In a challenging business environment where layoffs have become widespread in some industry segments causing high levels of uncertainty and stress among employees, potentially hurting their performance, companies want leaders who could handle the situations sensitively, said leadership search firms and management experts.
Attributes like “being assertive, aggressive or a hard task masters” have made way for a more humane approach to employees, such as “empathy, collaborative spirit and an attitude that enables others to succeed”, they said.
“Empathy is a much sought-after soft skill today and the old adage of ‘crack the whip’ is becoming increasingly irrelevant,” said Jyoti Bowen Nath, managing partner at executive search firm Claricent Partners.
“Companies are doing discreet reference checks for senior leaders who are being hired and very often the focus is to know how they score on soft skills,” she added.
Nestle India chairman Suresh Narayanan said: “Leadership is all about being effective by being authentic, empathetic, empowering, inspiring, enabling and trusting.” “Empathy should be like air … Sadly, in our corporate world, being successful goes with arrogance, ruthlessness, greed, ego and hubris,” said Narayanan, who is of the view that there is no contradiction between performance and being human. “I would think both can go together,” said Tata Consumer chief executive Sunil Dsouza. “I had a boss who used to say I practice ‘cognitive ignorance’ … I understand the issues, but will still keep pushing.”
Building rapport with staff crucial
When there are issues, take that into account while doing appraisals, and communicate that very clearly, he said, adding: “Else the whole organisation starts slacking and giving up when faced with challenges.”
Gone are the days of aggressive, chest-thumping leaders.
“The new C-suite range is full of understated high-performing professionals who understand that there is a strong correlation between empathy and performance,” said Nath.
With all other things being equal, companies are willing to bet on a leader who scores high on soft skills while at the same time deliver results consistently.
Promoters and board members are of the view that focus on performance does not mean being too hard on employees.
“Performance and empathy go together very nicely,” said Naushad Forbes, co-chairman at Forbes Marshall. “When you listen long enough and understand where they are coming from, employees end up doing well. In fact, they end up setting their own goals and owning it,” he added.
Post-Covid, companies are increasingly realising the strong need for employee engagements as they sharpen their focus on retention.
Saugata Gupta, CEO at Marico, stressed on adaptive leadership, where “every leader needs to play a role of a governor, general, soldier and a guru depending on the situation”.
Bharat Puri, CEO, Pidilite, said: “I think it is perfectly possible to build a performance culture along with empathy and respect. However tough the environment is, you overcome it with empathy.”
Boards are looking for C-suite professionals who are multi-dimensional versus uni-dimensional.
“Demand is for people who can straddle between the so-called loud competencies (gregarious, charming, out-of-the-box) and soft competencies (people who show empathy and have a repertoire of connecting with people). This is being seen as crucial by boards for sustained success in C-suite,” said Pankaj Arora, managing director of leadership and management consulting firm Russell Reynolds Associates India.
Shailesh Haribhakti, chairman of audit and accounting firm Haribhakti & Co, who is also an independent director at several Indian companies, said: “Servant leaders are required as credit needs to be parsed in a manner that motivates youngsters.”