How to Lead With Compassion and Empathy

Show that as a leader, you understand that there’s more to an agent or employee than what they bring to the table for your brokerage.
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Each week, Nancy Marshall, CEO and founder of Marshall Communications in Augusta, Maine, checks in via Zoom with her seven employees.

“It’s where we discuss something positive that has happened in the last week,” says Marshall. “It makes a world of difference in managing people to understand their life—not just how they are approaching their job.”

She believes that the pandemic spotlighted the need for leaders to show more compassion and empathy. As entire systems of communication were broken down and replaced by Zoom, FaceTime, email and phone calls, leaders had to find new ways to foster authentic connections. Additionally, all facets of life—work, family, and mental and physical health—became enmeshed in a way that leaders could not ignore.

Marshall said that the call for more compassionate leadership was clear.  “People must deal with challenges each day. Life is just hard sometimes.”

Come From a Place of Authenticity

Christina Pappas, AHWD, C2EX, vice president of the Miami-based The Keyes Company, and her father, Michael Pappas, CCIM, CRB, CEO and president, each write out birthday cards and anniversary cards to the more than 3,000 agents and staff members each year.

“My father writes the birthday cards, and I write the anniversary cards,” she says. “We’ve had people say to us that it’s the only birthday card they got.”

They’re no stranger to bigger displays of compassion, either. When the husband of one of the Pappases’ general managers died, they told her to take six months off.

“Our people are not OK when something like that happens to them. If we don’t care for them as a human first, they won’t want to work for us,” she says. “You create loyalty. You take food to the family. You go to the funeral, and you are just there for them.”

Christina Pappas isn’t into showing compassion simply to keep her employees and agents, though. She genuinely cares about the people who work with her. For her, showing compassion means taking the time to understand who someone is and where they’re coming from in a given situation. It’s about putting oneself in the shoes of another. 

“It’s about asking questions. It’s not that hard if you are genuinely interested in people,” she says. “People love talking about themselves. They will open up.”

Small Acts Go a Long Way

Marshall makes it a point to get to know a little about who her employees are outside of work.

She has one employee that lives on an apple orchard and is very involved with the operation, for example. This particular employee loves being out in the orchard and taking part in nature.

“Before we launch into business at a meeting, I ask her if she’d seen anything interesting on the orchard that weekend,” Marshall says. This is one way in which Marshall shows that she’s invested in the relationship past the business side of things. “If you show that you care, it causes them to be so much more loyal and to trust you. It’s a human relationship.”

Marshall says her mother, a former preschool teacher,  was an important influence, helping to instill what compassionate leadership looked like. She encouraged her daughter to learn other people’s names and to use them.

 “When you learn someone’s name, they realize you honor them and took the time to learn their name,” she says. She makes it a point to use people’s names when she speaks with them.

One of Marshall’s favorite quotes comes from the famous poet and activist Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Marshall takes that idea to heart and ensures that when she’s interacting with those she leads, she’s showing genuine interest and concern.

“When you listen to someone intently and use eye contact, whether on Zoom or in person, it shows that you care,” she comments.

She attributes the long-term success of her public relations firm, which she started in 1991, to these concepts, which she’s used with consistency to create a culture of compassion and care.

Start With Listening, Follow Up With Acknowledgement

For Kendyl Young, broker-owner of Diggs in Glendale, Calif., the easiest and most effective way to show empathy is by listening. True listening, she says, starts with bringing yourself out of your own bubble and fully engaging in the moment, which can be difficult.

“By the time we see our first agent or staff person during the morning, we’ve already put in a full day’s work,” she says.

In addition to managing her brokerage, she’s also managing partner of ADU Diggs and founder of Kendyl Young Consulting. Like many leaders, Young is wired for the grind. In order to be able to relate to her agents and employees, Young says, she has to take a step back and remember that her reality isn’t the same as those around her. It’s her job to help those around her solve problems and live up to their potential.

She starts by creating space for authentic conversations. When she asks someone how they’re doing, she really wants to know and gives people the space to answer with honesty. Sometimes, that means what started with—“How are you?”—might turn into an hour-long conversation, and she’s OK with that. The goal, she said, is to help those who work for her move forward on their dreams.

Listening isn’t relegated to what’s being said in a conversation, Young says. It’s also paying attention to what’s going on around you and with those who work with you. Sometimes it means initiating conversations. You let them know you are there for them when they’re struggling and when they’re doing well. Acknowledgement goes a long way.

It's also important to listen for and celebrate the triumphs. If someone is doing really well in sales, let them know you are impressed with their fortitude and everything else that got them there, Young says.

“You can also acknowledge the person they have become,” she adds. “Accomplishment only lasts a few seconds.”

In this changing market, compassion and empathy are more important than ever, Young says. She thinks that agents will feel intimidated by how hard the market might become for them. The market moved quickly over the past few years, and many agents were making tons of money. Now that activity has slowed, agents are looking around and wondering how to handle the shift. That’s where compassionate leadership can make a big difference.

“What people need now is understanding,” Young says. “They need someone who has been through this before. You need to help them move forward. It’s scary out there. They want someone who can give them truth of what they should do next.”