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Leading with Values and Empathy through a Pandemic

To say this year has been a year of change would be an understatement. With each passing month, 2020 continues to pack an unprecedented and unexpected punch. From a global pandemic and police brutality to massive wildfires and a momentous impending election, the impact is being felt everywhere. Since the beginning of the pandemic I have heard moving stories from friends, family, team members and colleagues who are experiencing challenges, hardships and pivoting their lifestyles through the COVID landscape. These perspectives have given me a renewed sense of respect and awe for the individual hurdles people are overcoming every single day.

Through all of this, a silver lining I have experienced is the virtual workplace (e.g. home) opening a door to a greater sense of shared humanity. On a daily basis we now have a window into our team and client’s homes. We wave at their kids, and we show off our own. We laugh as we hear them asking mom or dad a question off-camera (also, doggie snores, anyone?) and smile as family members make an unscheduled and accidental appearance in the “professional” background. We are all just real people, navigating real problems, together. By showing up for employees, clients and community partners as individuals who are made up of a constellation of traits, lived experiences and perspectives, I believe that leaders have an opportunity to better understand, empathize with and unite their companies and communities.

How can we lift others up and create a workplace where we all feel safe and supported every day?

In this post, I’ve highlighted a three-part framework that has helped me to use the pandemic as an opportunity to look inwardly at my own values (and those of the company) through the filters of 1. employees, 2. clients and 3. community. This perspective has helped me to better understand and implement a values and empathy-first workplace at Avenue. And thereby contributing to a culture of high trust, support and engagement. I’m hoping this framework and shared experience will help spark ideas and action within your own company.

A three-part values and empathy framework

(What does it mean to lead with values and empathy during a pandemic?)

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. And every company is unique in its own way. At Avenue, I’ve found that when our company values and culture are seen as central to business operations, everyone thrives. Employees, clients and the community inherently understand that our business is just as much about turning a profit as it is about taking care of our people and partners. Oftentimes more so.

When Avenue became a Certified B Corporation® three years ago it was because of our belief that businesses have the ability and responsibility to align their values with what they believe in and hold themselves to higher standards of social and environmental impact, transparency, and accountability. For Avenue, that responsibility lies in our focus on taking care of and supporting our employees. And in turn, helping our clients stay committed to their values, their employees and their stakeholders during this tumultuous time. We believe this is our top business priority. And this focus has a trickle-down effect on positive business outcomes such as profit, retention of team members and clients and a high-trust culture.

At Avenue, our values are:

  • Build community together: Fostering meaningful connections and a sense of shared purpose with our clients, partners and peers.

  • Fearlessly do what's right: Advocating for the best interests of our clients, partners and peers through integrity, honesty and transparency.

  • Leave it better than when you found it: Leaving a lasting impact on our clients, partners and peers through continual improvement and positive results.

These values are the compass that guides us to do what we believe are the right things for our employees, clients and community, while still sustaining healthy business operations. The integration of values and empathy into our business leadership using this three-part framework starts and ends with our employees, our clients and finally the community in which we serve.

Part 1: How to craft an empathetic company culture that supports and empowers employees

Crafting an empathetic company culture takes time and intention. It certainly doesn’t happen overnight and is not created with big or flashy perks and benefits (though those are usually nice, too). It’s the small, every day and consistent actions that have the biggest impact on creating a culture led by values, empathy and appreciation for others. Employees are Avenue’s greatest asset. We view the team as essential to our business operations and want them to know it. Full stop.

When the team is heard, supported, empowered and high-trust communication is flowing, everyone benefits. At Avenue, we have prioritized the team’s wellbeing over productivity and profit, which has proven to deliver outcomes that end up being superior as a result. Here are a few of the things we do as a team to craft an empathetic culture:

  • Giving the team the understanding, space and time (flexible schedule) to process difficult events like COVID, quarantine, wildfires, etc.

  • Daily huddle check-ins and gratitude to start the workday

  • Capturing and sharing the silver linings we’re experiencing in our personal lives during the pandemic with each other

  • Virtual connection points such as yoga, happy hours, lunches and backyard hangouts

  • 1on1 lunches with the CEO

  • Quarterly strategic planning retreats with the whole team

  • Fridays off during the summer and early leave when needed to get out of the monotony of quarantine life

  • Taking Election Day off to support voting everywhere and to take a mental health break during a historic moment

Start with small things. They add up to an empathetic culture that is greater than the sum of its parts.

Part 2: How to craft a values-led engagement strategy to support and empower clients

Like company culture, this also takes time, intention and a desire to truly get to know your clients; their hopes, dreams and fears, personal and family challenges and more. At Avenue, we intentionally seek out client partners who align with our values as a company and as a Certified B Corporation® and woman and minority-owned business. And we place an emphasis on working with purpose-driven organizations, B Corps, credit unions, nonprofits, among others. In doing so, our team has created an innate values alignment with our clients which is founded on more than just meeting their marketing targets. This has allowed us to be transparent from the beginning about our dual focus on helping them not only fulfill their marketing goals but also delivering on the mission, vision and values of their company.

We believe that our ability to help our clients stay aligned and thriving in business during this challenging time is of the utmost importance. Here are a few of the ways we have helped our clients stay aligned with their values and empowered in the face of change:

  • Proactive outreach and check-ins to understand their unique challenges, including helping them to think about how to pivot, support their customers and operate differently during the pandemic

  • Providing thoughtful solutions and brainstorming sessions to address those unique challenges, often beyond our scope of marketing work together

  • Connecting for virtual coffees to know our clients personally and talk personal life, strategy, opportunities to support each other and grow as partners

  • Bringing business-level vision and strategy to our clients with long-term thinking vs. transactional thinking

  • Continuing to read up and learn our client’s industries and following the things they’re doing outside of our partnership

  • Ensuring clients know that we treat their business and success as our own, and we have their back

  • Sending clients care packages when impacted by life challenges

By showing up for our clients we have found that they are often just as supportive and concerned about Avenue’s wellbeing as we are about theirs. It has been heartening to see how much clients are also here for us and that they want to take care of our partnership just as much as we do. That is the healthy holy grail of a sustainable business.

Part 3: How to show up as a partner to support your community

As a certified Minority Business Enterprise (MBE), Women Business Enterprise (WBE), Emerging Small Business (ESB) and Certified B Corporation®, Avenue is committed to diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism across all facets of our business. We believe a diverse and anti-racist workforce facilitates conversation and learning, produces personal and professional growth for all of our team members and ultimately allows us to produce better and more holistic outcomes for our clients and community partners.

Generosity is also a part of our philosophy that we believe fosters high-trust communication and long-term relationships. The mindset of generous service and giving extends from our team members to our clients and community. There is no time like the present to give back to the people and organizations that make up the community that we are a part of.

Contributing to a prosperous business ecosystem for all, especially nonprofits and businesses owned by or serving Black, Indigenous and People of Color and underserved communities directly impacted by the pandemic is imperative. At Avenue, we use these small actions to show up for our community:

  • Finding out what matters to employees and providing ways for them to support the community through Avenue’s means

  • As a company, we support and buy from local businesses, and Avenue provides a monthly #ShopLocal stipend to all employees to allow them to support local businesses and nonprofits through Avenue

  • Doubling down as a team and company on DEI and anti-racism work and education, which is touching all facets of our business decision making and how we show up as a good neighbor

  • We collectively select a Quarterly Charity of Choice within our community to give up to $5,000 in pro bono digital marketing services and a volunteer day to

  • Walking the talk with our values

  • Board service and leadership in the community

  • As a Certified B Corporation®, we’re supporting our ecosystem of B Corps now more than ever before

To bring these concepts together to lead our organization through a difficult time and emerge a stronger company, I have utilized this three-part values and empathy framework for taking care of our business and team, our clients and our community. During this time we are choosing to listen to our people and put purpose and values ahead of profit. At the end of the day, it's a reminder that we are all human, and we all deserve a little bit of grace during this extraordinary period of change. *air hug*

We’d love to hear how you are integrating values and empathy into your culture in the comments below, too!

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