Developing empathy and why it’s OK not to have all the answers

Hosted by Neil Amato

Ginnie Carlier, CPA, EY's Americas vice chair for Talent, says that leadership's focus has expanded beyond four walls and into being understanding of employees' work and home lives. In this podcast episode, hear her thoughts on developing empathy, the importance of "office hours," and why a focus on well-being is growing in importance.

What you'll learn from this episode:

  • Why the pandemic has created "this massive blurring of lines."
  • How leaders can ensure that employees feel a sense of connection to their organization and their role.
  • The reason Carlier says that managers should announce that they have "office hours."
  • The ways that leaders can demonstrate "well-being actions."

Play the episode below or read the edited transcript:

To comment on this episode or to suggest an idea for another episode, contact Neil Amato at


Neil Amato: Welcome back to the Journal of Accountancy podcast. This is senior editor Neil Amato. Joining me on this episode is Ginnie Carlier. Ginnie is EY's Americas vice chair of Talent. Ginnie, thank you so much for being on the podcast.

Ginnie Carlier: Thanks for having me, Neil. Glad to be here.

Amato: We are going to talk about talent; that's obviously right up your alley. How would you say first that leadership skills, the ones needed now, have evolved as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Carlier: It's a great question because I think we're seeing, really corporate responsibility go through huge transformation now as a result of the pandemic. I love this quote of "What got you here, won't get you there." I think it's very true when it comes to leadership skills. If you think about pre-pandemic, leaders really had to be inspiring. They had to drive inclusion. They had to create this sense of belonging for their teams and their team members to thrive. That's still very, very true today. But the pre-pandemic was really around being within those four walls of the organization. It was really about focusing on what was happening at work. In the last 20 months, we've seen this massive blurring of lines.

I'm not even sure if there's a recognizable line anymore between work and home. I think the global pandemic and the social justice movement has really forced leaders to transform and think about how they're going to show up differently. We think about organizations, they're really needing to create this culture of care. If you look at research, you talk to your people, that's what they're looking for. They're looking to be heard.

They're looking to feel that sense of connection to the organization that they work for. In order to do that, leaders really have got to show that they're understanding, they're compassionate, they really believe in flexibility and being agile to a person's needs. Really what that boils down to is empathy. I think empathy is that secret sauce of creating that culture that's so important to the future workforce and really creating and earning that trust of your professionals and your talent so that they can bring their best self to work. It's changing from a sense that I think empathy is going to become a very key skill going forward for our leaders.

Amato: You mentioned those lines being blurred between home and work, when you're off, when you're on, all of that stuff. One effect of the pandemic has been an increased focus justifiably on employee well-being. From an organizational standpoint, what role can they play in supporting their people more?

Carlier: Well, I think as I said at the beginning, corporate America is going through a huge transformation right now. I personally feel that well-being and focusing on your people's well-being and their holistic well-being is critical. When you've got a human-focused or people-driven business like EY, where people are our No. 1 asset. I think about, human resiliency really drives business resiliency. If you think about it, the success of our business is really going to be driven by our people and their holistic well-being, that being physical, emotional, economic, social.

Our leaders need to recognize that that has to be a top priority. I think organizations need to be able to be willing to lean in, to understand what their people need. I think organizations need to be willing to pivot as those needs change. I think about at the beginning of the pandemic, it was really about us figuring out how could we get our people set up to feel supported from working from home? March of 2020, we had no idea that 20 months later we'd still be here.

It was all about how they feel supported working from home. Those benefits, those actions that we needed to take for our people, they had to evolve. We had to ask our people, "What do you need? Do you still need what we were giving you two months ago?" No. OK, we've got to be willing to pivot and really give them what you need now for you and your family.

I think that's another thing that organizations need to recognize about the well-being of their people is that this isn't just about the professional. It's about their whole household. With people working from home and hybrid working being the way of the future, what happens in your professional's household is going to impact them. You need to think about how you're supporting not only them, but also their families.

Again, I think that goes back to empathy really being a key skill for our leaders, so that they feel empowered to be able to have those conversations that they weren't comfortable having two years ago. Well-being, when I think about our way of working and how we're focused on our way of working post the pandemic, we have very much stressed that well-being of our people needs to be at the center of that way of working.

Amato: One way to support people is to have those uncomfortable conversations, including on topics such as inclusion and belonging. They're not always easy. What are some of the skills, what are some of the questions maybe that leaders need to ask to make sure they're being inclusive?

Carlier: I think a couple of things that we've talked to our leaders about. I think it's part creating that environment where leaders feel comfortable and know that it's OK not to have all the answers. We've encouraged our leaders, especially last summer when we were going through a summer of 2020, when the social justice movement really started to take effect in the U.S.

Leaders were wanting to lean in more to understand, to create that awareness. We encouraged our leaders, don't wait, be willing to have those informal discussions. Check your bias at the door. It's OK if you have a difference of opinion. It's OK to also say, I don't know, help me to understand. I think there's a big part of that continuous encouragement.

I also do think organizations need to be accountable to help change or to drive learnings and educations for their leaders. I think about a lot of leaders are asking, I want to do this. I want to continue to drive this sense of belonging because I know how important it is to our business. But how do I do it in this hybrid environment? How do I do it when everyone's working virtual? So we started to look at our learnings around building relationships in a hybrid or virtual environment.

How do you strengthen teams? How do you empower your people to take ownership of their career and be willing to stand up and talk about what's important to them? I think it's just part this continuous encouragement that is OK not to have all the answers. Bringing some of the best practices that our leaders have implemented around engaging with their teams. But then I also do think organizations have to step up and think about their learnings from the past. Are they still applicable? Or do we need to evolve the way we train our leaders to be more inclusive?

Amato: In an EY study before the pandemic, employees felt the greatest sense of belonging when colleagues checked in with them individually. It's obviously safe to say that that need, that sentiment has probably grown in the years since the survey, which was in 2019. What are the elements of an effective check-in with a co-worker or direct report?

Carlier: This is very true. I mean, not only has it been our research, but there has been a number of research studies that I've read around this. It goes back to some of the things I was just talking about. It's very simple. Do not wait. Create a means to have those informal and private connections. Many of our leaders, we just suggested to them, advertise that you have open office hours where someone from your team can book time with you to talk about whatever is important to them.

I think it's again, making sure that you're not afraid to share your point of view and you're not offended by the point of view that's shared with you. Making sure you're checking those biases at the door. I also think it's about — I always say see below the surface, make sure you're understanding what the person is truly trying to communicate to you.

As leaders, sometimes we want to fix things and we want to have all the answers. When you go into those conversations, I think it's really important to make sure you're pausing and realizing you may not have the answer to their question. But you want to hear their perspective. You want to listen to them. Then you want to work with them to figure out what it is they need and how you can help them. Realize that it's OK not to have an answer before they leave the meeting.

I think vulnerability is key. That's a huge factor in being an empathetic leader, your willingness to be vulnerable. It sounds simple, but I think, before the pandemic, like I said, we really operated in those four walls. As leaders, we had experiences within those four walls that we could lean back on and pull from when we gave answers. A lot of us were getting through this for the first time together. I think that's another important thing for our leaders to understand is that we're all in this together and we're just step-by-step working through some of these things.

Amato: How can someone develop empathy as a leader? Do you have it and have to learn it, or what do you have to say about that?

Carlier: I do think that it is like any skill. It takes practice, and you continue to practice it. I think a couple of things is that I try to encourage leaders, when you have meaningful conversations, don't think it's one and done. That you need to be willing to be proactive in having multiple conversations with team members in your team. Recognize that you want to proactively help a person reach their goals and their aspirations. If someone is willing to take the time to set up a meeting with you to share with them and be vulnerable about what's important to them personally and professionally, then as a leader, you need to take that seriously and you need to do what you can to help proactively address those goals and aspirations.

Again, be intentional about the fact that you want an opportunity to connect with your people. Enjoying simple things by advertising blocked office hours tells your team members that you mean that you want to talk to them, that you're being intentional, that it is important for you to make that connection. Then I just want to go back to well-being for a second because I think well-being is so much at the center of how people can react to stress. Allowing people, giving them that foundation to show up every day and demonstrate their best selves at work. I think as a leader, you need to demonstrate those well-being actions.

Now, it's one thing to encourage your teams and tell them it's important, but you've got to openly talk about how well-being is important to you as a leader and what you're doing to continuously strengthen your physical and your emotional and your financial and social well-being. It's really about walking the talk in that regard. I think about organizations and what they can do to really show that well-being is important. I think it's demonstrating that it's not just programmatic, it's not just about what benefits that you can provide to your people or what tools or resources or apps that you might give them. It's also showing that you are helping drive the actions of your leaders and you are facilitating and then building their skills to be a leader that is very much focused on their holistic selves.

Amato: Ginnie, thank you so much for being on today. Do you have anything you'd like to add in closing?

Carlier: I think it's really important, and I say this to leaders often when we have conversations because I'm learning from every survey, every one-on-one conversation, every discussion I have with leaders, I'm learning as well. I just think, again, don't be afraid when someone says lean in and be empathetic because I know that that can be a little uncomfortable, especially when you think about really how we led before the pandemic. But just continue to take the time to make the effort. People want to work for an organization where they feel heard, where they feel cared for, where their families feel cared for. Every day, taking that step towards developing your skills as an empathetic leader is only going to be best for you, for your teams, and for the organization.

Amato: Again, that was CPA Ginnie Carlier of EY. We appreciate her time and insight, and we appreciate you, the listener, tuning in for this episode of the Journal of Accountancy podcast.