It takes a very special type of leader to shepherd a company – with its culture, people and products – from good to great. I know, from personal experience, it is not an easy feat. Today’s leaders must possess a paradoxical mix of two important and seemingly conflicting qualities: professional ambition and personal compassion. Leaders should be, rightfully so, highly ambitious, yet the focus of their ambition is not only for themselves but for the greater good – a rising tides mentality of sorts. And at the same time, they aren’t afraid to demonstrate acts of personal compassion.

Company Culture, Innovation and Compassion

Innovation and company culture. The words are common parlance in business today, and the two are often found together.

In the 15th century, the word “culture” pertained to agriculture, as in “cultivating” the land. Over time, the definition morphed to involve the anthropological study of people, and eventually, in the 1980s, “company culture” came into usage to describe the personality of a workplace.

I see Google as a prime example of an organization with a commitment to innovation that is cultural, not process-driven. And it didn’t stumble upon its innovative culture by accident.  Successful companies, like Google, cultivate their culture carefully.

Innovation culture that is dedicated to the creative process of introducing something new or different, requires a special environment. I imagine that the leaders in these kinds of companies embody and demonstrate various characteristics of compassion.

Compassion empowers the environment of risk required for innovation. Compassion, a cousin to empathy, is “a sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.” Without this, it would be too risky to share new ideas at work. If employees are too scared to present a new idea, innovation will never happen. Compassion builds trust in the workplace – and most anywhere else for that matter.

The Human-Centered Organization

Compassionate leadership requires bringing the heart into workplace.  This is often times seen by my fellow colleagues as being a soft and perhaps – weak approach – that inherently undermines productivity and profitability. Old traditional leadership theories have assured us that the best managers are the brainiest and most analytical—intentionally insulated from emotions. In fact, traditional leadership is often oriented toward a “command and control” mentality and approach. I disagree ‘heartedly’ with this notion.

Throughout my career, my goal has been and is – to be part of an organization which is human-centered – that puts its people first. Organizations need to recognize there’s a certain way that people and their teams want to be treated.  They want to know that they are a critical component in the creation of a business environment in which people have room to flourish as individuals and become the best they can be.

According to Mark C. Crowley, author of Lead from the Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century,  “If your desire is to be a leader who attracts and retains the best people all-the-while producing truly uncommon and sustainable performance, here are two things you must know about the power and influence of the human heart.

  • The heart is the primary driver of optimal human performance
  • Emotions drive performance

For as long as I can remember, when I first began working in the technology industry, there has been that belief that a high salary was sufficient motivation for top performance. Yet, I’ve come to realize that pay in all of its manifestations, is not necessarily the reason why people excel in their jobs.  Surely, individuals wish to earn great, at least fair, pecuniary (monetary) benefits from their work efforts.  But often times even more importantly, they wish to earn non-pecuniary (non-monetary) benefits from work, including recognition, working in an environment that fosters their individual growth, a caring and nurturing setting, etc. While the idea of managing people with greater care and priority, also known as compassion, may strike some as intrinsically wimpy, I am a fierce supporter of the assumption that leadership in the workplace simply cannot and will not succeed without it.

People and Purpose before Profit

People are our greatest asset, but the reality is we will do away with that asset quite rapidly if it’s costing us too much money, or if profits are impacted. My strategy for leading in an innovative environment is simple. Let’s first understand the people, and then we can do business. That’s fundamentally different than saying let’s first understand where we make money and then deploy people against that.

Over the many years I’ve spent working as an executive at several of the top-tier technology companies in Silicon Valley, I’ve come to learn that people come to work searching for purpose and meaning, much as they do in their everyday lives. People ask themselves why the organization that they work for exists. Frankly, if they come to believe that the company’s sole mission is to make money for shareholders, people don’t find that terribly attractive. They are looking for a more noble purpose, which doesn’t necessarily mean something along the lines of ‘we are going to end world poverty’. Rather, it can be as a software company saying ‘our purpose is to connect communities via infrastructure’ or ‘our purpose is to empower innovation in technology so lives are improved’ or ‘our mission is to develop new technologies so that our children will learn better and faster.’ People can go to work in those kinds of organizations knowing that they’re making a difference, that they have an opportunity to be part of the equation in a people-centered view of the world.

Emotional intelligence

Emotional intelligence is not a theoretical construct for me, but something that I think about daily.  The exceptional leaders whom I’ve come to know and admire have a high level of self-awareness. They know that one of their single biggest challenges is to find the time to reflect about themselves, their responses, what’s going on in their world.

That’s not easy given that we’re all ‘on’ a non-stop clock. Technology keeps us dialed into work “anytime, anywhere”, as you know. Leading innovative companies requires the time to develop the emotional intelligence to create a space for people to reflect and have an opportunity to grow in a compassionate manner.

We Are All Leaders

We are all leaders in our own right. A leader is not just a title.  Its men and women, who in a given moment, take action based on their principles along the lines of ‘I’m going to act in the right way. I’m going to do a good thing here.’ It is in that instance that they become a more authentic and compassionate leader.

My job as a member of the leadership team at NTTi3 is to demonstrate to my colleagues that I believe they are authentically valued. Each and every one. Provide them with opportunities to grow and to contribute at a higher level. Appreciate their work. Make people feel they matter. If I do all these things and more—I will have succeeded in inspiring – which is and will be among my greatest achievements.

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