How I Used Empathy To Lead Through Disruption


Everyone remembers that feeling of the first day at a new job. The mix of excitement, trepidation and eagerness is a strong combination of emotions fueling those first few days and weeks. Now, layer on top of a new job the emotional cocktail of being a CEO for the first time and set it within the context of a global pandemic. Fun stuff.

I became CEO of Alteryx, the leading provider of analytics automation software to over 7,000 global customers, in October 2020. Since assuming this role, I’ve balanced being an approachable leader while making changes that fundamentally impact and improve how the company operates. In this article, I share what I’ve learned to help other c-suite executives and aspiring leaders navigate and thrive through difficult circumstances.

Leading transformation in tumultuous times

Change in general is difficult for people to deal with, then overlay that in a pandemic. In my role, I’ve pushed change at Alteryx, and quickly. As I get older, I realize you can’t buy time, so I have a high sense of urgency to build teams and get the details right. I want Alteryx to be able to take advantage of all the great things we have in front of us. We’ve learned in the past year that some of the things that made us successful in the past may not help us in the future. Since I’ve joined, I’ve been talking about the need to transform, what that entails and what a new operating framework looks like while at the same time retaining and safeguarding all those things that have made this a great, highly successful company. My goal is to instill a sense of urgency but at the same time respect that transformation is a process, a human process.

Vulnerability as a CEO

I am not alone in prioritizing empathy– 87 percent of CEOs believe a company’s performance is tied to empathy in the workplace, according to the 2018 State of Workplace Empathy study. In 2018, 68 percent of CEOs said the state of empathy in U.S. organizations needs to change. But, it seems, CEOs aren’t sure how to be part of the solution to that change — 45 percent of CEOs reported they had difficulty demonstrating empathy in their day-to-day working life.

Empathy doesn’t always come easy for CEOs. There’s a double-edged sword to being vulnerable as a company’s leader. A lot of people look to the CEO for strength and reassurance, validation that they’re doing the right thing. It is my nature to be open and vulnerable, because I believe you learn a lot from your mistakes. Mistakes are often our best teachers and are helpful to draw from when we’re faced with lots of change. The sting of a mistake is something you take with you when you’re faced with similar situations in the future.

Working remotely and being video-first presented challenges

At the start of the pandemic, interacting over video was new for me. Before Covid, I reveled in being present. I enjoyed walking down the halls, leaning over cubicles, learning people’s names and interacting with them on elevator rides. I remember being a young man in the elevator with the CEO and being ignored. Since then, I always knew that if even given the chance to be CEO, I wanted to be engaging and approachable in the role. Without the ability to be around people in person, I felt almost disabled in my abilities to be the leader I wanted to be. I get so much energy from being around and talking to people, so it has been a learning process to be my genuine self in front of the camera. It will never be the same over the screen, but I am making a concerted effort that my interest and concern for my entire team of associates and their families is communicated effectively.

Amidst the newfound remote work environment, the pandemic shined a light on mental health. In Fortune/Deloitte’s 2021 CEO Study, 98 percent of CEOs agreed that employee mental health and well-being will continue to be a priority – even after the pandemic is over. As it has become increasingly important to ensure the well-being of our associates, I wanted to figure out how to become a present and active leader. In an effort to stay connected, we began holding regular listening circles and “Ask Me Anythings” (AMAs), which can range from 1:1 meetings to gatherings of 1,200 people. As a company, we’re committed to doing these on a regular basis. These have helped create a sense that we’re all in this together. When I am participating, I am honest and transparent about what’s going on with me and my own family, which I hope shows that I’ve walked a mile in more people’s shoes than they may realize. Interestingly, these efforts to create ways for employees to come together in the remote environment may contribute to overall improved communication in general.

Our listening circles and AMAs have underscored the importance of empathy. Our associates were thankful for the opportunities to talk, and I was happy to learn more about what we can do as a business to help their situations. Through these circles myself and the rest of the leadership team are able to have dedicated time to understand their situations and to be empathetic. It can be hard to do calls with lots of people. It is easy to turn off our cameras and half-listen, but I’m not sure we would have learned how to make a better experience for our employees without these listening circles. I’m not sure these insights would have come out through my walks in the cafeteria. I feel blessed to have been party to these stories and experiences and look forward to continuing to foster deep and meaningful relationships with associates across the company.

Whether I am taking 1:1 time to meet an associate or I’m leading a company-wide town hall, I’ve tried to lead with empathy while also implementing swift, impactful change to the company. Balancing vulnerability and strength as a company leader is a delicate balance, but it is the most effective and rewarding way to navigate this extraordinary era that has forever changed the way we approach leadership.

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