Charlotte Gregson on Empathy and Connection as Business Tools
Charlotte Gregson is the Country Head UK of the leading freelance platform Malt and understands the importance of empathy in the workplace. She took some time out to share her insights on this topic with The Industry Leaders.
Can you start by telling us about your entrepreneurial journey? What led you to your current business, and what is it that sets your leadership style apart from others?
I actually took quite an unconventional path to being involved with the start-up scene. Scientific research via management consulting and then a chance conversation resulted in me entering the world of independent talent. I've always tried to take on roles that challenge and develop me. When the opportunity to found an office and grow a team culture with COMATCH (who was acquired by Malt last year) came around, it was too good to say no to, so I jumped right in. In terms of my leadership style, I would say I'm empathetic, which was important during Covid, transparent, which I believe builds trust, and pragmatic - I am not afraid to make tough decisions, and the respect I have from my team members who know they can approach me with any issue is a great testament to these skills.
You've been recognized for your focus on empathy and human connection within your organization. How did you come to realize the importance of these values in leadership, and how have they shaped the way you run your business?
Having had several managers in my past with low EQ, I've personally felt the impact of people not understanding the bigger picture and human side of life. When my mum passed away from breast cancer 11 years ago, I wanted to work from home to support her during chemo treatments, which was not well received by senior leadership. Understandably, after she died, I wasn't as full of energy as I had been previously - not least because I was pregnant with my daughter, too. This experience forged me into the leader I am today, and it's important for me to understand my team's motivations and work with them to support them if they have other things going on.
Can you share an example of a situation where employing empathy and connection as business tools made a significant positive difference in your organization? What were the challenges and outcomes?
Without trying to sound cliché, lockdown was a pivotal moment for us to really double down on our connections and relationships within the team. We had daily team calls to check in and see how the team was doing. That was a tough time mentally for everyone, and some people were working in less than optimal conditions. Being mindful of that was important to ensure they could still perform. We invested a lot in relationships during that period, which meant that when the market recovered, we were well-placed to have successful years in 2021 and 2022. Today, we have a very tight-knit team who knows how to achieve results, especially with our company growing in the UK market, whilst also finding the time to have fun.
Empathy can often be misunderstood or oversimplified in a business context. How do you define it in your leadership practice, and how do you ensure that it's applied authentically?
As teams become more hybrid, collaboration and integration across boundaries pose new challenges. However, it is often at the intersection of multiple boundaries where solutions to today's pressing business challenges are discovered. As a result, old-fashioned leadership techniques became ill-suited for the new hybrid work environment. Previously, managers often have been appointed based on their tenure or experience in a specific role rather than their expertise in managing teams. Now, organisations are investing more in training leaders and cultivating a new style of company culture. Businesses need leaders who understand how to drive success by practising consistency, focus, empathy and fairness. With leaders becoming less physically or geographically integrated with their teams, the focus now shifts towards inspiring camaraderie, commitment, and creativity in virtual settings.
Connection is not just about understanding others but also connecting with oneself. How do you maintain a balance between personal well-being and fostering connections with your team?
Truth be told, I struggle with personal wellbeing. I know it's important, but the demands of scaling a start-up and raising two young kids mean I often compromise on me time, whether that's sleep or exercise. But the team and my family know I'm there for them if they need to talk. I believe it is important to have 1-2-1 time with people and keep communication channels open. I am frequently in the office, or we use Slack to connect instantly with those people working from home. Even a short message to see how someone is can go a long way.
In terms of scalability, how do you maintain these human-centered values as your business grows? What strategies or tools have you found most effective?
While leaders may possess extensive experience or have excelled in a specific role, they are still continuously learning. The emergence of the hybrid workplace has introduced new dynamics, and there are no fixed rules for managing teams in such diverse environments. As a result, leaders need to find a way to establish the most effective work settings for their teams. This involves actively seeking feedback to identify strengths and areas for self-improvement and avoiding complacency by not adhering to traditional practices or assumptions. A sense of courage is necessary to foster a culture of constructive feedback, encouraging diverse perspectives and fostering creativity. Empowering teams to respectfully challenge leadership decisions and provide alternative approaches, known as intelligent disobedience, is vital for achieving success in this evolving landscape. Consequently, when leaders demonstrate a willingness to adjust their strategies, embrace change, and approach the future with an agile and collaborative mindset, members of the hybrid workforce are likely to follow suit.
For those who are new to leadership or are struggling to build empathy and connection within their teams, what practical advice can you offer? Are there any exercises or habits that can be cultivated?
Leaders should focus on creating a collective and well-defined vision, ensuring team members have a shared goal and understand the reason behind their work engagement. This entails setting clear objectives, obtaining buy-in from all team members, and trusting them to determine the best approach to achieve those objectives. They might not have all the answers. However, effective management involves recognising the expertise within the team and trusting them to apply their skills. It is essential to be genuine, providing psychological safety by actively listening, demonstrating care, and addressing negative behaviour. Sharing experiences in a way that motivates and encourages the team is also critical. Leaders must accept diverse viewpoints and display traits of open-mindedness and collaboration. Most importantly, leaders must recognise and celebrate successes, which rewards teamwork. For example, at Malt UK, we have a specific exercise where, once a quarter, we get the team together and ask them to say a few words about how they feel. At Christmas, we ask employees to say one word that describes the current year and one that would signify the next one. It helps me get a good measure of how my team feels and compare it to the employee feedback scores. Team camaraderie is also super important, and we always take the time to celebrate our achievements either in the office or by arranging creative free external activities.
You've shared some truly insightful thoughts on leadership. How have these principles been reflected in your products or services, and what has been the response from your customers?
Ultimately, we are trying to solve our clients' freelance talent needs by finding them great people to support their projects or fill an interim role. To do this effectively means connecting with them and building a trust-based relationship so they can be open about their business challenges. This allows us to deliver the best result and keep our clients happy. On the other hand, providing support for our freelancers and consultants means they recommend us to their colleagues and other members of the community. Seeing our numbers grow in the UK as we support over 20,000 independent workers is a great testament to all the hard work we do to become that one-stop solution for incredible talent.
Finally, for our readers who are interested in learning more about your leadership philosophy or your business, where can they find more information or connect with you directly?
You can reach out to me on LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/charlottegregson, I am always happy to connect!