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The future of frontline leadership? Empathy

The future of frontline leadership? Empathy

The last couple of years have been challenging for retailers. Government-imposed restrictions and social protocols have impeded the ability of many merchants to keep their doors open. Now, as those restrictions loosen and we slowly and methodically move toward a new kind of “normal,” the industry is faced with a different kind of challenge in the form of a talent shortage. 

Thanks to “The Great Resignation,” scores of retail workers have left their jobs and, in many cases, the industry altogether. It’s causing headaches for many, leaving merchants scrambling to fill roles within their stores. However, it’s also brought some organizations to realize just how important their frontline staff are in helping them achieve their goals and objectives. 

And, according to Sarah Jordan, CEO of specialty toy and book retailer Mastermind Toys, it’s imperative for retailers to lead their teams with empathy and compassion.

Over the past two years, Canadians have faced a variety of impacts and new experiences as a result of the pandemic,” she says. 

“Companies must empower frontline employees by leading with empathy and compassion to inspire innovation and creativity. Leaders need to be considering how there’s strength in being empathetic and courage in being compassionate. These are the qualities customers and employees are seeking now more than ever.”

In order to continuously improve the culture at Mastermind Toys – a retailer that employs a workforce across its head office, warehouse, and 68 stores coast-to-coast – Jordan ensures that she and her team consistently facilitate touchpoints that allow her to stay connected to employees of the brand. Quarterly employee surveys, Town Halls, and Nudge used daily by their “Play Experts” (a.k.a. store associates), provide an incredible opportunity for employees from all levels to come together, share ideas, and better understand the ways in which their colleagues contribute, leading to a deeper collective appreciation for the work being done. 

Jordan suggests that empathetic leaders also have a profound impact on the performance of frontline employees and the overall corporate culture and values. But the benefits of creating a culture of empathy and compassion run even deeper. According to a report by Development Dimensions International, leaders who approach their jobs and engagement with employees with empathy display interaction skills that are more effective than those who do not practice empathy. The report indicates extremely strong links between a leader’s levels of empathy and the quality of their decision-making, coaching, engagement, planning and organizing, and overall performance. 

Here are 4 ways Mastermind Toys’ empathetic frontline leadership motivates and inspires employees:

1. It inspires creativity, innovation, and performance

When it comes to employee performance, a recent study by Businessolver reveals that 72% of employees believe that empathy drives motivation, while 84% of CEOs believe that it drives better business outcomes. According to Jordan, it does both.

“The impact of an empathetic mindset is tremendous and goes a long way toward shaping and enhancing an organization’s corporate and workplace culture,” she says. “ It impacts every corner of the business, helping to motivate employees, drive innovation, inspire creativity and reach business results together.”

2. It boosts employee engagement

In addition to enhanced employee performance, one of the more meaningful benefits of empathetic frontline leadership is a highly engaged group of employees. It’s a benefit that Jordan says can really galvanize a team of individuals, adding that the critical support is strong communication (case in point: over 90% of Mastermind Toys employees reported that they understand the business strategy in a recent employee survey). 

“Constant communication with frontline employees definitely helps to keep them engaged,” she asserts. “But, in retail especially, employees become trendspotters that drive innovation and inspire change when there is that trust in place and open lines of communication. And, in building an engaged community, you create an environment where people are excited to be part of the team.”

3. It fosters honesty and transparency

According to Jordan, ensuring that lines of communication are always open is an important aspect of an empathetic approach to leadership. It also makes it easier to elicit feedback from employees, encouraging inclusiveness and trust.

“At Mastermind Toys, we pride ourselves on embracing a culture of co-creation, where we ask employees for feedback, really listen to it, and then communicate back how they have been a part of our innovation. Co-creating with your employees is most effective when you lead with empathy and compassion because it gives your employees permission to be honest and transparent and the space to bring their authentic selves to work. In our latest employee survey, we heard 90% of our employees say they trust their supervisor – a number we believe represents the work we’ve put into ensuring we create an open and safe environment.”

4. It drives greater retention

Leading with empathy doesn’t simply help to engage employees, however. It also serves as an incredibly powerful tool to help retain that talent.

“When you can create an environment that’s inclusive, providing employees with work-life balance and flexibility when it comes to scheduling, you earn their trust,” says Jordan. “We were provided an example of this over the past holiday season. When the industry was concerned with labour shortages, we welcomed over 75% of our seasonal shift leaders back to Mastermind Toys for another holiday season.”

Tips for leading with empathy

According to Jordan, if a retail leader is able to cultivate and nurture a culture of empathy and compassion within their workplace for frontline employees, the rewards are immense. The employee experience drives the customer experience – encouraging and empowering frontline teams will keep your customers coming back.

In order to start down this path, Jordan has three pearls of wisdom to offer:

1. A culture of care and compassion is established by the CEO

“The CEO needs to be the leading brand ambassador – the person who brings the company values to life and sets priorities that are consistent with the brand purpose. When this is the case, the objectives of the brand and its vision and purpose motivate employees, inspiring them to come together as a team to deliver innovation and impact.”

2. Genuinely listen to your employees, and then act with intention and speed

“Actively listen to employee feedback to uncover insights and then create a roadmap of next steps to reinforce that their contributions matter. The follow-through plan and execution by leadership is just as important as getting employee buy-in and it encourages exponentially more insights shared. Employees are often simply looking to see progress, not perfection, from their employer.”

3. Leading with empathy and compassion lets your team play to their strengths.

“As a leader of Mastermind Toys, I have found the most rewarding part of my job is the opportunity to elevate our culture by showing up as an authentic leader and encouraging others to do the same. When employees can be authentically themselves, their strengths shine through.”

Though empathy and compassion are not often at the top of the list of skills referenced when assessing the strengths of any leader, they are increasingly coming under greater focus and consideration as a new leadership style whose significance has been amplified by impacts of the pandemic. And, it’s a leadership style that Jordan believes is exactly what today’s workforce deserves.

“People are looking for purpose-driven organizations and leaders to work for. Over the pandemic, Mastermind Toys formally articulated our purpose and values that have always rung true within the company, but it was important that we strengthened these pillars of who we are by clearly communicating them to our people. We are more than a toy store – we are Canada’s Authority on Play, whose purpose is to inspire generations of lifelong learners through the power of play. When employees understand your purpose, and the role they can play in achieving this purpose through living out your values, it develops a greater sense of connection across your teams and builds your unique company culture.”

The true value of investing in retail employee training and development

The true value of investing in retail employee training and development

Retail operation is, regardless of the category or vertical, a complex ecosystem comprising a number of different layers and components. From location, product assortment, and pricing to merchandising, marketing, and inventory management, each cog in the retail wheel needs to be functioning at a near-optimal level in order to contribute toward the overall success of any organization. 

But  efforts made by retailers within these areas wouldn’t be possible without its people. According to Kevin Graff, retail training and development expert and Founder and President of business management consulting firm Graff Retail, the current talent shortage blighting the industry should make retailers take notice of the value and differentiating potential inherent in providing strong employee training and development for their employees.

“If you expect your employees to remain within your organization, it has to be about more than just showing up to work,” Graff says. 

“It’s death just waiting to happen if employees are turning up for shifts for the sake of working shifts. What opportunities are you providing for them to learn, collaborate, share ideas, grow and develop? People have always wanted these opportunities. But today, there seems to be a growing expectation of them. If an employee isn’t happy within their job, there are about ten other jobs they can get tomorrow. So, why are they going to continue working within their current jobs? If the retailer isn’t going to nurture their employees and help them grow as individuals, they’re going to need to pay them lots of money and offer phenomenal benefits. But, that’s a short-lived game because eventually someone else comes along and offers more money and better benefits.”

Graff goes on to underscore the importance of providing retail employees with training and development opportunities, stressing the significance in doing so toward satisfying their needs and improving the experience enjoyed by today’s workforce. 

In fact, his notion is supported by findings within a recent LinkedIn Workforce Learning Report which reveals that an astounding 94% of employees say that the provision of learning and development opportunities would be a strong enticement for them to remain in their current jobs. And, the increasing demand for learning is especially true among younger generations, with more than a quarter (27%) of the Millennial and Gen Z cohorts stating that a lack of training represents the number one reason they’d consider leaving their jobs.

Given this growing sentiment around training and development, it seems clear that offering employees the right learning opportunities will help merchants and businesses significantly decrease turnover. However, Graff says that employee training isn’t just a powerful tool that can be leveraged to retain talent within the organization. There are numerous other benefits that can enhance the business and the employee experience, not to mention differentiate the brand from competitors:

1. Increased employee engagement

One of the most compelling and meaningful benefits that results from providing employees with opportunities to grow, says Graff, is their increased engagement with the brand and its objectives.

“How do you, as a business owner, get your employees to care as much about the business as you do? By providing your employees with the right opportunities to learn and grow, they start to understand and connect to the vision of the business, which then supports their ability to execute on the brand promise and work toward its overarching objectives.”

2. Greater clarity concerning roles

Along with increased engagement, Graff points out that by building employee learning and development processes, retailers also help define expectations within the organization, creating a basis for employee success.

“Effective training and development go a long way toward clarifying roles for employees, reinforcing through this type of investment the fact that they’re incredibly important to the business. It defines expectations from a behavior perspective and helps employees better understand how they’re contributing to the success of the business and their colleagues.”

3. Enhanced collaboration and performance

A greater understanding of their individual roles and the roles of their colleagues, explains Graff, then results in increased collaboration and performance. In fact, according to recent Gartner research, employees who have received adequate development opportunities within their organizations are 44% more likely to be high performers than those who have not been offered the same or similar formalized training.

“It just makes sense that an engaged employee who understands their role within the company will be more able and willing to execute at high levels. And when you put your employees in this kind of position, you’ll see a consistent rise in average basket size, conversion rates and ultimately sales.”

4. Sparking creativity and innovation

In addition to increased employee output, another layer of performance that’s positively impacted by the implementation of employee training and development is the levels of creativity and innovation within the organizations offering it.

“An employee who feels valued and important with respect to the overall goals and objectives of the business is an employee who wants to share ideas and insights,” says Graff. 

“It’s as simple as that. And when your entire staff feel this way, collaborating and contributing toward the success of the business, everyone wins.”

5. Improved employee and customer experience

Despite the many benefits that result from providing employees with learning and growth opportunities, Graff insists that the greatest payoff is in the enhanced experience that customers of the brand receive. After all, he says, providing exceptional service is what retail’s all about.

“As a result of a recent decrease in foot traffic to physical brick-and-mortar stores, interaction with the consumer is more important today than ever before. Store managers don’t often control the product selection, price, store design, or really much of anything else within the store. But where they do have impact is in the performance of their staff. How you hire, train, manage, coach and lead your employees is directly correlated to the levels of staff knowledge and quality of service that’s provided and, as a result, satisfaction among consumers.”

Considering the current talent shortage faced by retailers across the industry, a shortage that’s presenting significant challenges with respect to staffing frontline customer-facing positions, Graff suggests that the time is now for organizations that are looking to develop or enhance their training for frontline staff.

“For retailers that don’t have an employee training program within their business, they have to get started on building internally today, and they have to move fast.”

However, he adds that as important as the creation of a training and development regimen is, so, too, is the consistent review and analysis of the needs of the business and employees, as well as the effectiveness of the employee training offered.

“Training and development programs should be constantly evolving. They’ve got to align with the changing needs of the business, the expectations of employees and evolving consumer behaviour, tastes and preferences. If you’re not doing a top to bottom review and analysis of your training programs on an annual basis in the least, it’s like having a binder in the cupboard that nobody looks at. The implementation and execution of training and development programs are important. But the reinforcement strategy is equally critical in keeping the program alive and functioning optimally.”

As the world moves collectively toward a resumption of ‘normal’ activity and people in communities everywhere begin to venture out more in search of experiences, increasing physical retail footfall, it’s clear that the quality of in-store service and interaction is going to be paramount in determining success and failure. As a result, it will be the employees on the retail frontlines who will be responsible for delivering these outcomes, rendering the investment in the training, growth and development of their skills the most important for retailers to make going forward.