and be the type of leader that I wanted to work for. In fact, THIS moment was transformational. I began to speak my own story, highlighting the adversity I had faced in my life and career. I was open about my personal insecurities and the raw areas of my lift that made me feel vulnerable. When I began to “own my story,” I saw a noticeable rise in my colleague’s trust level with me and our relationships. At this point, I experienced personal joy in being able to be my authentic self at work.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
While I have built, bought, and invested in private businesses, I have worked a significant portion of my career for large publicly traded companies. In these settings, the corporate mission, vision, and purpose have been defined by others, so my focus has been on leading with purpose and creating a team and culture focused on empowering others to develop purpose-driven careers. In my own purpose-driven career, I see personal advancement linked to driving business forward with a variety of impacts in mind that reach far beyond pure profit.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I have seen my share of business challenges and adversity in my career, with personal involvement in 18 merger and acquisition-related events, all of which caused uncertainty, struggle, and change for the organizations and their employees. One company I worked for went through eight such events over the course of approximately two years, meaning multiple rounds of restructuring. This upheaval created instability and fear for many members of the team, particularly the senior managers who were asked to continue to lead their teams in delivering quality results to clients without disruption. My role was to determine our new operating structure and guide the senior team through the transformation. To do this successfully, I had to lead with compassion and empathy while making some exceedingly difficult decisions. I spent a significant amount of time collaborating with the team, recognizing that robust and transparent communication was essential for a successful outcome.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Giving up is not, quite simply, in my nature. In fact, a couple of phrases that I use to describe me often close my social media posts: #Unstoppable and #NoExcuses. I overcame extreme adversity in my youth forming a resilience that defines much of how I live both personally and professionally. I love change and challenge and generally do not take NO for an answer to anything. Yes, I throw the best of myself into the quests to find solutions to the hairiest of problems. I believe that identifying and solving complex challenges is energizing and motivating; I hope to pass on resilience and drive to others.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The most critical role of a leader during challenging times is to model the change we want to see and experience, that is, set the tone for the team by speaking and acting in the kind of way we would want from a leader. When the challenges arrive, leaders cannot lead from the sidelines. Instead, we need to be actively engaged with our team working side by side, gaining trust as we work to deliver to the vision. Leaders who don’t have dirt under their nails are not leading.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
The best way to maintain morale is to be clear about the vision for the future and how we will overcome the challenges ahead of us. To inspire and motivate the team, we need to be highly empathetic in acknowledging the concerns of the team and the challenges we collectively face. Additionally, we need to be incredibly transparent and frequent in our communications with the team. Amid uncertainty, leaders must relate and be relatable.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I operate with radical candor — communicating with truth and transparency and providing the context behind the decisions that have been made. However, what is also critically important to communicating in this fashion is that the difficult news be delivered with empathy and compassion, and, as appropriate, with the emotion that the leader is experiencing. I find that radical candor — tempered with empathy -breeds trust and support from the team and from customers, even when the message is not always favorable.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
A leader can never stop planning for the future as there will always be a need for growth and change to remain relevant and successful in business. More and more we hear about the need to be agile, not just in business processes, but also in leadership. Agility means taking risks, adjusting as required, and creating a flexible, results-oriented environment focused on outcomes that leverage collaboration with the team to achieve desired outcomes. A growth mindset, adaptable to the ever-changing environment, is critical for success.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I think that there are many best practices and principles to leading effectively during turbulent times. However, if I can only choose one, I would say that the most critical is to create a strong and compelling vision for the future. In doing so, this vision needs to inspire and motivate the team, giving them purpose and passion to drive towards in times of uncertainty.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
I have seen far too many leaders and businesses struggle to survive through challenging times because of a few key factors or missteps. Most remarkedly, the greatest mistake is not having a resiliency plan — I’m not talking about a traditional business continuity plan, but rather, a team and a plan who can quickly maneuver in an agile way to adjust to the turbulence. Secondly, responding too slowly to the changing environment has been a downfall for so many — sitting and waiting from the sideline to see if the tides will shift is NOT a plan. Instead, one must act swiftly and confidently in adjusting course to the rising tides. Last would be not communicating openly and transparently about the challenges and the change ahead. Poor communication breeds fear and mistrust and does not allow the team to actively support the vision for the change. To avoid these common mistakes, one of the most important leadership traits is to always be cautiously optimistic — I have seen leaders at the top of their game taking the situation or environment for granted. I am not suggesting one be pessimistic, but rather suggesting that confidence regarding one’s situation, must be balanced with a plan “in the pocket” if conditions deteriorate.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
It’s been said, “Don’t waste a good crisis.” There are some strategies in business that I believe are always important, but critical during turbulent times. First, listen to and know your audience and your market, understanding what motivates and brings them value and how this shifts or changes during times of crisis. If you have a resiliency plan and an agile team, you can pivot to new or adjacent products or services during these times to preserve and possibly grow your revenue. I also believe that businesses and leaders need to focus on continuing to build value to their base during the difficult times, leveraging these opportunities to cultivate relationships and get involved in the difficult conversations. Remember, people do business with people they like and they trust. If they WANT to do business with you, the buying will return with the trouble recedes.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Through this interview, you have heard about key elements for leadership during turbulent times. In summary, the five most critical elements are Developing a Resiliency Plan, Having a Growth Mindset, Leading with Empathy, Effective Communication and Building Authentic Relationships.
Developing a Resiliency Plan
During the area of Covid-19, restaurants in small markets and large ones have shown us what resiliency plans look like in action. Restaurants with resiliency plans in place, already assumed that some eventually like a natural disaster or damage to a dining room would reshape the delivery of meals to consumers. Resiliency plans provided an “off the shelf” framework for shifting to takeout dining that helped businesses keep employees on the job while downshifting outlay until regular until optimal traffic returned. To build the resiliency plans, restaurateurs took time to understand their clients’ needs and discern how they could continue to meet the needs if the fundamentals of the business model had to be modified in response to a crisis.
Having a Growth Mindset
Our neighbors over at SpaceX provide a good example of adopting a growth mindset. From what I know about the vision/mission of the company, agility is the name of the game. In the quest to get private industry into low earth orbit and beyond, SpaceX engineers understand that they are creating the technology as they move forward. Setbacks, and adjustments in light of the setbacks, are built into the pioneering spirit of SpaceX. Musk, tempers his bullish outlook for the future of commercial space flight, with a grounded understanding of the limits and potential of the technology and finance of space.
Leading With Empathy
In my own team leadership, I continue to exercise empathy as my company and team navigate a global pandemic. A parent myself, I understand that members of my team need extra space to navigate the perils of raising a family amid a time of educational, economic, and wellness challenges. Many members of my team are in situations that preclude in-person meetings. Understanding that remote work is the name of the game from this point forward is a component of empathetic leadership. I also appreciate the anxiety my team carries right now. “Holding space” for the sharing of concerns and the venting of stress is a facet of empathetic leadership for me.
An effective leader must simultaneously lead the charge and push the stragglers. Both require effective communication. My team knows me as a strait shooter. I take the time to understand the present and emerging business environment so that I can speak candidly about the challenges and opportunities that are ahead. My communication with the team is succinct and informed: “Here’s what’s before us, and here’s how we will approach it.” My actions communicate my leadership style. When I craft a plan for the team, I am the first to model its execution. I will never ask my team to do something I wouldn’t be willing to do myself. When we struggle as a team, I am quick to articulate our missteps and how we can correct them. As always, my optimism is toughened with a heavy dose of reality.
Building Authentic Relationship
Clients and colleagues all seek what leaders seek: authenticity and understanding. Everyone of us wants to be heard and wants to know that someone cares about the things we care about. Building authentic relationships rests upon empathy and effective communication. Whether one is leading a corporation or leading a family, it is important to “step in the shoes” of all stakeholders to understand their motivations, expectations, and aspirations. Simply put, If I want you to be interested in my story and my business’s story, I must be invested in yours. Once you’re invested in someone’s else’s life/story, you become more responsive to who they are and what they seek in life. Clients and colleagues can “smell a fraud.” If you haven’t built an authentic relationship with both, you’ll never succeed.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Warrant Buffett once said, “Someone is sitting in the shade today because someone planted a tree a long time ago.”
I decided early in my career that I wanted to be the one who plants the trees. In business and life, some of us must be the ones willing to dig in and do the risky work. While I recognize that I’ve enjoyed the “shade” provided by my forebearers, my vocational track keeps me planting the seeds. I am never satisfied with the “status quo,” but instead strive to launch new ideas and sharpen older ones. Does everything I plant in my professional and personal life take root and grow? No. But, when I do grow something from the ground up, I take personal pride in knowing, “I did that.” In my mentorship of younger leaders, I model an approach to leadership that has them out of the shade and planting the ideas that make a difference and shape the future.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can follow me directly at www.victoria-pelletier.com where I regularly post articles and blogs, podcasts, TV and radio interviews and short clips of my public speaking.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!