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Facebook’s Carolyn Everson: Why enlightened leadership is effective leadership

February 10, 2021, 6:30 PM UTC
Carolyn Everson at the 2019 Makers Conference. “Amid this pandemic or any moment of crisis, leaders just need to accept people will need more of them,” Everson writes.
Patrick T. Fallon—Bloomberg/Getty Images

If you had met me a decade ago and told me that one day I’d be up on a stage talking to my colleagues about the devastation I’d felt when my dad died—and how I was in therapy to deal with it—I would not have believed you. 

I would not have believed I’d be willing to share my performance reviews—the good, the bad, and the ugly—for every person at my company to see. Or that I’d reveal my experience founding Pets.com, which was one of the most iconic failures of the dotcom era and a longtime source of deep, hidden shame.

But I have done all these things in recent years, as I practiced the gospel of vulnerability that I was preaching to the 4,000-person Global Business Group team I lead at Facebook. And the worse 2020 got, the more compelled I felt to open up. 

I felt anxious, isolated, and hungry for more human connection—and so did most everyone else. Why hide it? 

Each time I opened up, the response from my colleagues was electric. The emails, posts, calls, and thank-yous were overwhelming—and so too was the willingness of people to share their own vulnerabilities, in turn. I can’t overstate how much camaraderie and genuine affection this has built among my team.

I also can’t help but think how transformative it could be for other leaders to have the same experience.

I went to business school 20 years ago. Like everyone else, I had the principles and practices of effective leadership (measured primarily by hard performance and financial metrics) drilled into me. But I never read much about enlightened leadership, which I define as embracing and exhibiting the qualities—like vulnerability, empathy, and generosity—that make us inherently human. 

I always wondered why, because every good leader I worked for had these traits, while most of the bad ones did not. It seemed important even if it wasn’t in my management textbooks. But an overwhelming body of research affirms what I have long believed but could never find the words or confidence to articulate:

Enlightened leadership is what employees want and what so many organizations need.

Professors Kim Cameron and Emma Seppälä previously summarized in Harvard Business Review the consensus that employees are more responsive to empathetic bosses. They demonstrated that bosses who are more generous with their time and willingness to help others lead to employees doing the same with their colleagues. And conversely, they reported that rigid hierarchies in which leaders rule by fear lead to a cascade of health problems for employees, increased absenteeism, mistakes, and disengagement, and, ultimately, decreased productivity, performance, and profits. 

The journey to being an enlightened leader is bumpy, and it has no end point. I still get it wrong all the time. If you try, I promise you will be humbled time and time again, as I was this past summer, when America, the world, and leaders of companies large and small once again had to confront the depths of racial injustice in our society. I have always seen myself as an empathetic person—the type who could say, “I know how you feel” and really believe it—but how could I possibly know what it felt like, as a white woman, to carry the weight so many of my Black colleagues and clients have carried for so long?

I don’t know how they feel. But I owe it to them to do more to try to understand, to hear their concerns, and to be a better ally in the fight for justice.

Sometimes enlightened leadership really is just about making the effort to understand and to be generous, especially with our time. 

In 2020, my team was dealing with stress from the pandemic, racial injustice, and an advertiser boycott launched in the summer that shook many of us to the core. Amid those challenging moments, which featured several difficult client calls that ended in tears, many people on our team just needed an outlet, a person to talk to and help think through what was happening and what this all meant. Being fully accessible, sharing vulnerabilities, and listening were key. And already I see the results, with colleagues who are more empathetic with one another, and the kind of team cohesiveness and resilience that will help us navigate whatever challenges 2021 has in store.

Amid this pandemic or any moment of crisis, leaders just need to accept people will need more of them. My advice: Err on the side of saying yes even if you think you can’t fit it into your schedule. Sometimes the people who least expect your time are the ones who benefit from it the most.

I have been struck lately that the people most thankful for my time are the ones who least expect it, like new or junior employees, a former colleague looking for work, or a coworker who needs to talk through a tough time. These meetings make me happy. They make the people I am meeting with happy.

And happy employees—for those of you wondering when I will connect all this touchy-feely stuff to effective leadership—are more productive. In fact, according to one study, businesses with happy employees outperform their stock-market peers by up to 3.8 percentage points a year. Good people led by good people leads to great results.

I think employee happiness is so integral to success that I’d like to see a day soon in which a Bloomberg terminal shows measures of employee happiness and corporate culture. After all, to quote the old business adage, “What gets measured, gets managed.”

If this sounds impossible or impractical, recall how many leaders and investors used to see corporate social responsibility programs as “add-ons, afterthoughts, or atonement for bad behavior,” in the words of University of Denver professor James O’Toole. But a decade ago, Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) metrics started appearing alongside traditional financial measures on Bloomberg terminals, and today, according to BlackRock and Bank of America, companies who embrace ESG best practices are performing better than those that don’t.  

I think happiness and corporate culture are every bit as important to company success. They should be measured accordingly.

Ultimately, enlightened leadership is such a proven driver of employee happiness, I hope more leaders will invest the effort to just be full human beings in front of the people they aspire to lead. 

We teach leaders from an early age that they’re supposed to have all the answers and to keep it all together, all the time. 

But no one has it all together right now. I certainly don’t.

We shouldn’t be afraid to admit that and to show it. We shouldn’t be afraid to show our people who we really are. And we should invest the time and energy to really understand:

How do they feel?

Carolyn Everson is vice president, Global Business Group at Facebook.

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