In a recent episode of WWD Voices, guest host Jill Standish of Accenture and Chip Bergh, chief executive officer of Levi Strauss & Co., discussed how the global pandemic forced companies to hit the “reset button.” They also discussed the challenges facing executive leadership during those early moments of the COVID-19 outbreak. Bergh said one of the skills that got the company through this tough time was practicing empathy.
In another episode of the podcast, Joseph Taiano, managing director of marketing for consumer industries at Accenture, and Sarah Dunn, global human resources officer at Tapestry, also said empathy, usually seen as a “soft skill” in business management, had become more important during the pandemic as it helped companies take on a more “people-centric approach.”
For the Neiman Marcus Group, practicing empathy and creating a sense of belonging while “leading with love” helped the luxury retailer transform itself and evolve its culture during the pandemic. The company’s “NMG|Way” is anchored by leaders who practice empathy, and it is key to the company’s growth strategy as it looks to “revolutionize the luxury experience,” the company told WWD this past fall.
Standish describes C-level executives who embed empathy into their leadership style as “next-generation leaders.” And, according to recent research, empathy is top of mind for business leaders and their employees. EY’s 2021 Empathy in Business Survey found that 90 percent of employees “believe empathetic leadership leads to higher job satisfaction and 79 percent agree it decreases employee turnover,” said a company spokeswoman.
But there was a lot of skepticism among respondents. The EY survey revealed that 46 percent of employees “feel their company’s efforts to be empathetic toward employees are dishonest.” And similarly, 42 percent of employees polled “say that their company doesn’t follow through on its promises.”
When done right, though, the impact is clear. The poll showed that 89 percent of employees surveyed “agree that empathy leads to better leadership” while 85 percent report that “empathetic leadership in the workplace increases productivity among employees.”
But what exactly is empathy, and what are the benefits? And why should it be key to today’s executive leadership?
In this two-part series, WWD explores empathy in business leadership. In this first part, fashion brands, retailers, consumer product companies, and industry experts share their perspectives on the subject. In the second part, WWD garners insights from behavioral specialists, business consultants, and from CEOs and founders outside of apparel, retail, and consumer goods.
Before diving in, it’s important to note that empathy is considered a “soft leadership skill” that has been around for decades. Ten years ago, however, the practice began to take on more importance as organizations such as the Center for Creative Leadership started teaching executives the benefits of empathy as well as active listening as a way to create a more innovative and productive company.
Before putting empathy into practice, the CCL said knowing the difference between sympathy and empathy is important as the two terms are often confused. “Sympathy is typically defined by feelings of pity for another person, without really understanding what it’s like to be in their situation,” CCL noted on its website. “Empathy, on the other hand, refers to the capacity or ability to imagine oneself in the situation of another, experiencing the emotions, ideas, or opinions of that person. Empathy in the workplace is often more productive and supportive.”
A positive impact on business
Chantal Gaemperle, group executive vice president of human resources and synergies at LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, told WWD that empathy is now a core competency for all business leaders today. “As the workforce continues to experience ongoing change, increasing demands and high stress in their professional and personal lives, it is crucial that employee well-being be a top priority for all employers,” Gaemperle said. “It’s the right thing to do for employees and the right thing to do for the business.”
Gaemperle said research shows that prioritizing the emotional needs of employees “has a real business impact: employees who feel supported have reported feeling more innovative and productive.” At LVMH, Gaemperle said the company’s “understanding of the power of empathy is rooted in an important core value: people make the difference. As we create a truly inclusive workplace, empathy plays an important role in ensuring talent can come to work in an emotionally safe environment where they feel comfortable being their true selves.”
Creating an inclusive workplace has taken center stage at many companies during the pandemic. Remote work and the “Great Resignation,” along with other labor and supply chain issues, have forced companies to reconsider the nature of work. There’s been a shift among consumers and employees regarding their priorities and what matters most to them. Increasingly, the answer is people and the planet. With people, forging connections is key.
John Jacobs, cofounder and chief creative optimist at apparel brand Life is Good, told WWD that the past two years “have magnified the need for us all to connect as human beings before we connect as co-workers, business partners, etc.”
“We’re social animals,” Jacobs explained. “At any level of an organization, if you know teammates care about you beyond that day’s performance, it’s more fun and fulfilling to serve a shared deeper purpose. Leaders who intentionally build in those extra minutes in meetings to hear people out, offer comfort or advice, and even leave space for laughter and occasional nonsense, are ultimately building a more resilient team — and a culture that fuels better business.”
Jacobs said values such as optimism, openness and compassion “are only as strong as a team that chooses to embody them. Our crew keeps rising to meet new challenges because we’re looking out for each other along the way.”
Prioritizing people’s needs
Bob Philion, president of Puma North America, told WWD that when a business leader or CEO leads with empathy, “it can have a tremendous positive impact on employees’ mental health, team success, and business longevity. As leaders, we’ve all seen the impacts remote work and COVID-19 have had on our employees, and we’ve had to pivot strategies to adhere to the changing environment.”
Philion said the pandemic forced change on many companies. And to “truly lead with empathy, the philosophy needs to be ingrained into business culture,” Philion said, adding that employees need to know “you have their best interests in mind and care about their success within and outside of the company walls.”
“When we announced that our two offices would be unified into one new, centralized North American headquarters in Somerville’s Assembly Row, being empathetic and taking the time to listen to employees’ concerns and reservations were some of my top priorities,” Philion explained. “Additionally, prioritizing flexibility when the office finally reopened last fall has been a key part of our hybrid work model, allowing employees to spend time with their families while still being safe and productive in the office.”
Philion said by taking action at the onset of the pandemic, “embracing transparency, continuing to have regular conversations and check-ins with employees, and showing appreciation for our teams’ success and commitment despite challenging circumstances, we’ve been able to seamlessly adjust to our new hybrid work model. At the end of the day, I believe all of our employees know empathy is embedded within the Puma culture.”
Emily Cooper, founder and general director of Italian men’s wear brand Oliver Wicks, told WWD that having empathy “is one of the best qualities you can have as a business leader.”
“Establishing a healthy company culture is of utmost importance,” Cooper said. “The onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we work in so many ways. It is during these trying times that we are expected to run the company the best way for employees, and this includes leading with empathy.”
Cooper said business owners who demonstrate and practice empathy in the workplace “are able to create a sense of belongingness and oneness. Having a strong business acumen is useless if you don’t have the emotional intelligence to match it with.
“Empathy allows business leaders to reach out to their employees in a more personalized matter, and also fosters open lines of communication,” Cooper said. “Having these in place will definitely help employees perform better and open a lot of opportunities and benefits for the company as a whole.”
Just as the Neiman Marcus Group has turned inward to its employees to drive change, Philip Morris International is relying on its employees, managers, and leaders to transform the company as it eyes a “smoke-free future.” PMI has prioritized DE&I practices and sees empathy as a key to its success. Silke Muenster, chief diversity officer at PMI, echoed other leaders in noting how the pandemic elevated the importance of empathy.
“The emotional turmoil caused by COVID-19 has resulted in workforce burnout and has prompted us to reflect on and reframe what makes a great leader,” Muenster told WWD. “Today, to be a truly successful business leader, it is critical to demonstrate empathy and compassion. Indeed empathy, once considered a ‘nice to have,’ now needs to be woven into corporate culture. And executives must lead by example.”
Muenster said there is no one way of expressing empathy. “It requires leaders to be curious and listen actively in order to understand how others might feel,” she explained. “Not all leaders are at ease sharing personal anecdotes or their emotions. But by shifting tone and focus and showing vulnerability, business leaders who practice empathy will increase employee engagement, drive inclusion and innovation in the workforce, and foster company loyalty.”
Spotlighting mental health
There’s another dimension to practicing empathy and creating belonging: it addresses mental health issues, which were often stigmatized in the past. Keith Nealon, CEO of Bazaarvoice, told WWD that for years, “business leaders have placed tons of importance on physical health and well-being for their employees, while mental health was swept under the rug. Many people don’t feel comfortable talking about it, as it has been so stigmatized for so long.
“But one of the many things the pandemic has proved is that we need to talk about mental health more openly, especially in the workplace,” Nealon said. “Executive leaders need to take the task of normalizing these conversations in their workplaces upon themselves.”
Nealon said while executives often believe they must appear stoic, “as CEO, I have been open about my own mental well-being, and shared with our employees how I manage stress and deal with pressure. Showing vulnerability like this helps to destigmatize the subject of mental health and makes conversations about it more comfortable for everyone. This helps to create an environment where employees understand that feeling stressed, anxious or scared is part of being human. As a result, they may be more willing to join or even start these types of conversations, and feel less alone.”
He also noted that once a business leader has shown a company’s workplace “to be an honest and nonjudgmental environment with your own story, open the floor to everyone else. Encourage employees to share experiences that have affected them in their daily life, whether they are based on race, age, gender or sexual orientation.” Nealon acknowledged this can initially be uncomfortable “for their colleagues to absorb, it can ultimately have a hugely positive emotional impact on everyone’s mental well-being.”
“Creating a setting where people are comfortable about open conversations around mental health is beneficial for all employees,” Nealon said. “When executives support and empower them both mentally and emotionally, it helps to improve everything from company morale to camaraderie, to psychological safety, to productivity. This type of empathetic leadership cascades down throughout the entire organization and makes for a more engaging and productive workplace.”
Another important element of putting empathy into practice is trust. Shelly Socol, founder and CEO of One Rockwell, which is an e-commerce and creative agency serving the beauty and fashion industries, told WWD that by leading “with a mix of empathy and a wholehearted belief in the abilities of your team, you empower them to perform at new heights and foster a larger sense of success among the company overall.”
“Since the pandemic began, I’ve taken the opportunity to allow my senior team more autonomy and flexibility to make crucial decisions and enact processes that they feel will drive the success not just of our clients, but our employees,” Socol explained. “When you’re moving at such a rapid pace, you have to trust your executives to make judgment calls and effectively communicate down the line; this approach in our ‘new normal’ has been essential to our employee retention and overall morale.”
Socol said as business leaders, “we should invest in this sense of company harmony, and keep in mind that everyone’s personal and professional lives have been completed reorganized. The old methods of operation won’t always translate in this evolving culture, so keep an eye on your team — make sure everyone feels they are an active and crucial member of the business, and that their growth parallels the company’s.”
Dino Ha, founder and CEO of MBX, formerly Memebox, a subscription beauty box, reiterated the role of trust in empowering a team. “It’s important for authentic leaders to lead with empathy because it shows vulnerability and compassion for their team members,” Ha told WWD. “They need to offer support and guidance for their team to succeed, and in doing so, it creates open communication, collaboration and trust.”
Ha also said no employee should feel “like they can’t go to their manager to ask for help — we all need help sometimes. It’s how we learn as individuals and as a company. Asking for assistance and listening to the people you lead will encourage them to be transparent on making mistakes and on pursuing self-improvement.”
Listening to customers
Sampo Parkkinen, CEO and Founder of Revieve, which is a personalized digital brand experience company that works with global brands in beauty and wellness categories, said executives that lead with empathy likely spend time listening to their workforce and customers.
“To lead with empathy, you have to be a creator and a forerunner in innovation with remarkable listening,” Parkkinen told WWD. “A great example is François Dalle, L’Oréal’s former CEO. He spent countless hours in hairdressing salons working directly with hairdressers and customers to detect new hair products and guide research that would uncover innovations that meet customer needs.”
Parkkinen said during the pandemic, “we saw that leaders who lead with empathy were the ones who could adapt faster and innovate to the changing conditions to better connect with their workforce and consumers. These were players who had already built an impressive ecosystem of partners ready to jump on board to help them adapt to working from home and offer their services virtually. These leaders were prepared and flexible to change.”
Erin LaCkore, founder of LaCkore Couture, echoed Parkkinen and said when leaders “take note of their employees’ needs and concerns and then ask directly about challenges, they are most likely to succeed, not just by considering themselves, but by listening to the answers they receive.”
“In order to demonstrate they are caring and paying attention, leaders don’t need to be mental health experts,” LaCkore told WWD. “You can check in, ask questions, and take cues from the employee about how much they want to share. Understanding an employee’s struggles and offering to help is empathy in action. Taking into account the point of view of another and engaging in a healthy debate will lead to better outcomes.”
She noted that empathy contributes “to positive relationships and organizational cultures, as well as results. Empathy is not a new skill, but it has a new level of significance, and the new research underscores how it is an essential leadership competency to develop and demonstrate now, as well as in the future.”
Empathy drives innovation
Don O’Connell, president and CEO of Charles & Colvard, told WWD that at his company, empowered and motivated employees “are truly the key to success.”
“We try to foster an environment where people feel heard because we believe the best ideas can come from anywhere,” O’Connell said. “We are a company founded on innovation, creating high-grade lab-grown moissanite and diamonds, and we know we can’t evolve without strong minds around us. Therefore it’s essential to invest in our employees to support them and create a positive work environment.”
For many business leaders, practicing empathy can strengthen the corporate culture. Kadian Langlais, CMO of Renfro Brands, the sock manufacturer, said throughout her experience managing and working alongside others, “I found that leading with empathy is key to building a strong corporate culture that not only creates deeper connections between employees, but mutual understanding and respect across all levels and functions.”
“As a wife and a mother of two kids, I learned that my personal experiences could help my professional relationships and engagement — we are all people, so bring your full self to work!” Langlais told WWD. “Being a mother, especially during COVID-19, was filled with trying to balance being there for both my teams and my kids, which I knew many of my teammates could relate to. Sharing my experiences and having open discussions with my employees has allowed me to connect with my teams and understand them beyond their professional personas.”
She also said that everyone is dealing with different challenges and situations at home, “so building a culture of empathy can foster new connections, understanding, and relationships within your workplace, bringing that mutual understanding within your teams once they know who you are.”
Langlais said at Renfro Brands, leading with empathy and creating a culture of mutual understanding “has led to more engagement, innovative thinking, supportive teams, creativity, just to name a few benefits, and has been an integral part in our history as a legacy brand. By putting our people first and ingraining empathy into our culture, we’ve built a brand that has stood the test of time for over 100 years.”
Julien Born, CEO of The Lycra Company, said it is important to note that the criteria that people have for joining and staying in a company have changed. “Employees are holding their leaders accountable and want to join companies that reflect their ethics and values,” Born told WWD. “Especially in light of the pandemic where the lines between work and personal life have been blurred, employees want to ensure they work for leaders who are empathetic to their unique experiences and understand how that may impact their work.”
“To this end, I think being a CEO that can lead with empathy and compassion is often contrasted against being tough and demanding but I don’t believe that you have to choose,” Born added. “Going forward it will be about both. It’s about holding people accountable and ensuring that they understand trust is earned all while displaying a level of empathy and genuineness that creates an environment where employees will want to give their best, feel empowered to innovate, and ultimately, becoming invested in the goals of the business.”
Sarah Engel, CMO and chief people officer at January Digital, said there also needs to be an organizational structure in place to make practicing empathy and building trust work.
“Empathy is more than treating employees kindly, it is also seeking to understand their unique experiences, then learning from them as they bring their full selves to the workplace,” Engel told WWD. “This doesn’t happen without commitment and ongoing work, as it means putting in place operational structures and community standards that support open communication, trust and respect.”
Engel said when business leaders model empathy, “teams become more comfortable in expressing their ideas, sharing their insights, offering support, and asking for help. This elevates the entire organization as diverse thinking and authentic idea-sharing sparks creativity and innovation and leads to both company growth and employee fulfillment and retention.”
Engel said trust is also paramount to working relationships “and customer relationships, and is a core element in businesses succeeding. The foundation of trust is true understanding and empathy. Every employee’s life experience is uniquely different. The more each employee and each manager has shared respect and agreed to vocabulary for how to display empathy, how to have challenging conversations and how to reach alignment, the more fulfilling the professional relationship and work will be.”
Putting it into action
At apparel company Fair Harbor, practicing empathy has been built into the brand since day one. When asked about the benefits of it, cofounders Caroline and Jake Danehy said it is central to the firm’s success along with creating a “family-style culture.”
“When we first started in Fair Harbor in 2014, we were just a brother and sister team who sometimes asked our close-knit family to pitch in,” the Danehys told WWD. “We even shipped products out of our parents’ garage in the early years. We consciously decided that as we grew, a family-style culture was a core company value. We’ve made a conscious effort to cultivate a community built on the values our parents taught us: trust, fun, wholesomeness and welcoming.”
The cofounders said as the company recently grew its team to 23 members, “we see the family dynamic of our company culture and empathetic relationships as central to the success of our business because it keeps us all connected.”
Inclusivity also plays a key role. The company said its 23 employees represent “a cross-section of cultures, races, ages and lifestyles — all in a shared office space. Half of our staff are women, and 50 percent of the executive team are women as well.
“People are the backbone of our company, and since people have different needs and ways of working, flexibility is vital,” the cofounders said. “So we offer a hybrid office schedule, with the option of working at home Mondays and Fridays. In addition, we provide unlimited vacation and sick days, and mental health days. For whatever reason, if a team member needs a day to step away from work, they can send a note to their manager that says, ‘Unplug,’ and they’ll get the time they need. No questions asked.”
The company also touts an ego-less culture as part of being more self-aware and humbler. “The leadership sits in the same area as the rest of the team, with the same desk space,” they said. “We organize internal-company and external-community clean-ups to pick up trash in local neighborhoods and beaches. In addition to keeping us grounded and reinforcing the democracy of the culture, it also deepens our relationships with team members and helps us stay connected.”
They said by physically staying a part of our team, “our interactions remain authentic. If we need to fly for business purposes, everyone flies coach and stays in the same hotels. Our actions — both big and small — show that we are all in this together.”
Fran Horowitz, CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch Co., said practicing empathy “ensures that we better understand and respond to the needs of our global team.”
“One of the ways we encourage empathy at Abercrombie & Fitch Co. is through everyone ‘having a voice around the fire,” Horowitz told WWD. “This aligns with our corporate purpose of being there for our associates on the journey to being and becoming who they are. To achieve that, it’s imperative that we constantly listen to and learn from our associates, no matter their title. This serves as a guiding light and is an important part of our decision-making processes, both large and small.
“For me personally, taking time to connect and hear how my team is thinking and feeling has always been a key pillar of my leadership style, and one that has proven to be even more essential since the start of the pandemic,” she explained. “When you practice this and truly listen to your people, on a personal and professional level, you give them a strong say in what your culture is all about and allow them to help build something that they’re proud to be a part of.
“For us, that translates to a place that reflects the smart, curious, passionate, hardworking people who drive our company forward — people who love giving back to our communities, who foster a sense of belonging throughout our organization, and who truly show up for each other,” she said.
Read part two in this two-part series: