To Get Ahead In Trying Times, Empathetic Leadership And A Growth Mindset Are Key

As a business leader, it is paramount to place focus on the areas we can control: our teams, mental and physical health, and how we adapt to change.
To Get Ahead In Trying Times, Empathetic Leadership And A Growth Mindset Are Key
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Managing Director, Twitter MENA
7 min read
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Often, true leaders emerge during difficult times, or when uncertainty prevails. In situations where teams are worried or unsure about the future, hope, the ability to prioritize, and empathy are key both to leadership, and to the collaborative realization of a company’s vision.

While we are witnessing a tumultuous period globally, in my opinion, the role of a leader will not be significantly impacted, with a wider reflection being placed on how companies organize their workforces. The environments within which we operate are frequently beyond our control, and as such, as a business leader, it is paramount to place focus on the areas we can control: our teams, mental and physical health, and how we adapt to change.

A fantastic example of leadership through change is Ernest Shackleton and his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. Though his expedition was a failure, his ability to adapt to the circumstances brought about by unforeseen challenges, and his commitment to the new goal of survival are demonstrative of true leadership. While it had nothing to do with the world of business and took place at the start of the 20th century, it remains an inspiration for leaders today and those in the years to come.

One of the aspects of what’s called a growth mindset -a necessary quality for a successful leader, in my opinion- is that your talent and skills can continually be developed through the input of others. But “others” doesn’t always refer to people who are more experienced than you or from within the same industry. Furthermore, inspirations of leadership can come from the present, through the ideas and early work of the leaders of tomorrow.

Personally, I experienced this earlier this year in May, when I had the privilege of being invited to judge the INJAZ Young CEO of the Year award, which is part of INJAZ UAE’s First Virtual Company Program Competition. Not only was I working and learning alongside an experienced regional leader, Bashar Al Kahdi from Hill+Knowlton Strategies MENA, for this task, but the initiative gave me the opportunity to discover some of tomorrow’s leaders and their inspiring projects.

Related: Young Emirati Entrepreneurs Develop Business Ideas For A Better Tomorrow At INJAZ UAE's 'National Company Program Competition'

The 11th edition of the National Company Program (which started in September) provides students with the opportunity to explore entrepreneurship as an option for self-employment. Throughout the program, students turn their classrooms into real businesses with the support of mentors from across the private sector. Upon completion of the program, student teams get to participate at a national level competition against other competing schools and universities.

For the CEO of the Year Award I was judging, we asked students to respond to the question “What leadership skills have you developed throughout the program?” and gave them 50 seconds to answer. While you may think that this duration was very short in order to both answer the question and shed light on their project, we were quite impressed with most of the candidates. A key factor to bear in mind is that all of it happened virtually, taking place right in the middle of the confinement period. That being said, our young entrepreneurs didn’t give the impression that they were disturbed by such a setup and demonstrated another essential leadership quality: the ability to adapt easily.

Through the projects they invested their time and their energy in, it’s clear that our youth are the change agents of tomorrow, our future business leaders and potential talents for our existing companies. The variety of projects seen as part of the INJAZ competition served to highlight that potential. For example, I was personally inspired and impressed by Hessa Sulaiman of the Maawa team, who we awarded the CEO of the Year award to. Maawa is a community that includes a tent which runs on solar power for refugees, and provides them with a better sustainable lifestyle.

Working with today’s entrepreneurial youth highlighted their ability to clearly communicate their ideas and verbalize the positive sense of growth of their projects. But leadership remains a journey that never really ends. That’s why our young leaders need to make sure that their projects and efforts are consistent and sustainable. Leaders are not born but made, through the experience of growth and expansion.

Five years ago, we set up Twitter’s office in the MENA region from the ground up, with only one person. Today, we may be a much bigger team, with several departments represented locally in a fast growing region. What remains front of mind is that there continues to be room to grow, to learn and sometimes, to even fail, which is a crucial component of the growth process.

Prior to launching our business in MENA, I had the opportunity to establish Twitter’s commercial activities in Continental Europe, and to build most of our local teams from scratch. The similarity between the startup model and what we had to go through at Twitter when entering new markets is remarkable and also a good reminder that, in order to lead and build a business successfully, one needs to roll up their sleeves and put the team’s interests before their own.

Here’s a personal anecdote that, while not glamorous, will hopefully serve as an illustration of my earlier point, and also indicated to me that I was on the right track as a leader at the time. Several years ago, as part of a long and thorough annual feedback process, one of my direct reports, who I considered both extremely smart and competent, added a short line to his report on my performance, which had nothing to do with the major accomplishments or strategic business results we had achieved that year.

It was simply a recollection of a regular day at work when, at the end of a busy week, late in the evening, I had offered to help the team with the most mundane and basic task any junior executive could have delivered, simply because I knew the team had a challenging week, and that I could immediately add value. It wasn't a special moment at all, but that day, I unconsciously sent a message to the team that I’d be there for them, and irrespective of roles or titles, we are all in it together.

I believe that it is still early days in terms of holistically reflecting on current times, as when one mentions the “global crisis,” we’re actually talking about both a health and an economic crisis that is creating a long-term impact on the way we live and work, which makes it extremely difficult to assess in its entirety. That being said, from a personal perspective, this time has already confirmed two things which were echoed through the inspiration I got from the INJAZ competition as a whole, Twitter MENA’s constant investment in youth, and how we’ve been responding as a global company in terms of support for our teams.

First, empathy is crucial both on a professional and personal level. In fact, one of the key principles that has guided our response at Twitter is to lead with empathy and flexibility. We introduced resources to help managers prioritize their own well-being while managing a team, foster deeper empathy between managers and their direct reports, and made room for employees to operate at reduced capacity when needed.

Second, I believe one should prioritize mental health over everything as this constitutes the foundation of physical health and strong decision-making. As an organization, we have increased our investments in further providing mental and physical health benefits at Twitter, and explored ways to better support caregivers learning to navigate our new reality.

I truly hope that conscious leadership and our talented youth will be relied on for the years to come, as they continuously demonstrate themselves to be the necessary elements to a more balanced, sustainable, and fulfilling economic development.

Related: Standing Tall: Two Lessons On (Great) Leadership That Apply To Every Company

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