Empathic Leadership. It’s not personal; it’s just business. Passe phrases like these send the message that emotion has no place in the workplace. Old school corporate culture emphasized hard skills and a tough exterior, but soft skills, especially emotional intelligence (EQ), are the top predictors of professional and personal performance in the modern office climate. Savvy leaders read the room and guide their team from a place of respect and empathy.
When it comes to designing the future of work, one size fits none. Discovering success isn’t about a hybrid model or offering remote work options. Individuals and organizations are looking for more freedom. The freedom to choose the work model that makes the most sense. The freedom to choose their own values. And the freedom to pursue what matters most. We reached out to successful leaders and thought leaders across all industries to glean their insights and predictions about how to create a future that works.
As a part of our interview series called “How Employers and Employees are Reworking Work Together,” we had the pleasure to interview Heather Wolfson.
Heather Wolfson is the CEO and Lead Strategist of Maven Coaching and Consulting. She believes that organizations have the power to build a healthier, more resilient ecosystem through intentional intervention at all levels. With a passion for supporting emerging leaders and a background in making a sustained impact, Heather brings nearly 20 years of senior-level leadership, strategy development and coaching experience to her work.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today.
Two standout experiences have shaped my trajectory within the last decade.
The first was a leadership fellowship eight years ago, which helped me identify my areas of growth and, more specifically, what type of professional development opportunities to pursue to reach professional success in the way I define success. Experiencing executive coaching during a pivotal point in my career opened my eyes to the significance of supporting people through leadership.
The second was when I co-founded an organization with a colleague five years ago. Starting an organization, building a team, procuring funding, and developing infrastructure and systems gave me real insight into creating a healthy organizational culture from the ground up.
Let’s zoom out. What do you predict will be the same about work, the workforce and the workplace 10–15 years from now? What do you predict will be different?
The next 10–15 years will bring a greater focus on flexibility and adaptability. Four-day workweeks, a growing gig economy, and employee mental health and well-being will affect positive organizational change.
The workforce is already shifting. The concept of a four-day workweek is becoming a reality. Forward-thinking companies abroad have already adopted such models. The legislation — such as the one being discussed in California right now — shows us that corporations in the United States are slowly embracing a four-day workweek. It’s a real possibility that it will become commonplace within the next decade.
Corporations are hiring more niche consultants or freelancers and adopting wellness policies — such as unlimited PTO or company-wide days of rest — are other ways I anticipate these shifts playing out.
What advice would you offer to employers who want to future-proof their organizations?
Employers must recognize that things are changing and will continue to change forever — likely at a faster pace than ever before due to emerging technologies. The mindset of “we’ve always done things this way” will stunt even the most established companies. Shifting from “if it ain’t broke” to openly questioning areas of improvement future-proofs organizations.
The fastest way to implement that in real-time is getting feedback from employees now. In particular, listening and actively checking in with staff to anticipate needs for change. The policy doesn’t have to come from the top down. An internal task force that includes employees of all levels is a great investment in your “people piece,” the employees who make your organization functional. It’s up to senior leaders to create an environment where people feel heard and seen.
What do you predict will be the biggest gaps between what employers are willing to offer and what employees expect as we move forward? And what strategies would you offer about how to reconcile those gaps?
Employees are not settling for the status quo. Historically, the most significant gap is between employee expectations/needs and the financial resources to execute that mutual understanding. Salary = Hours Worked is quickly becoming an outdated way of viewing work culture. Employees are working differently. Many don’t “turn off” at 5 p.m., and the growing expectation is that the employer will compensate in some way, such as flexible work hours, mental health days, and opportunities for growth within an organization.
Setting those expectations for both parties starts with listening: create a task force and be highly transparent about defining expectations. Ultimately, inviting employees into the process will reconcile those gaps. That being said, all change from feedback doesn’t happen overnight. Pick one or two areas of improvement, and do those before moving on to the next two.
We simultaneously joined a global experiment together last year called “Working From Home.” How will this experience influence the future of work?
Working from home forced corporations to trust their employees to get their work done. Trust is fundamental in the workplace. As long as the deliverables are high quality and completed on time, the individual employee’s process doesn’t need to be micromanaged. I certainly think that approach to management is highly desirable for employees — and new job candidates — now. Empathic leaders will shine when they can instill the importance of policies in the process — the expectation isn’t for employees “to go rogue.”
We’ve all read the headlines about how the pandemic reshaped the workforce. What societal changes do you foresee as necessary to support a future of work that works for everyone?
Doubling down on a few concepts for supporting the future of work I mentioned:
- Empathic leadership: If you want to influence your team, you have to roll up your sleeves and lead by example. Being transparent and building connections among the team fosters healthy workplace culture.
- Flexible schedules: Society is no longer viewing 80 hour work weeks as a badge of honor or roadmap to success. In fact, many who did work harder and longer were laid off during the pandemic, making a large portion of our workforce disillusioned with corporate jobs. Policies that support a four-day workweek, unlimited PTO, and sabbaticals are organizational shifts that can support everyone. We know there will be long days and long weeks, but that needs to be balanced by periods of rest and less workload. Being transparent about expectations is critical here.
- Corporate-employee team trust: Again, working from home forced corporations to trust their employees to get their work done. As long as the deliverables are high quality and completed on time, the individual employee’s process doesn’t need to be micromanaged. Empathic leaders will shine when they can instill the importance of policies in the process — the expectation isn’t for employees “to go rogue.”
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of work?
People want more passion at work! Work is no longer just about paying the bills for the millions of Americans who quit their job during the pandemic; they left to learn a new career skill or chase a professional dream. If the Great Resignation has taught us one lesson, let it be that people do want to work, but they want purpose in their work.
Our collective mental health and wellbeing are now considered collateral as we consider the future of work. What innovative strategies do you see employers offering to help improve and optimize their employee’s mental health and wellbeing?
- Hire a wellness officer that can facilitate trainings or workshops, retreats, and personal development opportunities.
- Company-wide time off. For example, the office is closed for one week in July for summer break for all employees.
- Add mental health days to benefit packages.
- Enforce healthy communication boundaries. For example, no Slack chats on weekends.
It seems like there’s a new headline every day. ‘The Great Resignation’. ‘The Great Reconfiguration’. And now the ‘Great Reevaluation’. What are the most important messages leaders need to hear from these headlines? How do company cultures need to evolve?
It goes back to purpose. We must remember that as employers, providing a deeper sense of accomplishment to our employees will make our organization healthier overall.
Let’s get more specific. What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Work?”
- Empathic Leadership
It’s not personal; it’s just business. Passe phrases like these send the message that emotion has no place in the workplace. Old school corporate culture emphasized hard skills and a tough exterior, but soft skills, especially emotional intelligence (EQ), are the top predictors of professional and personal performance in the modern office climate. Savvy leaders read the room and guide their team from a place of respect and empathy.
2. Aligned & Transparent Workplace Culture
“The audio doesn’t match the visual” is a quote I have been sharing a lot with my clients. Many have been plagued with their organizations saying one thing but doing another as it relates to policies, core values, and employee wellness/engagement. For example, a recent client shared that their company just released a “flexible” return to work schedule stating. The organization is so excited about the “flexibility” it offers employees, but employees are distraught. Over the last two years, people have demonstrated that they can be efficient and effective working anywhere. Ultimately, the policy makes the employees feel unheard by management. As leaders, we must develop open and honest feedback loops with our employees to keep values aligned with policy.
3. Purpose in Work
For years, there has been a narrative, especially among women, that you can’t have both a fulfilling career and a thriving home life. An alternate narrative has been to pursue your ambitions–you can have it all. For me, these narratives are far too absolute and partially why we have seen exceptionally talented, hard-working leaders burn out. Not just burnt out but disillusioned, and stuck thinking there must be something wrong with them when neither narrative fits their life’s aspirations.
Those who have navigated this successfully, specifically those who have a professional and personal life that is in harmony, have one thing in common: The ability to lead from a strong internal foundation.
They know when to say yes, and when to pass something up because they deeply understand their priorities. They understand their purpose.
I encourage my clients to write their own purpose statement. For example, My purpose is to leave a legacy of empowerment and empathic leadership through my work and to instill those same values in my children. My purpose doesn’t change if I’m at a soccer meet or in a boardroom — and that is what keeps all things in check. This isn’t to say that life is balanced. Some days I have to work more, some days I am more present with my family. But it’s in alignment with my purpose.
4. Fluidity of Schedule
The concept of a four-day workweek is becoming a reality. Forward-thinking companies abroad have already adopted such models. The legislation — such as the one being discussed in California right now — shows us that corporations in the United States are slowly embracing a four-day workweek. It’s a real possibility that it will become commonplace within the next decade.
It is no longer about the hours worked; as long as the deliverables are high quality and completed on time, the individual employee’s process doesn’t need to be micromanaged. I certainly think that approach to management is highly desirable for employees — and new job candidates — now.
5. Communication Boundaries
The notion that CEO, managers, and employees need to be on their emails at all hours of the day and night or accessible by text at all times is a BIG myth. Successful leadership is not about being busy 24/7 and having your hand in every detail. This is two-fold. Leaders need to allow their teams to flourish on their own. Be available to answer questions in a timely fashion, but empower team members to make decisions and trust it in their knowledge and skill set. Helicopter management can foster distrust in the organization. Leaders are models. Suppose you give the impression that working 24/7 and being constantly available is how to be a leader in your organization; you’re creating an expectation that employees should be working 24/7 if they want to succeed, too. Leading is all about setting expectations and modeling good practices while allowing employees to be resourceful and industrious.
I keep quotes on my desk and on scraps of paper to stay inspired. What’s your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? And how has this quote shaped your perspective?
“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it” — Simon Sinek
That quote has been on my desk for a decade because it speaks to being aligned with passion.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He, she, or they might just see this if we tag them.
I respect her realness. She successfully navigated million-dollar buy-outs of her products and made a name for herself. Most impressive is her dedication to her daughter and her philanthropic efforts. I admire her ability to mobilize quickly around the causes she believes in. Although I lead a purpose-driven business, the work that fills me up is done in my volunteer time and as a mom.
Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and good health.