Leadership Essentials: Empathy & Service

As a way to combat gender and racial bias, women and people of color often lean into our expertise in an effort to silence any doubt about our qualifications. We want to prove that we belong “in the room” or that we’ve earned our “seat at the table.” This intense focus on proving ourselves is not irrational. It’s borne out of keen awareness of the difficulties women and people of color have historically faced in corporate America.

As we progress towards executive roles and become people leaders, we need a different set of tools to be effective and inspire our teams. We have to become more open, more vulnerable, and more empathetic to lead in the 21st century, particularly given the profound impacts of the pandemic. Being more open can be difficult if you’ve spent your career honing and trumpeting your expertise. But make no mistake, empathy is essential to leadership.

At Saint-Gobain, our purpose is to make the world a better home, not only through our building solutions, but by committing to service, another leadership essential that has been transformative in my career. Community service and mentoring young lawyers, peers, and team members is crucial. To lead is to serve. It means stepping back from individual concerns in service of someone else.

It can mean pipeline building, but also living by Saint-Gobain’s core principles of respect for others and solidarity by being that ear or shoulder a team member or peer needs at a vulnerable moment. It can mean offering my time to review a law-school admissions essay, helping an early-career professional negotiate his or her first in-house offer, or giving advice to someone mid-career, who may be contemplating changing professions altogether. In all these scenarios, opening up and being my true self gives others permission and encouragement to do the same.

Even if you’re fearful of opening up to your team and sharing more of your true self in the workplace, do not wait for an invitation to lead and do not hide or diminish your gifts. Our communities need your unique blend of knowledge, experience, talent, empathy, and candor. If your organization is like mine, it will embrace your willingness to share your whole self. As much as leadership is about getting results consistently, it’s also about compassion, integrity, and service. And no matter what, as you advance, always remember to reach back and lift up someone else.