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Driving Personal Connections

The Impact of Empathy and Social Change on the CEO Role

By Karen Dybis

Like many people, Garrick J. Rochow listens to leadership podcasts and sometimes hears a glimmer of truth that gives him pause. One that stuck with him over the past two years goes something like this: As a leader, are you having a moment or are you leading a movement?

The idea is simple, the president and chief executive officer of CMS and Consumers Energy said. A leader determines whether a national tragedy, like the death of George Floyd, or a health crisis like the coronavirus pandemic, affects his or her organization for a moment or whether it leads to sustainable change.

That is where Rochow decided he wanted his organization to create real change. As a result, Rochow said, CMS and Consumers Energy has created a variety of sustainable practices including Inclusion Champions, a Diversity, Inclusion and Equity Council and a broad review of more than three dozen business processes to identify unconscious bias. Rochow chairs the DEI Council as well.

“We looked at 40 processes across the company and we examined for unconscious bias in that process. The goal was to root out historic issues and stereotypes from over the years,” Rochow said.

Making empathy a priority

Leaders who use empathy with employees over the past two years are doing it right, but they should have been doing that all along and they always can do more, said Cindy Pasky, founder, president, and chief executive officer of Strategic Staffing Solutions (S3) in Detroit.
“Empathy and soft skills are inherent at S3. Our leadership roles are charged daily with removing barriers to success both for our customers and our team members,” Pasky said. “We make it a practice to hire the person and not the resume, whenever possible, and it works.

That means working with people where they are, Pasky said. For example, the S3 leadership team worked throughout the pandemic to reach out to team members and consultants to make sure everyone was healthy and adjusting to working from home. S3 also began the S3 Cares Fund to provide assistance and peace of mind to consultants or team members who may have been adversely affected by COVID-19.

Engage on a personal level

Taking the lead is an essential part of being an executive, but you also have to acknowledge your own humanity and see the humanity in others, said Linda Apsey, president and chief executive officer of Novi-based ITC Holdings Corp., the largest independent electricity transmission company in the U.S.

“Over the past two years, we saw the number of employees accessing mental health services through our health benefits program nearly triple. This statistic alone is very indicative of the stress and uncertainty we’ve all endured,” Apsey said. “As a leader, I’ve learned more about myself, our employees and organization than any other time in my career.”

Being vulnerable is a key part of this, Apsey said. Amid the social justice movement in 2020, and as part of ITC’s inclusion and diversity journey, she spoke personally through focus group sessions with her company’s employees from underrepresented minority groups to listen, engage, and understand their experiences and challenges.

“This effort pushed me well beyond my comfort zone, recognizing I had very little appreciation for their experiences and ongoing challenges. However, these conversations were truly one of the most powerful experiences of my personal and professional life,” Apsey said. “The opportunity to engage with employees on this very personal level ultimately drove deeper human connections, fostered a stronger team, and has made me a more effective leader.”

Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.


“Empathy and soft skills are inherent at S3. Our leadership roles are charged daily with removing barriers to success both for our customers and our team members. We make it a practice to hire the person and not the resume, whenever possible, and it works.”
-Cindy Pasky, Founder, President and Cheif Executive Officer, Strategic Staffing Solutions