Leading With Authenticity: Healthy Teams Thrive on Clear Communication

Leading With Authenticity: Healthy Teams Thrive on Clear Communication

By Lisa Mikkelsen

The second in our founder wellness series, this blog looks at how CEOs are leading their companies through a challenging environment. With teams more dispersed than ever, it’s all about connecting on a human level.

Every day, CEOs make decisions that affect the entire team. Healthy CEOs make better decisions. They invite feedback and are more collaborative with their teams. They inspire better performance by pursuing a strong vision, setting clear expectations, demonstrating that they genuinely caring about their people, and empowering the team to take ownership of projects.

All these soft skills take work ­­–just as taking care of your own mental health takes work. In our kickoff founder wellness blog we discussed how people admire leaders who set good boundaries and communicate openly. After more than two years of working over Zoom and the ‘always-on’ schedule it creates, that can be hard to achieve.

Three basic moves can help you lead authentically: focus on understanding your team’s needs, always share the “why”, and regularly ask employees for advice.

 

Recognize that employees’ needs have changed

With the pandemic, the things employees shared on a monthly check-in got very personal ­– sometimes teetering outside the usual workplace comfort zone. An employee might have family in the hospital, or a child struggling with distance learning. Things got very real, very quickly. Today, world events, and the changing economic climate, make it likely that those personal challenges will persist.

CEOs have asked us, “How can I ask for an improvement in performance after hearing what an employee is struggling with at home?” Or, “How can I let people go while this is happening?”

As a leader, you cannot care for the emotional needs of every employee, but your team may need you to wear your caretaker hat more than before. It can be very lonely to be the CEO. Since you’re the boss, the business ultimately rests on your shoulders. You don’t have quite the same collegial team bond that employees form with each other.

 

Practice acts of compassion

Still, you can practice compassion. Just recognize that people are struggling. Talk about the challenges people are facing. In one-on-ones, ask people how they’re really doing. Employees don’t want pity – they often just want to know you care.

In all-staff meetings and emails, it may be necessary to confront dire national events and world affairs head-on. It may not seem like your place to talk about the news, but employees will react to your silence as strongly as your words. If you’re at a loss for what to say, go back to your company values, and acknowledge that everybody may be struggling to process events.

 

Explain the ‘why’ and ‘how’ of a decision

Being authentic isn’t always easy, especially over Zoom. We’ve worked with many CEOs on projecting confidence and compassion through a video screen. It takes practice. Start by giving people permission to step into the messiness of life today, to share and ask questions.

Of course, if you give employees freedom to ask questions, they are going to ask about work. Will we raise enough money in the next round? Will there be layoffs? Are we going back to the office full time? CEOs don’t need to have the answers for everything. But sharing the context behind a decision will help reduce uncertainty and stress for your employees. Help people understand both why decisions were made and how you made those decisions.

While not all information can be shared, err on the side of transparency. When you shelter your people too much, business decisions – good or bad – appear to come out of nowhere. That adds to employees’ feelings of not being in control. People need to understand the “why” behind business decisions and your own vulnerability can build empathy across the team.

 

Don’t ask for feedback – ask for advice

When it comes to business decisions, make sure open communication is a two-way street. The best way to make decisions for a group of people is by understanding what they need in order to be successful. Solicit your staff’s advice on changes to company policies, team structure, and other decisions.

A healthy CEO signals their receptiveness to feedback and new ideas. It’s actually a good sign when employees are communicating feedback: It means they care about the business and feel effectual within the team.

In turbulent times, employees may be hesitant to give critical feedback. They don’t want to be seen as the squeaky wheel. You may need to get creative to encourage open feedback from your team.

As behavior science consultant Amantha Imber writes, don’t just ask for feedback, ask for advice. Get people together in groups. Meet with people individually. Be clear about what they can and cannot have control over. Understand that everyone is in a different situation and try to avoid one-size-fits-all policies. A tactic we love to use is asking one simple question at the end of each weekly 1:1, “What is one thing I could do differently next week to make your job easier?”

Making decisions from collaborative conversations is a win-win. Employees will feel heard and empowered to contribute.

 

Run the race as a team and go farther

The day-to-day demands of running a business can consume a CEO’s time and energy. Creating space for authenticity, compassion, transparency, and receptiveness is not easy, but it’s everything that binds you and your team together. Try to take your people along on the journey – even when it’s bumpy – and minimize surprises.

As a CEO, you need your team as much as they need you. The old proverb says, “To go fast, you go alone – to go far, you go together.” Building a tech company is a marathon made up of many sprints – you’re often going far and fast. Be as understanding and , and they will proudly join you on the journey.