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How To Be A Compassionate Leader

Sumu Sethi

Sumu Sethi

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How To Be A Compassionate Leader

Sumu Sethi


Sumu Sethi

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Sumu Sethi
Full transcript here

About Sumu Sethi

Episode 151: In LAB #37, Amardeep Parmar from The BAE HQ, welcomes Sumu Sethi, Leadership Expert.

In this episode, Sumu Sethi, a leadership expert, discusses the importance of emotional intelligence in leadership, debunk common misconceptions about leadership styles, and provide practical advice on maintaining compassion under pressure and fostering team collaboration.

Sumu Sethi

Show Notes

00:00: Intro 

01:59 - Common misconceptions about leadership styles

04:08 - The value of compassionate leadership in an organisation

05:48 - Maintaining compassion under pressure

07:29 - Creating a calm and open environment

09:13 - Authenticity and transparency in leadership

11:24 - Avoiding corporate speak and promoting honesty

14:02 - Balancing decision-making autonomy with team input

16:14 - Addressing underperformance with compassion

17:47 - Shout outs to inspiring British Asians

20:14 - How to connect with Sumu Sethi

20:29 - Sumu Sethi’s call for support and consultancy

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Sumu Sethi Full Transcript

Sumu Sethi: 0:00

But that emotional intelligence piece is super important. I've worked in my industry for over 20 years now and the leaders who I remember are the compassionate ones.

Amardeep Parmar: 0:16

How to be a compassionate leader. How do you define this? What value does it bring to an organization? How can you reframe common misconceptions? How much autonomy should you give the team? How do you maintain this under pressure? To help us answer that question, we have Sumu Sethi, who's the Chief of Staff in Digital Health. She's had over a 20-year career there, rising up the ranks, leading many different people and growing as a leader along the way. I hope you enjoy this episode. I'm Amar from the BAE HQ and this podcast is sponsored by HSBC Innovation Banking. So great to have you today. Today we're talking all about compassionate leadership, and I think the first thing to start off with is how do you define compassionate leadership? What does that mean to you?

Sumu Sethi: 1:02

Well, firstly, thank you, Amar, uh thanks for inviting me on here. Compassionate leadership, to me, is really about thinking more about the emotional intelligence of leadership. I think the general conception of leadership is quite being a strong character, knowing what's needed, but that emotional intelligence piece is super important. Um, I've worked in in my industry for over 20 years now and the leaders who I remember are the compassionate ones, those people who've shown kindness, who've shown understanding and really created a safe environment that's very supportive to help understand what my next career step is or if I've got challenges in the work that I'm doing, creating that safe environment where I really feel like they're not going to judge me, they're just going to help. So I think that compassionate piece is so important if you're going to be a successful leader in any industry.

Amardeep Parmar: 1:59

I think so often as well. People are thrown into the leadership roles without really even giving giving training and they often rely on outdated ideas of what leadership is. What are common misconceptions you've seen of people in their 72 leadership role that they bring? That maybe they just misunderstand?

Sumu Sethi: 2:14

So I think when you're a leader, you're sent on all these courses that sort of understand what your profile type is and what kind of leadership leader you are, and I think, certainly when I was younger as well, I was like, right, I have to be this kind of leader, but it felt very uncomfortable and it felt very sort of unnatural as well.

Sumu Sethi: 2:35

So I think the common misconception is is that you have to be strong, you have to be, you have to lead the team, you have to pull them along rather than bring them along with you, and you have to be firm and you have to be, in some words, I would say, quite aggressive, I would say as well, otherwise you're not going to be successful, and that is so far from the truth. I think you know a lot of these leadership courses can also be very misleading in terms of trying to make leadership styles like a cookie cutter course, and it's not the case. You should use those courses or trainings as a guide, but you should really understand and this is where you have to listen to your heart kind of leader you want to be, and I think people appreciate that. It's all about being authentic rather than being how a course should tell you to be, or how leadership in general is perceived.

Sumu Sethi: 3:39

So that would be my advice to people.

Amardeep Parmar: 3:41

And I guess a lot of people like you said, where they feel like they have to be aggressive, they have to be strong, otherwise the company won't be successful. And if you look at that from the other perspective right of what is being a compassionate leader, what value does that bring to the organization? So especially for founders now who are they're setting the culture of their team right, like the way that they are as a leader sets the culture of the entire organization. Why does being a compassionate leader mean that they're going to be a better company and more successful in the long run?

Sumu Sethi: 4:08

So I think, um, in terms of leaders in general, they have a lot of pressure on them, right, so we usually have to deliver something or they have milestones and goals. So there is a lot of pressure, um, on that individual. But it's firstly how, firstly, how you deal with that pressure as an individual and how you try and shield your team, I would say, from that pressure as well. I think people can be.

Sumu Sethi: 4:37

I've worked with leaders who have been, I would say, borderline scary, because they take a very aggressive approach to leadership and the result of that is that people then feel afraid of them and then you can't really bring up any issues that come along with delivering a certain goal and, you know, expect the unexpected. Nothing goes smoothly. You can plan and plan and plan, and sometimes things don't go according to plan. So if you've got quite an aggressive or strong leadership like that, then people in the team are then afraid to actually bring up these, these challenges, and actually discuss them, whereas if you have a more compassionate style, where you create an environment where you talk about how to achieve those goals together not the leader, but the team we're all the same and create an environment where things can be discussed openly. I think that leads to better team dynamics, more accountability for each of the team members and helping to achieve those goals as well.

Amardeep Parmar: 5:48

And sometimes people think this is all great if things are going well. Right, it's very easy to be compassionate when times are good and the money is flowing in and all your customers are happy. But when things are really under pressure, how can leaders maintain their cool and make sure that they keep this compassion, compassion they don't just turn it off and start acting into the Jekyll and Hyde kind of model?

Sumu Sethi: 6:08

So I think you really do have to keep calm and carry on, because I think, you know, recently I've started to get some feedback from my colleagues because I'm thinking about, sort of my next career step and they all said to me that you're very calm under pressure and you seem to be a calm person in general, and I think I don't do it. Um, you know, I don't have to think about like, okay, keep calm. I just think, right, okay, if I'm calm, then the entire team will be calm and we, if there is a problem, then we need to sort this out together as a team, and whether it's at work or personal stuff, I'm always the one being brought in to, you know, make sure everything's calm and make sure that things can get resolved. So I think creating that calm environment really helps in times of stress, in times of pressure. Helps in times of stress in times of pressure, and I'm a great believer in talking through things. So I think it's again going back to that safe environment, creating an environment where people can actually openly discuss and openly resolve things together in order to, you know, get over these hurdles that do occur when you're delivering a program or you're delivering a company or you're delivering anything.

Sumu Sethi: 7:29

I think it is important, and I think for me as well. I have certain things that I do to keep myself calm, because I get stressed too, I get anxious too, but I think it's important to practice that that. Okay, do you know what? Everything's going to be fine in the end. We just need to find what that journey is from. This is the problem to this is the solution. And you know, like I said, it's really good to talk through with people, because I think people perceive leaders as knowing the answer, and me, as a leader, I don't know everything, so I value input, I value people having that discussion, so I think it's important to hear everybody's voices, make sure everybody understands what the next step are and also set the expectations as well, so that everybody's clear as to how we can actually overcome any challenges. So that's my. I wouldn't say it's a method. I would just say that that's how I, that's how I roll as a leader.

Amardeep Parmar: 8:33

You mentioned a few different reframes about how people can think about leadership here as well, so the one just now was about, for example, where you don't need to know all the answers right and if you can open up the feedback from your team, that means you can get everything done more effectively. Is there any other reframes you can think of right now that leaders should be thinking about, where maybe they have one mental model and they can maybe think about things in a different way and it could open up their eyes and maybe make them better leader.

Sumu Sethi: 8:58

I think, um, I think what I was saying earlier about being authentic, um, I think, just be yourself, um, you know, don't pretend to be somebody who you're not.

Sumu Sethi: 9:13

And I think being genuine and being transparent is very, very important in any kind of relationship, but particularly in the workplace as well. I think you know, when I was leading a team many years ago, I learned that I want to meet every team member. I want to sit down with them. They don't know me, I don't know them. We then have an expectations call, so we would say, right, okay, so if you were my team member, I'd say Amar, what do you need from me? And then I would then say you know what I needed from you. We would come to an agreement, but then we'd check in every month to say are you getting what you need from me? You know. So I think that's very, very important to do expectations.

Sumu Sethi: 10:08

The second thing is being honest.

Sumu Sethi: 10:09

So if you ask me a question like I don't know what is the weather going to be like next Thursday, I could say well, you know, I feel that you know it's definitely going to be raining at two o'clock in the afternoon, whereas being authentic is saying I have no idea, I just don't know.

Sumu Sethi: 10:28

So I think it's being genuine but being very transparent, that if you don't as a leader, if you don't know something, just say it, instead of the blah blah chat chat just say you don't know, and I think people really appreciate that, because then that also sort of opens up conversation of saying I don't know, but but maybe you do have, have you got any ideas? So I think that helps build stronger relationships with your team as well. And I think the other thing that's really important is for all human beings, we all make mistakes. So whether you're part of a team or a leader, you can say sorry, my bad, I made a mistake or I'm really sorry I didn't do that. Thanks so much for reminding me. I'll get on to that right now. So again, being transparent I, I think, goes a long way with people.

Amardeep Parmar: 11:24

Yeah, I'm laughing there about the blah, blah blah, because I think I sometimes do that myself for a muscle question and I'm on the spot. I'm like then you just start saying something that's not really the right answer, but I've now just said it and it's like I should just say like, oh, okay, I think what happens sometimes is when it's not top priority for you at that time, where you don't really want to explain something. So you just say something quickly. But the challenge is that the person who works for you is going to take that on board as if you were being serious, if that was the main thing. So it is like you said sometimes it's one if you don't know something, but I think it's also, if you maybe don't have the headspace right now to give them a proper answer, to not give them an answer which is half-assed, because you could just cause yourself problems too.

Sumu Sethi: 12:05

Exactly. I would rather give a simple answer or no answer at all. There are a lot of people you know who I know who I've worked with in the past. They're very good at what's called corporate speak, and I'm not good at that. I'm really not. I just tell it like it is, but I think people appreciate that more, where you're actually saying do you know what I really don't know? Or you know, let's find out together. I think that is so important to be honest to yourself. But also that gives them the space for people to be absolutely upfront and honest and you know, if there are problems in a program that you're doing, they will come to you more easily rather than you projecting this. I'm perfect, I know what I'm doing, I have all the answers which nobody has Right. So I think it benefits a lot of things here.

Amardeep Parmar: 13:06

We hope you're enjoying the episode so far. We just want to give a quick shout out to our headline partners, HSBC Innovation Banking. One of the biggest challenges for so many startups is finding the right bank to support them, because you might start off and try to use a traditional bank, but they don't understand what you're doing. You're just talking to an AI assistant or you're talking to somebody who doesn't really understand what it is you've been trying to do.

Amardeep Parmar: 13:28

HSBC have got the team they've built out over years to make sure they understand what you're doing. They've got the deep sector expertise and they can help connect you with the right people to make your dreams come true. So if you want to learn more, check out hsbc innovation banking. com. We mentioned about getting the team to contribute more right in terms of their ideas and hearing their voices. How do you know, as a leader, how much you should be kind of telling people what to do and how much is on you to make sure that you make the decisions, versus sharing that with the team? Like, how do you know how much autonomy to give to people around their decision making?

Sumu Sethi: 14:02

So I think I'm. It comes back to that expectations chat that I have with people in the beginning. I like to understand what kind of support they need from me, um, where their knowledge base is.

Sumu Sethi: 14:14

If they're you know, if they're starting something new, do they need more support? They need less support, and I think it's also around understanding what their goals are as well. Right, so I think, as a leader, what I tend to do is we have a conversation as to what needs to be done. I then invite them to say okay, so how are you going to do this? I don't tell them how to do it. I feel that's then not the opportunity for them to learn. So I really feel like I let them go away. They do it and then say right, come back to me next Monday, let's talk about it, let's see how you've got on. And I think, with their feedback, you then slowly get to learn how much more support they need, how much more advice they need. But again, coming back to the compassion, you need to do it in a compassionate way. You shouldn't be empowering people to do things and then, when they come back, and if it's not quite what you wanted, you shouldn't then explode into why have you done it like that?

Sumu Sethi: 15:22

it should be like okay do you think you've made as much progress as you had hoped? And let them answer the question and then, okay, what do you think we should do next? So I think it's um, I don't know, maybe a sixth sense, but I think it just comes with experience, with um sort of mentoring and coaching. A lot of people understand what their needs are and adapt as you go along and you mentioned that a bit at the end there.

Amardeep Parmar: 15:49

But let's say you've got an underperforming team member where maybe they're not contributing as much as you'd hope. How can you be compassionate, coaching them as well? Because sometimes you've got somebody rising who's listening to your advice, who's taking it on board and you can see that trajectory going well. But it's sometimes harder to deal with the people who may be underperforming and maybe you feel like you're trying to tell them things, you're trying to help them, but they're not quite taking it. How do you use compassion in that context?

Sumu Sethi: 16:14

I think, again, it's not, you know, creating an environment where they think they've done something wrong. It's trying to talk in their language as well and what they understand, so understanding if they think there's an issue. Some people don't think there is an issue, and that's an alternative conversation for probably another podcast, but I think, generally speaking, it's. You know, like I said before, I like to talk through issues, I like to understand okay, okay, how can we resolve this? But the compassion comes in saying, okay, you don't have to do this by yourself, I'm here, I've got you, I'm going to help you do this.

Sumu Sethi: 16:55

So I think, I think you know, understanding together that there is an issue and then thinking about a plan of how we are going to resolve it together and how you're going to support them in a compassionate, kind way, that they feel that okay yes, I agree we should have done it differently, but let's try this. So I think you know, I think blame is counterproductive. Like I said, we're all human. I think, recognizing that things haven't gone so well, it's not a failure, it's a learning right and you move on. You move on from it and try to resolve it together.

Amardeep Parmar: 17:41

So thank you so much for your tips and compassion leadership.

Amardeep Parmar: 17:47

So the first one is who are three British Asians you think are doing incredible work and you'd love to shout them out today?

Sumu Sethi: 17:53

I used to love Goodness Gracious Me, which is a programme from many years ago. It was the first British Indian programme on television, a comedy programme, and I really loved Meera Syal. I loved all the characters that she played. But you know, from then on she has done so much great work in the field of arts. She's really down to earth, she's very inspiring and she seems like a very kind person as well. So I think, you know, she was sort of, I would say, one of my role models when I was, when I was growing up, and then I think the next person I can think of is again in the arts is Dev Patel. Um, I mean, we all saw him as a young boy in Slumdog Millionaire and he's been so successful in Hollywood. Um, I've seen quite a few of his movies and he's just produced a movie as well recently, which has had many accolades at Cannes. So I think he's very inspiring for the youth of today.

Sumu Sethi: 18:59

And I think the third one, Amar, would actually be you, because we connected recently and I think I saw one of your posts because one of my other colleagues was attending one of your sessions, and so I looked up your profile and looked up what you're doing in BAE and I was like, wow, this is amazing, a Sikh guy is doing this and that's really great.

Sumu Sethi: 19:22

So that's why I messaged you, because, you know, I thought this was a great thing that you're doing, but also you know the fact that you're helping people and I'm sure you're a compassionate leader as well providing that safe environment for people to connect, to get to know each other and also to progress. It's not about you. You're actually building a community, a network of people to help them be successful as well. And you know, when we, when we chatted last week as well, I felt amazing. Considering it was a Friday I was like, wow, this guy is amazing. You know, I really I wish you all the success, because I think this is just the start of your journey.

Amardeep Parmar: 20:05

Thank you. Always appreciate when I get one of the shout outs myself and very kind words there, and if people want to find out more about you and what you're up to, where should they go to?

Sumu Sethi: 20:14

So if you want to find out about me, I'm on. I'm on LinkedIn, Sumu Sethi.

Amardeep Parmar: 20:18

Yeah, always, always happy to chat, always happy to have a conversation and always happy to support as a compassionate leader.

Amardeep Parmar: 20:25

But on the other side, is there anything that you need help with right now that the audience listening could help you with?

Sumu Sethi: 20:29

As I mentioned before, I'm thinking about my next career step. I've worked many years in the industry and I would like to avail of my knowledge and for people to avail of my knowledge in the the pharma industry and to really think about how well, how it could benefit them. So if you need support for a small biotech or a bigger company, you need some, a consultant or advice. I'm happy to chat, happy to help people, always, um. So that's what I would like help with, um in terms of where is the space where I can really add value to somebody's company, whether it's a startup, a small biotech or the large industry per se?

Amardeep Parmar: 21:15

Awesome, so thank you again so much for coming on today. Have you got any final words?

Sumu Sethi: 21:19

Just thank you so much. I hope people enjoyed our chat. I really, really did enjoy it. Thank you, Amar, again, and whatever you're doing, just be authentic. Be yourself and everything will be fine in the end.

Amardeep Parmar: 21:36

Thank you for watching. Don't forget to subscribe. See you next time.

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