Exploring the empathy issue in Silicon Valley's leadership

As CEO of a Boardroom Development company, the prospect of writing an article for Virgin on the subject of leadership is just so enticing. I had originally thought of writing down some thoughts about Ellen Pao and her gender discrimination lawsuit against the VC firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which, as the fallout continues, shows a problem in parts of Silicon Valley.

In fact, a 2017 survey of 210 women in the valley found that 60 per cent had experienced unwanted sexual advances and that 66 per cent felt excluded from important social and networking opportunities. 

The CrunchBase Women in Venture report identified that only seven per cent of partners at the top 100 VC firms are women and 38 per cent of the top 100 venture-capital firms have a female partner charged with investing. 

While the gender gap for start-ups may be shrinking (the 2016 Kauffman Index of Startup Activity states that women now make up 40 per cent of new entrepreneurs in the United States), the rarified heights of Series A and beyond still feel very ‘male’.

In a male-dominated environment, we see the macho leader, whether this is the overbearing style of Steve Jobs, the bruising environment of Amazon or the spoiled frat brat stylings of Travis Kalanick.  

Apart from the mere fact that sexism is abhorrent (I have five daughters and I am appalled to think that, in the 21st century, we’re still having to fight for fundamental equalities), there is an issue of empathy.

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The attributes that I look for in board members, regardless of industry type, are enshrined in emotional intelligence with the focus being on their empathy: the ability to recognise and share other people’s feelings.  

The general consensus based on numerous surveys is that women are more empathic than men and this is a crucial point inasmuch as successful transformational leaders and authentic leaders demonstrate high empathy.

Sometimes, simply asking, "Are you ok?" and listening closely to what is and isn’t being said is enough - but far too many leaders either fail to care enough to ask the question or fail to care enough to listen to the answer.

As boardrooms become more interested in building organisations based on values, relationships and empowerment, we will see how critical empathy is - and cross-cultural work emphasises this point further.

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The great news is that empathy can be learnt: 

  • Be aware of what’s going on around you and in your own head - take time to tune into the atmosphere and not be so absorbed in yourself
  • Understand why you are taken with certain moods 
  • Be mindful of what you are saying and doing - consider the impact this has on others
  • Put yourself in their shoes and see situations from different points of view
  • Care about others as this creates a meaningful connection that goes beyond transactional conversations
  • Be authentic - people with values aligned to yours and the organisation are likelier to be more productive

Such research as the Swedish WOLF study shows that hyper-critical leadership not only leads to demotivation and in-fighting but can also lead to serious issues like depression, high blood pressure, weight gain, substance abuse, and even death.

In the book, Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek suggests that true leadership is about empowering others to achieve things they didn’t think possible.

Sheryl Sandberg has been quoted as saying, "We have a responsibility to build things that are good and which promote 'kindness and empathy.'"

Whether we are the CEO of a multinational corporation or a start-up, we have a responsibility to demonstrate to everyone that, regardless of background, sex, ethnicity, or physical ability that you offer an environment that encourages them to be the best.

Something that, it seems, some of the Silicon Valley darlings still need to grasp.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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