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Resilient Leaders Care About Empathy and Empowerment

An interview with CEO Rob Paterson.

Key points

  • In a crisis, ensure you remain fact-based so you can accurately determine the problem you're trying to solve.
  • Being open to learning from others creates a "calming influence," which is a critical part of resilient leadership.
  • The key to fostering feelings of empowerment comes from routinely expressing gratitude and celebrating accomplishments.

The pandemic fundamentally changed how we live and work. Entire industries, including the financial sector, had to shift on a dime. Some organizations fared better than others. Those who were proactive and led with forethought, compassion, and empathy were ahead of the pack. Rob Paterson, CEO of Alterna Savings, shared his journey through the early stages of the pandemic and how he kept his employees and customers safe.

Be Fact-Based

In a crisis, Paterson says to "Make sure you're being fact-based" so you can accurately "determine the problem you're trying to solve and how you're going to go about solving it." Another essential element is to make sure you "involve people who have the expertise to help you problem solve most effectively." A crucial question to ask yourself as a leader is: Do I have the right people around me to solve this problem?

To help answer this question, look at whether people have gone through similar circumstances before or are experiencing something similar now. Paterson suggests asking questions like "What do you wish you had?"; "What measures would you implement?"; "What do you recommend that I should start to do?"; and "What should my team be doing?" Then go into listening mode and pay attention to the answers you receive.

Be Open to Learning From Others

Paterson explained that being open to learning from others creates a "calming influence," which is part of resilient leadership. Keeping your employees calm allows you and your team to handle challenging situations more effectively.

Use Empathy and Education

While Paterson stressed the importance of fact-based decision-making, he recognized that empathy and education are crucial pieces to building and sustaining a positive, engaged culture, especially in a crisis. Paterson explains that it's essential to remember the "health and well-being of all of your team members and customers." The education piece comes from being transparent about "what we know to be correct today and what we can rely on" to avoid unreliable or inaccurate information and rumors. The latter is especially damaging, as it creates excess stress on everyone.

Motivate and Empower Your Team

Another essential element of resilient leadership is empowering your team to think with a problem-solving mindset. This means giving your employees the power to "make decisions, which drives higher accountability."

Motivating and empowering team members and keeping them connected to the organization may be as simple as checking in with them. Paterson checked in with his retail branch managers and routinely asked for suggestions on making their work environment safer. For example, this proactive practice meant Alterna Savings installed plexiglass in their branches even before grocery chains. Not only could the branches stay open during the pandemic, but it also kept the employees protected.

These types of conversations give employees a voice to share their ideas and concerns and feel like they can contribute to the organization. This sense of control is even more important when you are navigating a crisis.

Show Gratitude and Celebrate Accomplishments

It's also vital to foster those feelings of empowerment by routinely expressing gratitude and celebrating accomplishments. These practices are highly energizing, as they represent motivational fuel to help employees tackle the challenges they are facing. Paterson believes one cannot overstate the importance of this practice. "I told my team, ‘I'm always going to start off every call with thanking you, and I'm always going to end the call with thanking you."

Lead by Example

Leaders must recognize that a large part of protecting the well-being of their organization and their stakeholders is to lead by example. In particular, it is important for leaders to acknowledge that they don’t and won’t know everything, as things are constantly evolving. While this means that while the organization may pivot multiple times during this tumultuous period, you cannot waver from your intentions, which is why it’s so critical to share them. Paterson openly admitted, "I'm not going to do everything correctly, but understand that my intention is to take care of you and our members to the best of my ability. Every decision I make is based on that guiding principle, and please let me know if you don’t feel that."

When leaders follow Paterson's example, not only can their organizations survive, but they can also thrive as a result. Taking the time to empower your employees and truly put people first is the secret ingredient to resilient teams and organizations. By empowering their people and leading with empathy, leaders “truly show that stating we are all in this together is not limited to what we say; it defines how and why we lead.”