When South Africa’s first national lockdown was announced, many businesses naturally went into defensive mode – pausing any cost incurring activities and anything that hinted at risk.
Yet for Basalt Technology, a start-up well known for its human-centric approach to solving business challenges, the crisis presented an opportunity to build team unity – and fundamentally re-think existing ways of working. Perhaps most importantly, the leadership team began to weave empathy and authentic connection into daily operations. And, in a rather unconventional move, CEO Wayne Zwiers hired a new Technology Lead, Vutlhari Rikhotso (best known as VT), just as the lockdown was closing many businesses.
“Despite being hired and onboarded remotely (and never meeting fellow team members in person), myself and Wayne have strengthened team morale by taking a fundamentally empathetic approach to leadership,” said Rikhotso.
“This approach has paid dividends, as more personal and authentic relationships have enabled the company to keep growing, and even drive product innovation during this very uncertain period.”
Empathy tied to business impact
Indeed, according to global benefits consultancy Businessolver’s State of Workplace Empathy Study 2020, ‘empathy is consistently tied to business impact.’ The study revealed that 83% of Gen Z employees would choose an employer with a strong culture of empathy over an employer offering a slightly higher salary, versus 75% of employees on average. In addition, it noted that 79% would choose an empathetic employer even if it meant changing their role, industry or career path.
Notably, the study found that most leaders around the world are slipping, not improving, in their efforts to be more empathetic in the workplace. This can arguably be counted as an operational risk, with more employees struggling with mental health and isolation as teams continue to work from home.
At Basalt Technology, however, Zwiers and Rikhotso have implemented several practical and tangible processes to ensure that team members are supported and are in close contact with leadership at all times.
During the first national lockdown, for example, Zwiers realised that most team members just needed to feel connected to their leadership team. By spending personal, one-on-one time with each staff member, he was able to address concerns, provide full transparency around the business response and strategy, and ensure team cohesion was stronger than ever before. He also reduced the number of online meetings (in light of the palpable ‘Zoom fatigue’), and gave teams more autonomy to complete their tasks on a day to day level.
Prioritising dynamic mentorship
In addition to these measures, Zwiers and Rikhotso have created more time for strategic and personalised mentoring sessions.
“We have a very strong culture of mentorship within the team, which is not about hierarchies or job titles, but about learning from someone who has skills and insights that can complement and draw out your own,” said Rikhotso. “The crisis has really shown how ‘soft skills’ and emotional intelligence ultimately defines the success or failure of teams, and by design, the success or failure of start-ups.”
Moreover, as the globally renowned leadership coach and author Brené Brown always emphasizes, showing vulnerability is becoming critical to performance and creativity, particularly from a leadership perspective: “No vulnerability, no creativity. No tolerance for failure, no innovation. It is that simple.”
Zwiers echoes this sentiment, noting that a major part of the Basalt lockdown strategy has been about ‘showing vulnerability as a leader, and being honest and authentic about how I was dealing with the lockdown in my own life’.
“This is a key factor that allows my leadership style to work in unison with VT’s leadership approach – because he is also direct, human, and transparent in the way he interacts with every co-worker,” he explained. “Together, we are able to constantly ‘take the temperature’ of the business so to speak, and to understand the concerns, the struggles, and the ambitions of every team member.”
As the pandemic continues to place major pressure on both businesses and households, this human-centric and empathetic approach will arguably become even more critical to stabilising and supporting teams in the months ahead.