An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti
Empathetic leaders are better communicators. They can adapt their communication style to resonate with individual team members, ensuring that messages are better understood and received. This leads to more effective and productive interactions.
Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership trait. In an ever-evolving business landscape, leaders who exhibit genuine empathy are better equipped to connect, inspire, and drive their teams towards success. But how exactly does empathy shape leadership dynamics? How can it be harnessed to foster stronger relationships, improved decision-making, and a more inclusive work environment? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Susanne Carpenter.
Susanne Carpenter is the principal and founder of Carpenter Leadership Consulting- a leadership consulting and executive coaching firm focused on helping leaders and leadership teams become high-performing and strategy-focused. A leader for 20 years, Carpenter channels her experience to empower leaders in unlocking their full potential, fostering confidence, effectiveness, and success. She tailors engagements to help leaders cultivate the necessary tools and strategies to manage their teams and organizations more effectively. Her goal is to help her clients reach their fullest potential and lead with impact.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about empathy, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
I always find it fascinating to hear about leadership journeys. Our paths often seem like they should be straightforward, but in reality, they rarely are. The bulk of my career before starting my firm was in educational leadership. For many years, I dedicated myself to leadership roles, with a clear focus on reaching the top. I invested a significant portion of my career in preparing for that ultimate position. I was fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with leaders who encouraged my growth by ensuring I was getting the key leadership skills needed to rise within leadership. I know that’s not available to many.
However, as I inched closer to that top position, I began to realize that it no longer felt aligned with my aspirations. Simultaneously, I found myself naturally drawn to the leaders within my organization, becoming truly enthralled by their growth and leadership development. After extensive self-reflection, I concluded that occupying the top role was no longer my dream. So, I decided to leave the comfort of a full-time position and embarked on the journey of launching my own leadership consulting and executive coaching firm.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
Schools aren’t always great at thinking about leadership development. I realized that pretty quickly. Being a self-starter came naturally to me as did learning. When I didn’t know something or wanted more information, I needed to figure out how to learn it for myself. Books have always been a source of inspiration for me in my leadership journey and it was
I’m not particularly impulsive when it comes to my career. I’m actually quite the opposite. I’ve planned out paths with learning goals and growth. So when I decided to step out of my comfort zone to start my own business, I’ll fully admit that I wasn’t totally clear on where to start. I went back to what I always do. I spent time learning. And I talked to a lot of people who have been solopreneurs to learn about the process.
Many people told me it was going to take a long time to be successful if I even found success. But I’ve found the opposite. Coming out of COVID, leaders have been incredibly challenged both personally and professionally. They are finding that the ground is shifted, and they need new skills and understanding to be successful. I’ve been happy to find success quickly. I believe this is because I’ve spent a lot of time just listening to people talk. Listening to them talk about their leadership journeys, their successes, their failures, and the needs that they have in leadership. I’ve been able to meet their needs that way as both a consultant and a coach.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What sets Carpenter Leadership Consulting apart is my unwavering focus on supporting leaders and their leadership teams. As a solopreneur, I offer a personal touch and a deep commitment that is often hard to find in larger consulting firms. My goal is to help leaders achieve success and transformation within their teams and organizations. I don’t offer a one-size-fits-all solution. I take the time to understand the individual challenges and goals of each client and tailor a coaching engagement that meets their specific goals and needs.
One example of the impact of my approach involves a former client. This executive was grappling with confidence issues in their challenges and at the same time was experiencing a drop in team morale. Through a series of one-on-one coaching sessions, I worked closely with them to identify their strengths, areas for improvement, and leadership aspirations. Together, we crafted a tailored leadership development plan that addressed their specific needs- for themself and their team. This plan incorporated strategies to enhance their communication skills, build a more cohesive team, and instill a sense of purpose and direction.
Throughout our coaching relationship, this executive experienced a remarkable growth. They not only regained their confidence but also significantly improved their leadership abilities. The team, too, noticed a positive shift in their leader’s approach, which led to improved teamwork, innovation, and overall job satisfaction. Furthermore, the organization began to witness a positive impact on outcomes as a result of the improved team dynamics and leadership effectiveness.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
The three essential character traits driving my success are active listening, saying yes to opportunities, and tenacity. When I launched my business, I aimed to speak with 100 leaders to understand their experiences and challenges. I approached these conversations with an open mind, committed to learning and asking questions. As my conversations surpassed 100, I saw an opportunity to offer coaching services in my new venture. To meet my goal within the first six months, I actively sought referrals. During these interactions, a leader asked if I could facilitate their team retreat. Though it wasn’t in my initial plan, I seized the opportunity by saying yes. This led to a new facet of my business, where I now regularly organize and lead team retreats. You never know what can happen just by talking to people!
Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.
One of the most difficult decisions I made was to walk away from leadership. I had been on that path for so long and admittedly was experiencing burnout. Looking back, I can confidently say as hard as it was to leap into the unknown, it was the best decision I could have made. I was ready for a fresh challenge, and, more importantly, my team deserved a leader who was fully committed and energized.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define empathy in a leadership context, and why do you believe it’s a vital trait for leaders to possess in today’s work environment?
In a leadership context, empathy is about a leader’s ability to understand the feelings and perspectives of their team members or colleagues without judgment. It’s a vital trait since it fosters stronger relationships and trust among team members. Empathetic leaders create an environment where individuals feel valued and heard. Empathy also enhances collaboration and communication. Empathic leaders are often better equipped to handle challenges, provide feedback, and motivate the individuals on their teams and in their organizations. When people feel seen and heard, team dynamics and productivity improve dramatically.
Can you share a personal experience where showing empathy as a leader significantly impacted a situation or relationship in your organization?
In working with my executive coaching clients, empathy often comes up when considering a challenge- either navigating a tricky issue or dealing with a difficult conversation with an individual. I’ve found that leaders who are willing to work on themselves and their leadership are often attuned to thinking about others, and a coaching session may be about talking through a situation before going into it. This is where listening- truly listening- is imperative. I believe that it isn’t enough to use active listening skills. A leader needs to lean into empathic listening skills. That looks like going into conversations without judgment, being fully present, listening for both facts and feelings, and being comfortable with sitting in silence.
How do empathetic leaders strike a balance between understanding their team’s feelings and making tough decisions that might not be universally popular?
This is a challenge that many leaders face. But the reality is that great teams experience conflict and more importantly, know how to work through it. There are a couple of things leaders need to consider. They need to understand the concerns, questions, and insights others may have and make sure they feel heard and valued. But when a leader needs to make a difficult decision, they also need to provide a clear and honest explanation for it. Share the rationale behind the decision and how it aligns with the organization’s goals. Teams need to be aligned on goals and that comes with a leader who has created a safe environment for disagreement to happen.
How would you differentiate between empathy and sympathy in leadership? Why is it important for leaders to distinguish between the two?
This is a great question. Empathetic leaders actively listen, validate the emotions and experiences of their team members, and seek to understand their points of view. They are looking to create a deeper connection, build trust, and foster an inclusive environment. Sympathetic leaders express feeling sorry for someone in a more detached manner. Sympathy, while well-intentioned, doesn’t lead to the same level of understanding and connection as empathy. A leader can come off as superficial or insincere if they lack trust by the individual or the team.
What are some practical strategies or exercises that leaders can employ to cultivate and enhance their empathetic skills?
There are a couple of things leaders can do to cultivate their empathy skills. First, leaning into both active and empathetic listening skills is a great start. Leaders can often feel like they need to be the loudest or first voice in the room. Making space for others and listening can change team dynamics for the better. Second, developing a coaching mindset is incredibly beneficial. By asking questions and not always offering answers, a leader can show they value the other person’s perspectives.
How can empathy help leaders navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensure inclusivity?
Empathy is a foundational skill for leaders when working with diverse teams. It helps leaders bridge gaps in understanding, foster inclusivity, and create an environment where every team member feels valued, respected, and heard.
What’s your approach to ensuring that succession planning is a holistic process, and not just confined to the top layers of management? How do you communicate this philosophy through the organization?
Is this question part of the interview? Happy to comment but it feels like it might be for another interview.
Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership”?
1 . Empathy allows leaders to connect with their team members on a deeper level. By understanding their emotions, needs, and concerns, you can build stronger, more authentic relationships. This fosters trust, loyalty, and a sense of camaraderie within the team.
2 . Empathetic leaders are better communicators. They can adapt their communication style to resonate with individual team members, ensuring that messages are better understood and received. This leads to more effective and productive interactions.
3 . Empathy encourages diversity of thought and perspectives. When leaders embrace and respect the backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives of their team members, they create an environment where innovative ideas grow. Empathic leaders create environments for risk-taking, creative problem-solving, and the exploration of new possibilities.
4 . Empathy is a needed skill for resolving conflicts. When leaders can empathize with the perspectives and emotions of those in conflict, they are better equipped to find common ground and foster a psychologically safe work environment.
5 . Empathy fosters a sense of connection. When people feel that their colleagues truly understand and care about their perspectives and emotions, they are more likely to form strong interpersonal bonds. This helps create a supportive and collaborative atmosphere within the team where members are known and feel valued.
Are there potential pitfalls or challenges associated with being an empathetic leader? How can these be addressed?
Leaders need to combine empathy with accountability. For example, when addressing performance issues, they should do so with sensitivity and provide constructive feedback that helps the employee improve. Empathy needs to be balanced with other leadership skills and self-care to mitigate potential challenges. Empathetic leaders can address these challenges by setting boundaries, making informed, balanced decisions, and ensuring they are consistent with all team members.
Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?
Now that I’m no longer sitting in leadership, this isn’t an issue for me.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I want organizations to think about critical leadership skills throughout the organization, not just at the top. Future leaders learn from others. But we often think that these skills are just picked up. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we intentionally created leaders before they were in leadership?
How can our readers further follow you online?
Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.
Susanne Carpenter Of Carpenter Leadership Consulting: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.