Empathetic Leadership and Key Opportunities for CHROs Today

Leadership Profile
Written by Kara Bobowski

Mindi Cox

Chief Marketing & People Officer

O.C. Tanner

MAY 2024

Like people leaders at leading organizations around the world, Chief Marketing & People Officer Mindi Cox of O.C. Tanner is focused on helping the organization keep up with the pace of change, aligning HR strategies to business needs, supporting a valuable employee experience and exploring the possibilities of AI. 

She takes a holistic view of the idea of being generative, asking, “How do you help your organization be more generative?” It’s a concept she is workshopping about the ability to take lots of different inputs and create something new. 

“Humans have this amazing ability to be generative,” she explains. “We're talking about generative AI and generative technologies, and they literally can take different sources of input and create a new thing. People have this ability inherent in them. So, how do we draw that out and embrace it as a principle?”

Challenges & Opportunities for CHROs

Generative AI – with all of its risks and opportunities – is just one of the many topics on the minds of CHROs this year. These are some of the top priorities and challenges both for Cox as a people leader and for CHROs, in general.

  1. Employees are feeling change fatigue.

With no end in sight to the fast pace of change in technology and business – and the organizational shifts that result – Cox sees “change fatigue” as an issue. Executives are trying to enable the pace of change, keep up with pressures on growth and continuously rally people around a new or changing strategy. “We want to meet people where they are, but then also pair that tightly with the business need,” Cox says.

Like many organizations, O.C. Tanner has been in high-growth mode for several years. “We love the problems that we are solving right now,” she says. “But nonetheless, to be your best, we have to continue to iterate and change, and that can be tiring to people.” 

Cox adds that “to create that sense of momentum and excitement and resilience… we have relied a lot on transparency and openly sharing.”

  1. Employee experience continues to evolve.

Cox shares that it can be both a challenge and an opportunity for HR leaders in “getting the mix right for employee experience.” CHROs constantly have to balance that experience and those expectations with the needs of the business.

We have to ensure we are true not only to our purpose as a business, but to our promise as an employer.”

It’s also important to evolve your employee value proposition, which has been a priority for Cox and her team. With several generations in the workforce, Cox points out that “people show up to work for different reasons and with different motivations.” She adds, “We know we have people who choose to be here, but how are we going to keep them and fulfill them?”

  1. Expanding the meaning of wellbeing.

On the topic of wellbeing, Cox shares what she thinks about one aspect of the future of work: “I have this dream that workplaces can be a place where people can actually come and their wellbeing can be enhanced.” It requires the right mix of employee experience, resources, clarity in roles and purpose. But Cox thinks this could be a different way of thinking for people leaders. 

“Is it possible that somebody could come to work, and it is a place where they fill up instead of having to pour out all day?” she says. “Their work becomes a hub or a haven of energy and momentum that sends them back to their personal lives more enabled to contribute in those arenas rather than less.” 

Cox believes this could be part of the evolution of wellbeing – first, employers measured employee satisfaction, then employee engagement, then employee fulfillment. She asks, “What if you could demonstrate – with data and best practices – that somebody’s wellbeing was actually enhanced by their work?”

The Practice of Empathy

One area of opportunity that Cox sees for HR leaders is in putting empathic leadership into practice. While there has been a lot written about empathetic leadership, she explains that O.C. Tanner reframed their research with a lens on how to put empathetic leadership into practice. In addition, O.C. Tanner’s first party research found that practical empathy is a trend and a best practice uncovered by employee focus groups.

“For so long, we asked people to be empathetic,” she says. “And I think the research is more hopeful now because we're discovering it's not really a personality trait. It's a practice. And if it's a practice, we can put systems in place to enable the practice.” 

This is really our opportunity to put a framework around the call to empathy.”

She explains that it’s about creating a next step for leaders after listening and putting themselves in someone else’s shoes. “Help your leaders know where their job to listen and help begins and ends. It should be backed by action and enabled by boundaries.” 

She continues, “The qualitative data starts to bear out that empathy really makes an impact. It becomes a superpower in your organization when there are systems to make it practical.”

The Latest Global Culture Report

Practical empathy for leaders is one of the highlights in the latest Global Culture Report from O.C. Tanner. Cox shares that another insight she finds valuable from the research report is “The 80% Experience,” which shows that “four-fifths of employees worldwide lack opportunities, technology, and autonomy in their work, and a very large number of them feel ignored and unvalued despite the imperative jobs they do.” 

Cox explains that this is about “making sure that we see everyone and enable everyone in our organization.” An important component of this concept is about not only offering access, but providing enablement. 

“Organizations can offer all kinds of benefits, but enabling employees to use them is key,” Cox says. “All of the hopes and outcomes that can be promised by doing something wonderful for your people… are lost in translation if we don't create the kind of enablement that allows them to access it.”

She goes on to note that access and enablement can be achieved in small, tangible ways, rather than through big initiatives. “We've adjusted company meeting times to make sure that they make sense for different shifts,” she shares. 

“Changing meeting times, staggering opportunities to participate in events, giving people a choice of how they want to participate in company events… These are tiny adjustments that actually have little impact to cost or planning. It's just the intention and the thoughtfulness.”

HR and AI

Like most HR leaders – and C-suite leaders, in general – Cox is navigating the risks and possibilities of AI and what it can do for their business. While evaluating the risks and the need to protect data and proprietary information, Cox also wonders, “How do we throw our arms around this? How do we ensure that everyone feels enabled?”

At O.C. Tanner, they are taking the first steps with an instance that is their own and encouraging employees to explore how it applies to their role. “Our next step that I feel really passionately about is that we have got to get the right training in place – so that people aren't just transacting with the technology, but they're being generative with it,” Cox says. “And I think the promise is that these technologies will enhance our humanity, not substitute for it.” 

She adds, “We will still contribute a very human touch to any technology to augment it. The technology has to augment human input, and it's understanding which roles are best to augment.” 

O.C. Tanner will present more findings from the Global Culture Report in a session entitled “Reimagining a New People-Centric Future,” at Evanta CHRO Executive Summits around the world this spring, including in Boston, New York, Minneapolis, Atlanta, Dallas, Vancouver, BC, and San Francisco. Check our calendar for upcoming Executive Summit dates.

To join the conversation on culture, practical empathy, and more, apply to join an Evanta CHRO Community. If you are already a member, sign in to MyEvanta to register for your community’s upcoming CHRO Executive Summit.

Special thanks to Mindi Cox and O.C. Tanner.

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