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How Empathetic Leadership Training Better Prepared My Team for the Realities of Now

Advertising Agency
New York, USA
INFLUENCER: Critical Mass' Andrea Lennon on the value in learning how to stop and take that deep, reflective breath

Meditation? Not for me. Journaling? Nah. Deep breathing? Maybe, if there’s time. These are things for other people. People with the luxury of time. They’re able to hit pause and be reflective, aware, and possibly even mindful.

Or, that’s what I thought until I participated in some recent leadership training. At some point, I found myself splayed out on a conference room floor, practising active listening, creating time to nurture myself, and understanding myself and my team on a much different level. 

If you had described that scene to me the day before, I’d have been, well, sceptical.

The agency world can feel like Groundhog Day - same problems, different set of clients. It’s easy to get trapped into trying the same solutions and expecting different outcomes. When it doesn’t work out, tensions rise, confusion sets in, anxiety and panic flare up. And yes, I am as guilty of this as anybody else.

It’s not hard to see the value in learning how to stop and take that deep, reflective breath.

In Deloitte’s annual Human Capital survey for 2019, 86% of respondents believed they must reinvent their ability to learn. So, with that in mind, our leadership team underwent a series of half-day sessions over three months designed to equip our leaders with education, tools, and applications for dealing with the range of challenges we encounter in our jobs - delivering quality work, engaging with peers and clients, and mentoring our staff. The goal was to better connect our work, culture, and individual actions to the well-defined value system we have at Critical Mass. 

The training we chose was rooted in neuroscience, mindfulness, and emotional intelligence, the cornerstones of better-performing employees and responsible for 58% of overall job performance

Now more than ever, internal teams need the motivation and inspiration to bring their best selves to work every day. For some people, remote working is wearing thin and personal circumstances can add to the stress and hardship people feel. For others, the move back to an office may be equally disorienting, especially since the workplace will look very different for a long time to come.

We’ve employed a number of measures to help mitigate these new and changing circumstances while endeavouring to help our teams achieve higher levels of focus and calm. Our task as leaders is to make sure they’re getting the space they need throughout the day to combat back-to-back meetings, reduce screen fatigue, deal with their personal lives, and simply feel like a human (e.g., take a shower; go on a walk; eat a proper meal; not have to pee on mute).

Our leadership team is stepping up to the challenges with resilience and resolve. Here are a few of the ways they’re doing it.

Self-awareness and Self-Management: Our business spans several offices, and we have clients all over the world. The flexibility required in the 'new normal', which can now include home daycare and schooling, is unprecedented. And yet, our leaders have tackled this unpredictability with calm and focus, ensuring they 'show up' for others as best they can. 

Several are using journaling as a means to manage their moods and attain focus. Some are taking meditation breaks throughout the day to re-centre their spinning minds. Others have learned that 8 hours of video conferences don’t necessarily produce the best work, and they’re blocking off a minimum of two-hours of quiet, non-video time each day. We’ve also taken the small step of having all meetings end at :25 and :55 to make sure everyone has 5 minutes before the next one starts.

Relationship Building: Where we previously struggled to lift our heads from our own daily tasks to focus on the well-being of others, the leadership team is now collectively and systematically looking after people. 

We commit to 1:1 time with people in the company we don’t normally connect with. It was initially spearheaded by our directors’ team and has since been adopted across the office. We’ve also introduced a monthly 'connect' series to expose our team to internal and external industry experts and continuous learning. We’ve talked creative bias with Creative Equals, hosted a live Q&A with our global CEO, and heard great studies from Critical Mass teams across the globe, including people we haven’t connected with before. 

We also make it a point to have more ad hoc celebrations of employees and points of connection for visibility. A daily email goes out from yours truly with a round-up of what’s happening around the office and company. The email also highlights noteworthy work and contributions from local and global teams. On a weekly basis, we do a 20-minute stand up to make sure we have some facetime as a group. Finally, our monthly Town Halls give us a longer, deliberate opportunity to celebrate our work, our people, and our progress. Each one is presented by a rotating cast to encourage more peer-to-peer engagement. All of these efforts play an important part in helping us cultivate more understanding of and appreciation for the contributions of those around us. Yes, it takes a little more work, but I highly recommend it!

Empathy and Compassion: Our leadership team has fostered a broader and more comprehensive understanding of how people are feeling. Simply put, knowing how we feel directly impacts how we perform. We are having more open and more transparent conversations about the emotional well-being and personal circumstances that can power poor performance. 

We’ve also learned about mental health issues, relationship problems, family illnesses, and health conditions—and we’ve therefore been able to offer more empathetic flexibility and understanding. Our awareness of these situations allows us to adjust for individual circumstances while continuing to foster what we know is great talent in the midst of a tough moment.

Our career developers are checking in not just on the work at hand, but on longer term ambitions and career goals. We are turning what were casual chats on career development into more purposeful discussions with tangible and measurable outcomes. And we’re not forgetting to be human. We have bad days. The work can suffer. But somehow I am much more encouraged to get up and start all over again tomorrow. I know we can change the outcomes.  And I know I am not alone in this feeling. 

Gone are the days of petty comments and finger-pointing. We’ve entered an era where inclusivity, empathy, and compassion are as critical to our bottom line as our work and relationships. We are better prepared for the days ahead. 

Andrea Lennon is EVP managing director at Critical Mass

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