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Empathy is the key to successful leadership: Women in Leadership Forum

22 Oct 2020

Female life sciences leaders share their experiences and discuss the skills and attributes needed these days to become a successful leader and empower teams

In order to be successful, leaders in business need to display and exercise the key skill of empathy; that was the message of a recent Women in Leadership Forum at the CPhI Festival of Pharma virtual event.

The session, sponsored by Emergent BioSolutions, featured several women who currently work in the pharmaceutical sector sharing their own experiences and insights from their own careers.

“Good leaders refer to their teams as teams as every member is being part of being something together, it’s something collaborative and serving a bigger purpose,” said Catherine Hanley, Vice President, Marketing & Customer Experience, Emergent BioSolutions. “They look out for every team member; they mentor or coach rather than belittle and embarrass when something needs to change, and I believe great leaders truly enjoy that mentoring piece of their jobs.”

She added that in her view, the secret to a successful, productive team is for leaders to not enforce or micro-manage; and instead form a collaborative group with a shared understanding of mission, objectives and trust that empowers everyone on the team to be valued for who they are.

“When people feel trusted, they are strong, they are focused on the work at hand and they work together rather than against one another,” she said. “Empathy is a key contributor to this trust in the workplace. Leaders lift up the team by understanding their needs, their working styles, their life experiences. And looking back at that definition makes sense: our ability to understand and relate to the feelings of others.”

Frances Zipp, President & CEO, Lachman Consultant Services, said that one issue is that leaders in business are bombarded with the notion that being emotional is a sign of weakness and instead, they are taught to be logical and to be able to compete only on an intellectual level.

“We’re expected to be strategic, rational, tough, bottom-line businesspeople who focus on results; we need to put the softer part of us apart. But I learned very quickly that successful leaders are those who exhibit empathy,” she said.

Zipp added that it is important to make the distinction between compassion and empathy: “Compassion is an emotional response to sympathy and a desire to help, and it has its place. Empathy is our feeling of awareness towards others in an attempt to understand how they feel – to imagine a situation from someone else’s point of view.”

Sharon Cunningham, co-founder of oncology-focused female-led start-up Shorla Pharma, said that, from her previous experience working at a multinational pharmaceutical company, over time more women were promoted and she observed first-hand the positive change in the dynamic that occurred as a result.

“Ultimately it led to a more female-friendly corporate culture with maternity benefits and flexible working conditions that were never there before,” she said.

“We all know that women bring different perspectives; we tend to be naturally strong in emotional intelligence and having women leaders lends itself to having a more empathetic environment,” she added.

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