Empathetic Leadership Starts by Listening

As a first-time CEO in summer 2020, at the height of the global coronavirus pandemic and nationwide protests for racial equity, Tom Keiser sharpened his ability to lead by honing his ability to listen.

“We can’t be afraid of the conversations” about societal issues that matter to employees and customers, said Keiser, the top executive at social-media platform Hootsuite. “Even if you might not know exactly what to do in some situations, you’ve got a whole organization of super-smart people—and you work with them to work your way through it.”

Keiser shared his perspective with Alteryx CEO Mark Anderson during an August 23 discussion about the growing expectation that companies should build more than just profits. As part of our Breakthrough Moments for a Better World webinar series, the two executives talked about how the challenges of the past year have shaped their efforts to lead with greater empathy and community awareness.

“It’s clear that customers and employees are expecting a lot more out of their CEOs with regard to creating positive societal impact,” said Anderson, who succeeded Alteryx co-founder Dean Stoecker as the company’s top executive in October 2020. “And I personally cherish the fact that they are holding us more accountable these days.”

‘People want to be proud of their company’

In the 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer online survey, 86% of respondents said they expect CEOs to publicly speak out on pandemic impact, local community issues and other societal challenges. Further, 68% believe “CEOs should step in when government does not fix societal problems.”

Edelman’s findings align with what Keiser sees as a greater desire among Hootsuite employees to get directly involved in driving positive outcomes beyond the company’s own walls.

“We have almost 1,200 employees, and they are asking hard questions of our leadership around (issues) that require us to make changes as a company,” he said. “People want to be part of something that’s about more than just making a profit and growing. They want to be proud of their company.”

Soon after he joined the Vancouver, B.C.-based company, Keiser helped spearhead an effort to involve employees in updating Hootsuite’s values and guiding principles. “We did a collective exercise across our company to gather input on who we wanted to be,” he said. “We’ll continue to evolve our guiding principles as the company grows.”

Hootsuite and its employees live out their social commitments through initiatives such as HootGiving, which provides software discounts and educational resources to help nonprofits harness the power of social media. They also support the League of Innovators, a Canadian charity that empowers young people to start their own businesses through training, mentorship, and support.

As a business leader, “I believe in giving back to your community,” Keiser said. “We want to be supportive in all of the ways that we can and really empower the people in our local organizations to make the decisions around that.”

Cultural affinity matters more than ever

Anderson agreed that today’s employees expect and deserve to have a central role in shaping their companies’ social impact agenda as part of building a more inspirational and beneficial corporate culture.

“Younger workers, especially, who are coming to Alteryx care deeply about social responsibility from the business,” he said. “So we have created a number of different working groups that give our people greater opportunities to get involved.”

Alteryx employees are at the forefront of efforts to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion  across the company as well as in local communities. Anderson also praised the contributions of Alteryx’s 8 employee resource groups (ERGs) toward elevating a broad spectrum of interests and perspectives. “Every month, we get together with leaders from each of these ERGs to listen and then make our prioritization decisions based on what we’re hearing,” he said.

Amid the barriers to in-person interaction that all companies have experienced during the pandemic, Anderson said he and his fellow CEOs need to focus even harder on understanding employees’ points of view.

“I’m the leader of this business, but I’m just one person,” he said. “I try to always be mindful of the lessons that come every day from listening to others.”

When in doubt, pause and listen

Keiser agreed, adding that a vibrant feedback channel is especially important in times when CEOs are under pressure to move quickly or they need to correct a misstep.

“We learn the most from failures—and the bigger the failure, the more we learn,” he said. “If you’re uncertain of a situation and you’re getting a lot of feedback that is contrary to what you want to do, it’s often a sign that you need to slow down and listen.”

While many of the expectations placed on CEOs in 2021 have changed dramatically compared with the pre-COVID era, Keiser emphasized that inclusiveness and collaboration are evergreen principles.

“I try to lead in the way that I’ve always wanted to be led,” Keiser said. “When I’ve felt seen, when I’ve felt heard, when I’ve felt like I was part of the solution — it made me want to work harder and do better.

“That’s what I try to bring into all of the conversations that I have.”