The past two years have been a balancing act of “firsts”—from ensuring business continuity, to supporting employees’ evolving needs, to managing personal life changes, and more. Inevitably, the lines of home and work have intersected in ways we could’ve never imagined—and with that, the very nature of leadership has changed.
When I reflect on my own leadership path, I think back to early 2020 when I was starting a new role as Workday’s first-ever chief customer officer. At the time, we were looking to tackle ambitious goals based on more traditional customer interactions, but very quickly, we realized that our customer experience needed to embody much more than face-to-face collaboration.
Not long after I became chief customer officer, I learned that success hinges on navigating unforeseen challenges, while staying true to life’s many intersections—consistently honoring the different pieces that make us who we are and shape how we show up in all aspects of life. At the start of the pandemic, my team and I were responsible for helping customers—many on the front lines—respond and adapt to the quickly changing environment around all of us. At the same time, at home, I was personally balancing being a working mother of four, and helping take care of my mother, who had to practice social distancing in an assisted living facility during a time when she needed family the most.
Caring for her made an everlasting impact on me. Five years ago, we moved my mother off her Kentucky farm into an assisted living apartment near my home. While she always enjoyed visiting my family, her four grandkids, and our variety of pets, she never intended to leave her farm, and doing so broke her heart, even though we knew it was the best option for her. When the pandemic hit, it complicated things further—no meals in the dining hall with her friends, no bus trips to the horse track, no Sunday dinners with family. My mother was confined to her one-bedroom apartment, and I could see her spirit and her health slipping away. Unfortunately, her health continued to decline, and she passed away earlier this year.
During this time, I found myself at a crossroads, asking myself questions like, “How can I show up for my team every day, while also showing up for my family?” I quickly learned the importance of compartmentalization and the need to stay true to all of life’s many intersections—as a mother, a daughter, a team leader, and so much more. It also made me realize that we are all navigating life’s complexities in new and different ways.
As a result, I’ve leaned closely on the following guiding principles to help inspire my actions and how I show up every day for myself and for others:
Put yourself in others’ shoes
The ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes is one of the most important leadership qualities, yet inherently one of the hardest skills to teach. As someone who spent most of my career in customer-focused roles, this lesson rang true earlier in my career, when I moved away from the “front line” and into a corporate role for the first time. After working closely with my corporate counterparts, I quickly learned and understood the complexities, challenges, and nuances that they faced—and when I returned to the field, I was able to better empathize and guide my frontline teams so both sides could work together more cohesively.
Still today, whether I’m helping employees navigate their own work/life challenges or managing situations with customers, I rely on empathy to help guide my interactions. We are all dealing with so much in our lives, and it can be easy to turn inwards. But we must remember that the rewards of empathy are unparalleled.
Have an open dialogue
It’s also about appreciating the nuances of communication. Of course, any solid communication guide talks about being clear, concise, using the right tools, etc. While all of those are very important, authentic and intentional communication not only improves team dynamics and performance but also creates a different relationship. For example, when you are authentic and open with customers, you show up without pretenses, you show up to collectively solve the issue at hand, not with the solution in your mind. In the workplace, when a leadership team demonstrates authenticity, it opens the door to their team to feel comfortable in showing up as they truly are. And wow…Having three teenage girls at home, there is nothing more important to me than helping them feel comfortable in their skin, and owning who they are across the spectrum of all the beautiful things that make them unique.
As previously mentioned, everyone is living complex lives and has their own intersections to consider. Two-way communication means not making assumptions about people and what they are feeling. It means truly listening to the individual needs of others, engaging in a conversation, and then taking action in a way that best supports them. For example, I often get asked how Workday maintains such a high customer satisfaction rating (it’s been over 95% for more than a decade now, according to our annual internal surveys): “Do you just say ‘yes’ to everything?” First off, our culture and core values continue to keep us grounded in what matters most and enable us to sustain the right vision for our employees and our customers. At the next level down, we are responsive, and we listen intently to our customers. We say “yes” when we can, but when we can’t, we are transparent in explaining exactly why, while working really hard to try and meet them in the middle.
Be kind to yourself
I think we can all agree it’s easier said than done and that oftentimes, we’re our own worst critics. But in a time of so much change, it’s important we give ourselves a break. As a working—and often traveling—mother of four, I often feel there’s something I’m not doing well enough. That feeling was amplified during the pandemic. Was I helping my kids enough? Was I seeing my mother enough? Was I supporting my team enough? At the end of the day, it’s impossible to be 100% on everything all the time.
With that in mind, I’ve learned it’s important to not be so hard on yourself in tough situations. It’s easier said than done, but for me I try and focus on the things I can control: “Eat well. Drink water. Work out. Read. Sleep.” Coming back to these simple steps is how I stay kind to myself, and how I ensure I’m at my best for those around me too.
Capture the magic
We have all done our best to navigate life’s dynamics over the past two years. Whether they’re working on the front lines, caring for a loved one, or feeling isolated at times, I hope these guiding principles can help others see through what lies ahead. Over the past two years, there have been many moments of inspiring innovation and comradery. My hope is that we can capture the magic of how we have all come together with a sense of urgency—but most importantly to support one another—to drive change and make a difference in our own lives and those of others.
Emily McEvilly is the chief customer officer of Workday.
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