Alley partnered with WE NYC, an initiative of the NYC Department of Small Business Services dedicated to helping women start and grow their businesses, to host a roundtable discussion about the necessity of leading with empathy during a time of crisis.
Noelle Tassey, CEO of Alley, lead the conversation and was joined by Alexandra Zatarain, Co-Founder and CMO of Eight Sleep, Bertha Jimenez, Founder of RISE, Jas Maggu, Co-Founder & CEO of Galaxi.Ai, and Brianna Carney, Co-founder of CrewBloom.
Historically speaking, the notion of women leading with empathy, or emotion at all for that matter, has been used to marginalize female founders, entrepreneurs, and professionals across the board. As it turns out, leading with empathy and emotion may just be what puts women-lead companies in a position to weather the storm, and survive this time of crisis and economic hardship.
Reacting vs Strategizing
Despite keeping tabs on the cross-continental trajectory of COVID-19, none of us could have predicted what would come next, or how our businesses would be affected.
Although as CEOs and Founders we could not control the situation at hand, there was an opportunity to control how our businesses would respond. When shelter-in-place orders went into effect, naturally, many of us feared the financial impact, and responded by laying off staff and cutting costs wherever possible.
However, the common thread connecting these innovative female founders is that each of them saw the hurdles approaching, and rather than responding with a knee-jerk reaction, they pivoted strategies.
Rise has two arms of their business: sales and consulting. The company’s Founder, Bertha Jimenez, was able to pause, assess the situation, and pivot business strategies. While sales may have taken a hit during this time of economic hardship, there was a need for consulting, so Bertha pivoted her business model and made consulting the company’s focal point for the time being.
Noelle touched on this same idea by explaining how Alley was able to shift gears and create pockets of virtual community, in place of our physical locations, through digital programming, strategic partnerships, and alternative channels of communication (@ slack!).
Lay-offs have been an unfortunate reality for many of us during this crisis—these founders dove into the human impact of laying off staff, and delved into their respective strategies behind scaling their teams.
Alexandra Zatarain shared how Eight Sleep took a long term approach to layoffs, and in doing so, kept three things in mind:
- Funds: taking a look at how much the company currently has in the bank, and understanding what is needed to keep things afloat long term.
- Teams: taking a look at existing teams, and identifying areas of the business that could afford to be downsized.
- Long Term Effects: examining how the business and its operations would be affected by those changes months to a year later.
She also pointed out how now is the time for CEOs and Founders to create a network, and start conversations about what has, or has not, worked for them. Eight Sleep specifically made one deep cut in terms of layoffs, and Alexandra said this was a strategic move, mainly for morale.
Although making one sizable reduction is painful and disruptive, it also gives leadership the ability to stabilize remaining teams, and ensure employees that their jobs are safe—at least for the foreseeable future—making way for teams to be more productive.
Alexandra also pointed out that what we’re going through collectively is not normal, and as such, we cannot expect people to perform as they normally would if everything were status quo. This is where leaders need to adjust their management styles, and adapt to the needs of their staff.
Noelle touched on this too, and explained that she’s adjusted how she’s spending her time as a manager. Knowing that working from home presents a unique set of challenges (and distractions), she’s found three things to be effective when it comes to keeping her team on track:
- Less Team Meetings: Yes, sometimes having a large team meeting over Zoom is necessary, but it’s mostly just distracting, and honestly a little overwhelming.
- More 1:1 Check-ins: Everyone has a personal life outside of work, but for many of us quarantined at home with our partners, children, or families, the two have now merged. Everyone’s home-life circumstances are different, and having 1:1 check-ins offers a sense of flexibility for members of the team juggling additional responsibilities at home, and keeps communication clear, concise and efficient.
- Modified Schedules: While sheltering in place with family has its benefits, many of us are now wearing the hats of babysitter, teacher, chef, and in some cases, sole caretaker. Offering a flexible or modified schedule helps members of the team get their best work done at a time that works for them.
Teams and individuals are experiencing a collective trauma right now, and all five of our panelists agreed that offering emotional support is the most effective form of leadership during this time. As managers, we must now consider that some of our employees are homeschooling their kids and acclimating to a fully remote work environment, all while managing their own feelings of anxiety, overwhelm and stress.
Brianna Carney introduced what she refers to as human huddles, a group check-in that’s helped members of the CrewBloom team feel heard and supported.
We know that with emotional support, comes emotional labor. While leaders continue to support their staff amidst an array of emotions and personal circumstances, it’s equally as important that they carve out time for themselves to recharge.
Noelle pointed out that women are often socialized to go the extra mile, especially as leaders, in terms of emotional labor—with this comes the challenge of balancing self preservation, too.
Bertha Jiminez drew the chilling but accurate analogy between prioritizing self preservation and putting on your own oxygen mask before somebody else’s.
Jas Maggu explained that in some cases, offering emotional support and flexibility to members of her team has increased her workload, leading to longer days and less sleep. This is also the case for many of us trying to lessen the load for our teams—in cases where a member of the team cannot attend a meeting, or complete a task for whatever reason, taking that task off their plate usually leaves it on their manager’s plate.
Of course this is part of the balancing act that is managing, but coupled with the collective trauma that all of our teams are experiencing, this added weight could eventually lead to some cracks in the foundation.
As leaders, we understand that the energy we bring to our teams, whether good or bad, has a trickle down effect. With this in mind, Founders and CEOs need to strike a balance between leading with vulnerability, while also maintaining an emotional boundary in an effort to self preserve.
While yes, leading with empathy is what allows us to motivate our teams and keep our businesses afloat, it’s also important that we do so sustainably in the event that we remain in this crisis for upwards of a year, or potentially even longer.
Moving Beyond Gender
A member of the audience asked the question, “Do you feel you’re expected to do more emotional labor than male business owners? If so, do you ever feel resentful about that?”
Here, Noelle pointed out, accurately so, that Female CEOs are often put under much greater scrutiny than their male counterparts. As female leaders, we’re faced with expectations of being more emotionally involved, while also tasked with making tough business decisions—including certain decisions that if our male counterparts were to make, they would likely receive less criticism.
While this is an unfortunate truth, and enough to spark frustration for many of us, it also sparked an important conversation among our panelists—the biggest takeaway being that women are more than the expectations that are held against them. We, as women, have the power to transcend those expectations, by removing the female narrative attached to them.
Alexandra Zatarain highlighted that her co-founder and colleague, who happens to be a man, is Eight Sleep’s CEO. She recognizes that management styles differ among her and her male colleagues, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing—while there may be a difference in methods of leading and motivating, Alexandra said that she does not feel like there is more required of her than her male colleagues.
Agreeing that diversity among leadership can help teams achieve synchronicity, our panelists highlighted some of the benefits to having varying perspectives and management styles among male and female colleagues:
- Having multiple voices in the room creates space for different perspectives.
- Bringing something different to the table—whether that’s a strong sense of empathy, or maybe an analytical perspective—is a strength, not disadvantage, and should not be held back in an effort to avoid putting forth additional emotional labor.
- Emotional intelligence can be employed as a strength and opportunity to ask the right questions, nullifying the idea that emotional awareness is a disadvantage assigned to women in the workplace.
- It can be helpful to use our colleagues as a soundboard when making decisions, ultimately to take a multi-perspective approach towards finding a solution.
Finally, Brianna Carney reminded us that gender is a spectrum spanning much wider than male and female, and highlighted the importance of fostering a company culture that moves beyond gender-based stereotypes.
While it is true that women have historically been marginalized in the workplace for leading with emotion, it turns out that style of management is what’s allowing companies to move through this crisis.
The biggest takeaway here is that women and individuals across the identity spectrum should feel empowered to bring their whole selves to work with an understanding that bringing empathy, vulnerability, or whatever unique perspective they bring to the team is an advantage. Ultimately, having multiple perspectives on a team of executives leads to well-rounded leadership.