An HR Lesson for CEOs: The Need for Compassion and Empathy

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A reader wrote, “I am exhausted. I feel like I am chasing a speeding train alone and on foot. Are there CEOs who care about their employees?”

I received this question the same day I watched a LinkedIn video from Mike Zani, CEO of Predictive Index (PI). He explained that on April 2, he and his executive team had made the difficult decision to let 59 of their employees go.  One can only imagine that a leader of an organization committed to talent optimization would have worked tirelessly to hire the “perfect” people for their growing company.  When an individual explains his role as, “I get to lead some of the most amazing people in the world. They make coming to work energizing,” letting anyone go would weigh heavily.

Shortly after his first post, Mike again posted on LinkedIn, following up on the layoff announcement. Several of those laid off from the Predictive Index wrote to thank Mike for his support, transparency, and commitment to excellence for the company they had only recently departed.  However, another individual (we’ll call him Joe since his name is unknown and not affiliated with PI) had written to him privately.  His message was acerbic: “If you can sit in a room and make decisions about the futures of others, then you should sacrifice your job too. Please spare me the ‘it’s no fault of their own’ bull … I heard the same excuse.”

Zani wrote, “See, this individual’s company had laid him off and told him it was no fault of his own. But he wasn’t buying it. He felt his company wanted to save money by outsourcing jobs, his included. And that’s how I found myself on the receiving end of some major displaced anger.”  He continued: “My LinkedIn post (about our RIF) had triggered him — especially the “no fault of their own” part. Some person I had never met in life or online sent me a scathing email...and he had a point. Executives - make sure you do the right thing by your people.”

READ: The State of Mental Health and the Workplace

I was genuinely intrigued. I wanted to hear more from Mike about why he shared these posts.  During our hour-long conversation, Mike admitted that he was glad that this person’s challenge had been sent in private. He acknowledged that had the comment been sent publicly, this exchange had the potential to become a Twitter war. Receiving the message privately allowed him to reflect, consider the message more calmly, and even afforded him an opportunity to learn more about the individual who wrote so scathingly (a talented but angry person). 

Mike Zani reflected on “Joe’s” situation.

“I had to listen, I have the luxury of listening. Yet as CEO, I don’t always have to, and I’m not always good at it,” Zani said.

After a period of Mike’s self-examination, the exchange continued and then ended on an amazing turnaround note. “Joe” wrote: “Thanks, Mike, I really appreciate it, and I apologize. I’m just venting a little. This whole ordeal blindsided me… I’ve just been bitter and angry about it.”

During our discussion, Mike offered a crucial perspective on his job. He loves what he does and considers himself fortunate to have such a great job. He also noted, though, it can be a very lonely role.

“The person yelling at me through his note had a right to yell. He didn’t understand how lonely a job I have some days. Yet, how hard is it to be him? I decided I would not fight back,” Zani said.

The process of surgically revising a strategy built on continued growth resulting in headcount reduction necessitated a careful evaluation of what to stop doing (including pet projects – nothing was off the table). Mike explained the strategy reset path. He and his co-CEO took 100% pay cuts the month before the layoffs. Others within the management rank also absorbed graduated pay cuts. Those who earned more gave up more. They re-imagined sales, rewrote job descriptions, restructured, and redesigned the organization. They retrained a couple of people in sales to become coders, saving thirty positions through these efforts.

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This process of addressing the economic conditions required “a giant exercise in talent optimization.” Mike was quick to add that he has great counsel from Predictive’s SVP, Talent Optimization, Jackie Dube. He was very complimentary of her work and noted her essential role on the leadership team.

What did I learn from this interview with a CEO who stood up and leaned into tough decisions? Here are the key takeaways:

  • Leaders demonstrating emotional intelligence (EQ) listen, learn, and allow themselves the opportunity for standing in the shoes of others. EQ is essential!
  • Leadership can be an isolating experience, and not just for the CEO. Friends and colleagues often report that when leading Human Resources, you’re on many people’s “least favorite list.” 
  • Leadership roles often require actions, decisions, and midcourse corrections, which incite anger. Leaders must communicate carefully and empathetically, even when they don’t deserve someone’s ire.
  • And finally, as Mike Zani noted, “We should all respond to anger with kindness.”

So to the reader who asked, if there are CEOs who care, Mike Zani’s name certainly would be on that list. He stated, “I really care about people and their work.”

Always remember to learn something new every day. And offer kindness wherever and whenever possible.