Leading With Intentionality

Connex Staff |

The following is a companion article to the most recent episode of Connex’s ongoing Executive Insights Series, which is produced in partnership with the “Innovating Leadership, Co-creating Our Future” podcast.


It feels as if the world of business has been abuzz since the early days of the pandemic with talk of hybrid and remote work: what those terms mean; what their optimal strategies and best practices are; how organizations can maintain a single, cohesive corporate culture without being inflexible about the unique needs of each distinct employee group. One question that comes up rather frequently in leadership roundtables is, how must managers change their skill sets to meet the new challenges and realities created by these alternative employment models?

Monique Jefferson, Chief People Officer for The Community Preservation Corporation (CPC), has a very practical answer to that: “This isn’t rocket science. I fundamentally believe that what made a strong manager or leader before the pandemic hasn’t changed, and that good leaders are still operating the same way.”

Jefferson is an HR professional with more than two decades of experience in understanding human capital management, HR business strategy, and leadership – an experience she’s now leveraging at CPC to develop and implement their long-term strategic HCM vision with a focus on talent advancement, a growth-centric culture, and meaningful DEI action. These are all critical to CPC and its mission as the largest CDFI solely committed to investing in affordable multifamily housing. They work hard to foster a sense of community and inclusivity within the workplace, which comes about as a direct consequence of not just HR strategy, but how their leaders engage with their teams on a daily basis.

“What has changed,” Jefferson clarified, “is that leaders need to be more intentional in how they lead, manage, and keep the employee front-of-mind. The same core principles apply, but the details of their implementation have changed.”

The Importance of Intentionality

Jefferson followed with an example: Pre-pandemic, a manager may have regularly met with their team members every day. They saw them at watercoolers, at their desk, and it wasn’t hard to strike up a conversation. But now, those conversations need to be scheduled and kept consistent lest they fall out of sight and out of mind. “You’d be surprised how many leaders, to this day, still aren’t having regularly scheduled one-on-ones with their employees,” Jefferson explained before reiterating just how far such a seemingly simple act goes.

Regular, individual facetime is critical, but Jefferson also stressed the importance of finding better ways to engage groups of employees, such as during team meetings. “Not only should participants be visible, but they should be invited into the conversation and feel welcomed to do so. You can enhance through small, meaningful gestures: make sure closed captioning is available so people can see what’s said if the signal gets weak; have individuals new to the team introduce themselves and make a habit of sharing their pronouns; and if you know that your team has several parents on it, don’t schedule the conversation around the time when kids will be getting out of school.”

“Leaders need to be mindful of who is on their team,” she continued, “and intentionally make time and space to connect with them – together and individually – in a way that fits their reality.”

Leading with Empathy

Underpinning Jefferson’s recommendations are the principles of meeting employees where they’re at and leading with empathy, both of which have emerged as clear best practices for any organization. The stress of the last few years has pushed many to their breaking point and attempting to keep that individual and emotional toll somehow separate and compartmentalized from work is no longer feasible in a world where “home” and “office” have become so entangled.

In fact, as indicated by Forbes Contributor Tracy Brower, we see the need for empathy bear out very clearly in the data: nearly two-thirds of employees have experienced an increase in stress, which not only compromises sleep and personal wellness but spills over negatively into personal lives and parenting. Their job performance has suffered, collaboration has become increasingly difficult to maintain, and the weight of it all has contributed in so many ways to the labor market’s sharp increase in turnover. But, as found in the Catalyst study cited by Brower, much of that can be remedied by empathetic leadership: 61% of employees under empathetic leaders feel they can innovate; 76% of those experiencing empathy feel more engaged; and nearly 3 times as many employees feel their workplace can be and is inclusive under empathetic leadership versus those teams where empathy was not prioritized.

Despite the more touchy-feely reputation empathy has, it’s able to drive organizational culture, strong managerial relationships, and even business results in a way that other leadership competencies simply cannot. It’s part of who we are as humans, as evidenced by this Evolutionary Biology study into how the introduction of empathy into our decision-making corresponded with a clear increase in cooperation and performance. Or, how research at the University of Virginia indicated that our brains are hardwired to experience the same threats and emotions we perceive our friends and teammates experiencing. By tapping into that innate potential, leaders can more easily, effectively, and compassionately achieve their team objectives.

Empathy Versus Sympathy

However, Jefferson cautions that there is a distinct difference between empathy and sympathy, with the latter leading to disastrous consequences.

“These two things look very similar, but they are not. Here’s an analogy: say an employee is in crisis, down in a ditch. Their manager is above them and wants to help them out of the hole. Empathy is listening to that employee, understanding their plight, connecting it to your own experience, and using that to find a way out, a helping hand outstretched. Sympathy, however, is connecting too strongly and deeply with that employee, and choosing to jump in with them so you can wallow together. It prevents the situation from moving forward, and results in the core problem going unaddressed.”

“An effective, empathetic leader creates space for the employee to get their frustrations out,” she continued, “before using a series of probing and leading questions to help direct, influence, and counsel the employee into the solution phase,” Jefferson stresses that those leading questions are more important than they may sound, as trying to fix the problem for them, or forcing a solution onto them does the employee a disservice. By helping them create the solution instead, employees are empowered, come away feeling more accomplished, and have more time to adjust and sustain the changes they need to make.

The Intentional Leader

“All of that – being mindful of employee realities, creating inclusive spaces, leading with empathy – starts with listening to employees and being open to really hearing them. What other people need is often different than what you’d need in that same situation,” Jefferson clarified, “and it may even be different than what you want to give. By asking employees how they can best be supported, what they value, what success looks like to them, and what they need to feel safe bringing their authentic selves to work, leaders put themselves in a position to lead with intentionality.”

To learn more about Monique Jefferson, her work at CPC, and what she believes intentional, empathetic, and inclusive leadership looks like, tune in to the entirety of her interview with Maureen Metcalf here: