Corina Walsh Of Shift People Development: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Empathy in leaders will foster trust and connection. Without trust, leaders will struggle to inspire the performance they need from their teams.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership trait. In an ever-evolving business landscape, leaders who exhibit genuine empathy are better equipped to connect, inspire, and drive their teams towards success. But how exactly does empathy shape leadership dynamics? How can it be harnessed to foster stronger relationships, improved decision-making, and a more inclusive work environment? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Corina Walsh.

Corina Walsh is a storyteller, motivator, and high-impact speaker. She is on a mission to revolutionize the way we feel about work. She accomplishes this by leveraging the transformative power of leadership coaching.

Corina developed her signature leadership program, Managing Made Easy™, after collecting hundreds of data points on the struggles faced by today’s manager and executives. Corina is an expert at nurturing leaders into their full potential. Her superpower lies in her ability to distill complex leadership and management principles into easily digestible nuggets of wisdom, empowering companies to transcend performance boundaries and achieve unprecedented progress.

Corina’s innovative approaches in leadership development have garnered her accolades including being recognized as a Top 50 Leader Under 40 in Atlantic Canada and receiving a YWCA Woman of Distinction Award in Business. She has delivered her keynote talks and training programs across Canada, the U.S., and the U.K., captivating audiences on crucial topics like emotional intelligence, leadership, and workplace culture.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about empathy, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

By the time I reached the age of 34 I had changed jobs 3 times searching for an engaging place to work where I could use my talents and contribute. Every place I worked had the same challenges. Employees did not seem engaged and were frustrated with the culture and management. I know there was a better way. I decided to go out on my own as a consultant so I could help companies understand what it really means to build an engaging workplace culture where employees feel fulfilled by the work they are doing, and managers are not so overwhelmed. Today, my work is centered on training and coaching managers on people-first leadership skills they need to engage and lead a team in today’s workplace. Developing an empathic approach to managing and leading is a big part of that work. Managers learn how to engage and communicate with employees in a way that is people-first, and it can be a game changer for company culture. 

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

One thing I was not expecting when I started my business is the impact that you can have on someone’s life through a talk, workshop, or social media post. Sometimes I get messages from people who have never interacted with my posts or attended a session, and they tell me the impact that something I wrote or said had on them. I may have helped them change their perspective or gave them a new idea to work toward. It is truly remarkable the impact you have on a total stranger when you put yourself out there. 

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

There are two things that make my company stand out. First, my unique experience gives me the ability to see common workplace challenges from the perspective of the employee and the manager. To have a workplace built on empathy we must be able to see a situation from both sides and how it impacts everyone. Second, the topics and tools included in my leadership development program are unique because they were developed based on my experience as a new manager. In my programs we are training on topics not included in other programs that help new managers understand what is really expected of them in their role. As an example, today’s manager is acutely aware of the problem with micromanaging so they would do anything not to earn that title. In fact, they are so worried about micromanaging they are often not managing enough. This is something we address immediately in my programs along with other unique tools that solve key challenges for today’s manager. 

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each? 

  1. Perseverance – So many of the entrepreneurs who started businesses at the same time as me gave up before they really gave their business a chance to succeed. A huge part of success is simply not giving up. 
  2. Adaptability – The pandemic showed us how important it is to be adaptable. When all of my clients stopped their leadership development work with my company it was heartbreaking. But it didn’t take long for companies to realize that they need support in a different way. Their teams need help understanding how to lead a remote team and how to maintain culture in a remote setting. I was able to shift my programming to address that need. 
  3.  A willingness to ask for help – Asking for help can be challenging for independent high-performers. But, not long after starting my business I realized that there was so much I didn’t know and I was not going to be able to do it along. I looked around for help and found it in different business support organizations, coaches, and mentors. 

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

A difficult choice I had to make as the leader of my business was walking away from clients that were not a good fit for my business. It is hard to walk away from a paying client but if a client is not a good fit for your business, it can drain your energy and time. Wrong fit clients will also attract more wrong fit clients so you must be careful who you work with. I had several difficult conversations with clients to let them know we couldn’t work together anymore, and it all worked out in the end. Most people value honesty. This challenge shaped my leadership because it helped me build my courage muscle. You can’t train and coach others on how to have difficult conversations if you are not willing to have them yourself. I think my willingness to address issues head on helped me gain trust and authority in my space. 

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define empathy in a leadership context, and why do you believe it’s a vital trait for leaders to possess in today’s work environment?

Empathy is the ability to notice that someone else is experiencing an emotion and respond in a way that lets the person know you see and hear them. Some define empathy as sharing the feeling with someone else. I think that is a part of empathy, but I don’t think we always have to share the feeling to acknowledge the feeling. I think that is what scares some leaders off from empathy. Maybe they are not ready to experience that feeling right now. In the leadership context, empathy is recognizing that an employee is struggling and might need extra support. 

It is a vital trait for leaders because empathy is the trait that is required to be able to connect with your employees. We know that employees in today’s workforce want a manager who cares about them. A lack of empathy will present as a lack of caring. Employees will always work harder when they know their employees care about them. 

Can you share a personal experience where showing empathy as a leader significantly impacted a situation or relationship in your organization?

Yes. I was working for an organization before I started my business. I was struggling on a project because I was working with a challenging stakeholder who did not want the project to move forward. I didn’t know what to do and didn’t want to admit to my director that things were at a stalemate. My director had a high level of empathy and didn’t wait for me to come to her. She could see I was struggling, and she came to me. She initiated a conversation with me to get a project update. I told her everything that was going on and she offered her expertise and support. We got the project back on track and I was so relieved. This one conversation impacted my entire experience with that organization. I was thinking about leaving and I stayed on for an extra two year just to continue working with that director. 

How do empathetic leaders strike a balance between understanding their team’s feelings and making tough decisions that might not be universally popular?

The balance comes from listening to your employee’s concerns and acknowledging that you hear their concerns. I think most employees know that their manager won’t always be able to make the decision they want but their manager can still listen and acknowledge what they hear. Giving an employees a voice and practicing transparency can go a long way when tough decisions must be made. 

How would you differentiate between empathy and sympathy in leadership? Why is it important for leaders to distinguish between the two?

Empathy is recognizing that someone is feeling an emotion and acknowledging that you see what they are going through. 

Sympathy can sometimes come across as pity where it sounds like we are saying, ‘I see what you are going through, and I feel bad for you.’ 

Employees want to know that their leaders understand the impact certain situations are having on them not just that their manager ‘feels bad for them’. 

What are some practical strategies or exercises that leaders can employ to cultivate and enhance their empathetic skills?

One strategy that can be effective is asking more open-ended questions when someone expresses an emotion. For example, if an employee confesses, they are ‘overwhelmed’, a leader can ask more questions to find out exactly what the employee is overwhelmed with. Getting curious about why people feel the way they feel can help the other person feel acknowledged and heard. 

Another strategy is reading books about different cultures or traveling to other places. Immersing ourselves in a new place or reading about the experiences of others can broaden our horizons and help us realize what others are experiencing. 

Practicing curiosity before judgment is another great way to build empathy. As humans, we love to judge the decisions of others. Getting curious about the experienced of others can help us understand why people make certain choices. 

How can empathy help leaders navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensure inclusivity?

Empathy helps leaders recognize that ‘one size does not fit all’. In a large organization it can feel challenging to create solutions or design an employee experience that will meet the needs of all employees. Empathy is the key ingredient that will help leaders realize that we must put effort in to helping everyone in a workplace feel like they belong. All people programs must be developed in a way that includes the needs and wants of all employees not a select few. An example is recognition programs. Many companies use the same type of perk or bonus to show recognition but not all employees will respond to the same perk. Tickets to sporting events are great for people who like sports but what about the employees who don’t want to attend this type of event. Empathy will help leaders recognize when they must change their approach to foster a sense of inclusivity. 

What’s your approach to ensuring that succession planning is a holistic process, and not just confined to the top layers of management? How do you communicate this philosophy through the organization?

I advise companies to be fully transparent with career and leadership paths within the company. If a company undertakes a competency-based leadership mapping activity they can map out the key skills, knowledge and behaviours required to succeed in the company. This will ensure employees know what they are working toward but also what the options are in terms of moving their career forward with the organization. If this type of tool is widely shared within a company everyone will know what they opportunities are and how to get there. Leadership mapping will also help companies identify emerging leaders for their potential rather than focusing on the top layers of management. 

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership”?

  1. Managers and Executives will struggle to connect with team members if they lack empathy. In this situation, engagement and performance levels will likely drop and turnover can occur. 
  2. While people are often promoted because of their technical abilities, leaders are often let go because they are unable to get results through their people. Empathy is the skill and trait they leaders require to get employees onboard with new ideas and reach higher levels of performance required to achieve goals. 
  3. Empathy in leaders will foster trust and connection. Without trust, leaders will struggle to inspire the performance they need from their teams. 
  4. Despite layoffs, it can still be a struggle for organizations to attract and retain top talent. Today’s employees want a leader who cares about them. In that context, empathic leaders are a recruitment and retention strategy. A manager lacking in empathy will struggle to attract and retain high performing team members which impacts productivity and innovation.
  5. Empathy is also a skill and trait that helps leaders stay resilient in turbulent times. Empathy can facilitate a greater capacity to handle complex situations. Most leaders today are handling heavy workloads and complex problems and could benefit from greater resilience. 

Are there potential pitfalls or challenges associated with being an empathetic leader? How can these be addressed?

Yes, there are challenges with being an empathic leader. Too much empathy can be draining. It can challenge a leader’s resilience if they feel too much or are constantly taking on their employee’s challenges. Boundaries are essential. Leaders must know they can listen and acknowledge what an employee is going through but if the situation is beyond what the leader is equipped to support, they must seek additional support to help the employee. 

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process? 

The thought that keeps me awake at night is the fact that so many managers are struggling right now. Most managers I speak with are questioning whether it is worth it to be in a management role. They are thinking about going back to be an individual performer. This is a sign that we are not supporting managers enough and they require more support. This influences my decision-making because it inspires me to create more tools and resources that can help managers in their daily role and take some pressure off for them. 

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

The movement I would start is that I would make emotional intelligence training a part of high school, college, and university curriculums. Often employees and managers do not get any training or coaching on emotional intelligence topics such as empathy until they do professional development through their employer. We need to make these skills as essential as math and reading. 

How can our readers further follow you online?

I can be reaching on Linkedin and my website:

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.