Previously published on Forbes.comWant to know what the best and brightest are paying attention to in developing their leaders? What some call “soft skills” – empathy, building trust and honing one’s ability to assume best intent in others. I’ve always said: The soft stuff is the hard stuff.
Why would Deloitte spend time and money working to increase empathy in its partners? In a recent article by the Center for Creative Leadership, William A. Gentry, Ph.D., Todd J. Weber, Ph.D., and Golnaz Sadri, Ph.D., write about an analysis they did on data they’ve collected on managers across 38 countries. They note, “We found that empathy is positively related to job performance. Managers who show more empathy toward direct reports are viewed as better performers in their job by their bosses.”
I was eager to learn more about how large organizations are applying this idea. I had a great conversation with Mark Edmunds, who has been with Deloitte since 1981. Mark is the executive sponsor of Deloitte’s two-year “Next Gen” executive leadership development program, which each year enables roughly 50 high-potential senior execs to reach the firm’s most senior positions.
Dede Henley: I understand you are paying attention to some interesting things in developing leaders at Deloitte. Tell me about what you are focusing on.
Mark Edmunds: We have our attention on three things. First, empathy — looking at the world through another’s eyes. If you want to create energy on a team, you have to engage empathy. Second, treating people with respect. This means you demonstrate a combination of humility and confidence. Know what you don’t know, and gather information from your team, because people love being listened to. Finally, embracing a Thai expression nam-jai, which means “water of the heart.” It's about doing something with purest intent. When Thai people say that a person has nam-jai, it means that this person is happy to make sacrifices for friends and extend hospitality to strangers. Treat people well without expecting anything back. This is a path to the extraordinary as a leader and in life.
DH: Tell me a bit more about what you consider to be the number one leadership quality – empathy.
ME: This story started twelve years ago. Deloitte discovered that, to the market, we looked like everybody else in our space. Deloitte wanted to be a little bit better than our competitors. We believed part of the way we could get there was to focus on developing our leaders. So, a group of partners and I began to build the concept of Deloitte University.
One of the core courses we offer at DU is “The Art of Empathy.” The course shines light on the empathy mistakes we all make every day, focusing on how to do things better. We really wanted leaders to get away from “box-checking” when they were engaging with people. We wanted them to walk in the shoes of others to help them think about how to frame things differently. We consider empathy to be one of our core brand anchors.
DH: Cultivating empathy, building trust and doing things with purest intent — what about the naysayers? What do you do about people who don’t believe in any of this?
ME: There are curmudgeons in every organization. And there is usually about one-third of your people who are especially tough. “Show me,” they like to say. They don’t want to take any of this leader development stuff on faith. But I don’t believe as a leader you have to move everybody. I have eight leaders with whom I’ve had a deep, trusting relationship. I call them my “kitchen cabinet.” They influenced my leadership team of 30, who, in turn, influenced 500 partners. I focused on building strong trusting relationships with these eight people, knowing that their reach and influence would ripple out.
DH: Tell me about a challenging time for you as a leader at Deloitte and how you navigated it.
ME: In 2008, I had 8,500 people and 500 partners I felt responsible for. I thought of myself as “The Managing Partner of Happiness.” If I could make sure that my partners were happy and productive, I knew they would take care of their clients and the firm. In 2008, the economic downturn happened, and I was worried about the firm. I believed my job was to both name the reality in front of us and promote happiness in the midst of it.
So, every Friday, I sent my team an email I called “Good News Friday,” which reported the good things that were happening in the firm and with our clients. I wanted people to understand that good things were happening, too. I believe in creating energy through creating trust, straight talk and empathy.
DH: I understand you practice mindfulness. Tell me about that.
ME: I learned about mindfulness from my daughter, Grace. She’s 29 and a mindfulness instructor. I talk to Grace about leadership all the time. One day, she said, “Dad, you really need to meditate.” So, I started with five minutes a day about four years ago. I’m certainly not an expert, but as a result of my own mindfulness practice, I find that I can listen more effectively, am more present and more empathetic. I recommend a mindfulness practice for every leader.
DH: And now you are working to grow the next generation at Deloitte with these tenets of mindfulness, empathy, trust and good intent. How are you going about that?
ME: We designed a program we call the “NextGen Experience.” Each year roughly 50 partners are nominated by their business unit CEO to engage in an intense two-year journey. They’re assigned an external coach and each partner participant creates a personal development plan. They learn together with their cohort in a variety of settings. For instance, they run a mock business, they gain leadership insights from senior officers over three days at West Point, and they walk the Gettysburg battlefield with historians to better understand strategy under pressure. This program really accelerates their leadership development.
The KPI is accelerating leadership experiences. We encourage all of our leaders to move into new leadership roles after a period of time so they don’t become too comfortable. We want our leaders to be willing to do really hard things — things that scare them. We want a high-performance culture. We don’t want people to get comfortable. Deloitte builds remarkable leaders, and the Next Gen Experience is foundational to that goal.
What can you do to increase your leaders’ skills in these areas? Let managers know that empathy, trust and good intent matter. Explain that giving time and attention to others fosters empathy, which in turn enhances your performance and improves your perceived effectiveness.