Ask Me Anything

Empathetic leadership with Gautham Pallapa, Global CTO at VMware


March 18, 2021
min read
An image of Gautham Pallapa, Global CTO of VMware

Gautham Pallapa has been Global CTO of VMware for over 2 years, overseeing successful growth into the rapidly expanding multi-cloud management space. He has a mantra: "Transform with Empathy."

This AMA was edited for brevity

Gautham Pallapa has been Global CTO of VMware for over 2 years, overseeing successful growth into the rapidly expanding multi-cloud management space. He has a mantra: "Transform with Empathy."

Ahead of the upcoming launch of his book, Lead With Empathy, Gautham joined us for an ask-me-anything with Pulse Product Manager Lisa Peng.

You don't want to have egos. It's not about you, it's about your teams.

How do I know if I’m an empathetic leader? 

In order to be an empathic leader, the first thing you need to do is be vulnerable. That is one of the things that I always encourage my leaders to do. You don't want to have egos. It's not about you, it's about your teams. Your success is measured as a function of their success. 

Empathic leaders also make an effort to be approachable. There's a lot of positive chemical interactions that occur when you're approachable. That helps reduce the stress level and improves empathy within the organization. In this digital age, you can drop in randomly. You have several apps to do that, dropping in on channels, on any of the meetings, and so on.

Be attentive. People who approach you and ask you for your time, it's tough for them to express the pain and suffering they're going through because they have to be vulnerable themselves, and they have to be able to open up. When someone comes and talks to you, and this is something I tell my teams, you need to respect that. You need to hold their trust, you need to keep it confidential, and at the same time, don't get distracted. Just because they're not talking about you and it's not important to you doesn't mean that you can be working on something else or texting on your phone or something. Give 100% of your attention.

Be appreciative. It's something simple, but not a lot of people truly understand that. I've been in some toxic organizations where open criticism was common, especially getting berated in a hallway, which is very, very stressful. Appreciate in public, give feedback in private. No one comes into work or logs into work, saying I'm going to do a sucky job today. There's always a reason, so don't be overly critical or emotional when one of these events happens. Try to dig deep and put yourself in their shoes and figure out why that happened. 

Be helpful. This is especially true with compassionate empathy, which means that you are going to show empathy through your actions. When you're saying that you will do something empathic and you make sure that your say-to-do ratio is as close to 1 as possible, that's how you build trust. 

What inspired you to write your book on empathic leadership?

Empathy has become so important right now, at least in my mind, because of the pandemic’s effects on our hierarchy of needs, as Abraham Maslow stated. It really shook the foundation of our physiological safety, our love and belongings, and our interactions with people, so suddenly, we started feeling impacted by these things and had increased stress and anxiety in our lives. As part of this book, I'm collecting many stories and exploring all the adversity that the pandemic produced: the unemployment, the BLM riots, the inequalities, people suddenly losing their identities of going to an office. Everything just became revolved around the house with shelter in place, and it causes a lot of stress and strain upon humans. There are so many stories of pain and suffering in this world and true stories of people going above and beyond and being empathic in these times. It's very heartwarming to see how much humans have stepped up and demonstrated empathy. 

What metrics can hold leaders accountable for being empathetic leaders?

You can measure this in many ways. Here are some tactical or operational approaches. The first one you can do is conduct an employee NPS survey to figure out where they're at. Or have a very bespoke survey to your organizational culture, asking about pain points, the things that are hurting people, or causing stress and anxiety within their life, day to day. 

While it's easy to claim that your success is dependent on your team's success, you want to make it much more quantifiable, and by that, I mean try to measure success in that way. Change the MBOs, the management by objectives, and OKRs to reflect that. Ensure that your OKRs are measured by the team’s OKRs or the OKRs of the company. Have a happiness index as part of it, have an EMBS. Start embodying empathy and collaboration. Try to measure how many cross-team projects that you were able to spearhead within the team. 

And you can measure your personal success in empathic leadership quantifiably as your day goes. As you reflect over your day, you can think about your actions and interactions with people and see, did you do an okay job? Were you empathic enough?

How can organizations tackle meeting sprawl in the WFH environment?

You first have to measure the sprawl, and then try to introduce new steps to reduce the number of meetings. First, ask the question: is this meeting really necessary? Sometimes it becomes straightforward to talk to someone rather than send an asynchronous communication, but ask yourself, do you really need this meeting? If it's a decision-making item, just have a vote on Slack. Send a project status in a similar way, asynchronously works out pretty fine. We don't have to have a meeting where people project and talk. 

And when you do need a meeting, have smarter and shorter meetings. It allows people to context switch and get up and move, and you really need to do that. You can't spend so many hours stuck in one place. That's not healthy for us. Empower people to decline a meeting. If there is a meeting invite without a clear agenda or expectations included, I've empowered all my teams to decline the meeting. We've had fewer meetings, we've had smarter meetings, and we've had much more crisp, outcome-driven meetings out of this. This is something super operational and extremely specific that you can do and see how it works within your organization.

How do we make meetings smarter?

I have this particular methodology called a POWER start for a meeting. The meeting agenda or invite must include: purpose, outcomes, what's in it for me (or the value that someone will get out of the meeting), how to engage within the meeting, and the roles and responsibilities. I empower people to decline meetings because every meeting invite should tell the person what the purpose is and what value they will get out of that particular meeting by attending. The roles and responsibilities are made very clear. For each outcome or decision, we identify the people who need to make the decision or what information is required, and all this comes within the agenda or as a prep in the meeting invite.

Many people have everyone and anyone included in the meeting. We try to make it very crisp. If you're invited directly, that means you're a decision-maker or have an outcome that has to be delivered. That means you need to prep for it; you need to have information. If you're an optional or the invite was just forwarded to you, then it just means that it's informational or something that you will probably be interested in, but you're not expected to make a decision or come with some information there. So we give them an opportunity to pick and choose, depending upon whether they're in the directly invited group or the optional field. We do this pretty strictly in our teams.

You should always follow up with a post or expectation in your asynchronous communication channel outlining the people, your expectation, and the outcomes once you send the meeting invite. That way, attendees get much more prepared. They're aware of what is required, and if they're not able to give that information, they can communicate and explain upfront. That increases the transparency and visibility to the organization. It becomes more tactical. Or they can say they need more time, which is perfectly okay. There are several other techniques that you can use, but this is one that I've found valuable.

When you reduce the number of meetings and make them smarter, you have crisper meetings and get to the outcomes quicker. You must get to the outcomes in the meeting; otherwise, that meeting has failed.

“When you reduce the number of meetings, and you make them smarter [. . .] you get to the outcomes quicker. You must get to the outcomes in the meeting; otherwise, that meeting has failed.”

On days when you’re feeling sad or just off, how do you show up to work with energy and empathy?  

On those days, the essential thing is you have stress and anxiety within your body, which is preventing you from being productive. When you have stress, your body releases cortisol, norepinephrine, and adrenaline. These things act as inhibitors for your secondary functions, and they focus only on your fight or flight. You're geared towards that. You're looking for any unsafe or dangerous situation all around you, and that's how you are operating.

Luckily for us, nature has developed these happy chemicals that help us. Dopamine gives you that burst of accomplishment when you achieve something or accomplish something. Oxytocin is that love chemical—Trust and bonding and all that warmth that comes with it. Serotonin is a leadership hormone that enhances your feeling of pride when someone acknowledges or appreciates something that you did. And then you have endorphins, which are going to push you. This is that second wind that you get. So those are called happy chemicals: dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, and endorphins. Your goal is to dose yourself with those happy chemicals as much as possible. And there are easy ways to do it. 

The simplest way is you do a Gemba walk: A leader walks all around the warehouse floor or the platform floor trying to talk to people, getting information and value out of observing and interacting with people. I used to walk all over the building, talk to people. When we are back in the office, go around, talk to people, high five with people, you'll feel better. Encourage them, have a smile, walk around and laugh, and share a joke with someone. It will lift you up. Their laughing will increase oxytocin and serotonin within your body. The other part of the Gemba walk that helps is physical exercise. So even though you are working from home, go for a walk, go for a swim, take your dog out for a walk, hit the treadmill or your bike. Exercise helps with all of these happy chemicals and changes your mood. 

Perform a random act of kindness. That's such a huge mood booster. When you're waiting for coffee in a drive-through, just pay for someone behind you. It gives that dopamine because you accomplished something, and then it gives you serotonin and oxytocin because you know that the other person will be appreciative of it. That will really change your mood, and it will make you feel better.

And then try to control your emotional hijacking. Let's say that you realize that you're in a bad mood, or you've had a really terrible day. Take some time to reflect upon it and think calmly: did you really have a bad day, or did a few bad minutes spoil and hijack your entire day? Which of them is it? You start thinking about it, and you realize that life is not that bad. You have a job. You have heat, and you have a home—there are many people who do not, so you're not in a bad place compared to many other people in the world right now. Counting your blessings will actually improve your mood.

"When you are having a bad day, pause and reflect [. . .], Are you really having a bad day, or did a few bad minutes spoil and hijack your entire day?"

And if all of these don't help, there's a simple exercise that I can share. Go to a calm place, feel comfortable wherever you are, close your eyes, take three deep breaths, and then think of one happy moment in your past. And while you're closing your eyes, explore that emotion again. What did you feel at that time? How proud were you? Why were you proud? What made the people around you proud? What were the smells at that time? What were the sounds that you heard then? Go in deep, and you'll start feeling warm. Allow that warmth to spread all through your body, all the way down to your extremities and your fingertips. Let that warmth embrace you, and cushion you and cocoon you, and then open your eyes. I'm sure that you will feel a little better.

Why do some leaders push back against empathic leadership?

It has to do with how we've always viewed leadership. It comes more from a militaristic viewpoint where showing empathy or showing emotion of any kind within the professional workspace is considered a sign of weakness. In this rat race of enterprise, they don't want to show that weakness. You're supposed to have that artificial façade or a mask as soon as you go into your workplace. This is enforced more in toxic cultures and in power-oriented, pathological cultures. You have to be two different identities: your personal life versus your professional life.

The next pushback is that organizational goals do not permit some people to be empathic. But I've found it's quite the contrary. One of my primary beliefs is that happy people are productive people. If people are happy, they have more trust, and they have more psychological safety. Because they have more psychological safety, they're able to innovate more, they're able to take more risks, they're able to experiment, they're okay to fail, and because of that, you have much more productivity. So while I understand the pushback that says the metrics do not allow for empathy, it's like an investment. You're investing in your organizations to be much more productive. Don't confuse your short-term gains with your long-term goals.

Then the third one is a cognitive bias. Many people think that failure and the reason other people are suffering when they're under stress is because they don't know how to handle it. So they feel that if they would have worked harder, then they wouldn't have all this stress. And so they think, “what do you mean this deadline is not realistic? Of course, you can do it. If in my hypothetical mind, I can do it in six hours, so you should be able to do it in four.” Well, cognitive bias kicks in and prevents people from embracing that their own thoughts and biases are wrong.

Dehumanization is another one. This is especially in enterprises. People are not treated as people; they automatically become employee IDs and team members or assigned labels like dev or test or design. Humanization goes away. It's probably essential at a team level, but it has to be abstract in a way at a leadership level. So that's another pushback.

Frankly, empathy takes a lot of work. Many leaders are of a type-A personality. They’re ambitious, aggressive, want to move forward, want to act, and want to do something, and it's mostly about what they want to do as a type-A leader. The people who push back are usually these kinds of type A leaders, and they don't like to A) drop their ego and think about someone else, or B) try to extend themselves and spend all that energy trying to connect with someone genuinely, because that takes a lot of work. So some people who want to be empathic get burnt out as a result of it.

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