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When reflecting on what got us to our 60th anniversary, we often look first at the newsworthy milestones that helped get us here. However, giving ourselves the entire year to celebrate has inspired us to look closer at the intangible pieces of our identity that have fueled our culture, client relationships and results.  

Over the years, we’ve embraced our core value of Empathy as the superpower that gives each other and ourselves more room to simply be human and, in turn, grow to new heights.   

Franco Senior Vice President Nikki Little leads with empathy and has dedicated years to learning about emotional intelligence and its impact in the workplace. Read on as she explains how empathy helped shape our agency, as well as her own leadership style, career progression and problem-solving abilities. 

From your unique perspective, how has Empathy as a core value helped shape Franco into the agency it is today?  

To give a little more context to our Empathy core value, we view empathy as the ability to listen and consider others’ thoughts and feelings (appreciating their perspective) without passing judgment and before taking any action. Empathy is a key component of any leadership role at Franco. We actually aim to have empathy trickle down to every person on our team, no matter their level or years of experience.  

Empathy is woven into the “people powered” part of the Franco difference. It means we care. We care about each other. We care about our work and our clients. And we care about our community. We give each other grace. We’re all human, and we all make mistakes. Having empathy as a core value means we support each other through challenges and emphasize the importance of reflection and learning.  

I truly believe our culture of caring and empathy aids in our team members building strong relationships with each other and our clients, which then results in stellar work and professional/personal growth.  

How does Empathy influence your leadership style and interactions with your teams?  

There is a difference between a manager and a leader, and I believe empathy plays an important role in that difference. My goal is to understand how the people I directly manage are wired, which goes much deeper than knowing the type of work they enjoy doing, where they want to go with their career and their management style preferences.  

Team members at Franco take the DiSC assessment, which is very insightful for understanding the best way to work together based on each person’s unique style and associated profile. I take it a step further with the team members I manage and ask them to choose their top two core values from BrenéBrown’s list of values in her Dare to Lead book (my two are well-being and gratitude).  

Using me as an example, I report directly to our CEO Tina Kozak. She knows well-being is one of my core values. If I’m going through something challenging, the first thing she can ask is if my well-being is being compromised in any way (she has done this!). If it is, she shows empathy and understanding and helps me work through the situation because she truly gets me.  

Using a combination of the DiSC profile and personal core values, when I truly know my team members, I’m more in tune to their emotions, including what they may be thinking and/or feeling…and maybe not always saying.  

My team members know I have their back, but I also balance empathy and caring with clear communication/expectations and direct feedback if there’s an opportunity for them to improve.  

I’m paraphrasing this, but Maya Angelou is quoted as saying “When you know better, you do better.” This can be related to empathy as a leadership style.  

In what ways do you think Empathy helps you be a more effective communicator? 

Showing care and empathy toward team members leads to trust, which leads to better communication. When there is trust and openness between two people, it’s much easier to have effective conversations. This is critical for our roles as communicators, but I’d argue it’s critical for any role in any industry.  

When I started in the industry 17 years ago, empathy wasn’t as prevalent. It was actually controversial. I’m grateful to have worked with some empathetic leaders, and they taught me the importance of giving people grace and not judging or assuming based on what’s only apparent on the surface.  

It’s encouraging to see that dozens of studies from the past several years are proving empathy in the workplace is not a weakness – it’s a superpower. I love these lines from a recent Harvard Business Review article about empathy:  

“Employees are more satisfied in their jobs, more willing to take creative risks, and more likely to help their colleagues if they work in empathic organizations. They are far less likely to report severe burnout or to develop physical symptoms of stress and are more resilient in the face of adversity. They also tend to stay: A 2022 Gallup survey of more than 15,000 U.S. employees found that those with caring employers were far less likely than others to actively search for a new job.”  

Now, I realize showing empathy as a leader may not always result in great communication with team members. The team member must meet the leader in the middle. It can’t be one-sided. In my experience, a lack of empathy (on either side) often results in poor connection and communication between people.  

How has Empathy been crucial in navigating professional challenges? 

I mentioned the concept of giving grace, which is part of showing empathy. In any challenging situation (whether it’s with a client or team member), I always try to examine the situation and the facts before making any decisions or having further conversations.  

Particularly with clients, I remind my teams all the time that it’s often “bigger than us.” What I mean by that is sometimes we take the brunt of our clients’ stress. In my role on client programs, I’m looking at the bigger picture and tapping into my intuition to assess what may be causing challenges. If I know there is a lot of pressure behind the scenes that’s falling on our client, that can very likely be the cause of the pressure trickling down to us. With my team members, if I know someone is having a tough week because of a personal or professional situation, I lead with an empathy-first approach.  

This can get tricky, because there is such a thing as “empathy fatigue” with leaders who take on other people’s feelings, stress and emotions. It’s also important to ensure that empathy doesn’t cloud giving constructive feedback. Leaders must strike a balance because if empathy is always overpowering, then it can prevent important client and business decisions from being made.  

Nikki Little is a Senior Vice President at Franco. Connect with her on LinkedIn.