A Silicon Valley veteran shares the leadership strategy she swears by

  • Padmasree Warrior is the CEO and founder of Fable and was previously an executive at Cisco and Motorola.
  • During her two decades in leadership roles, she has developed rituals for getting to know her employees.
  • She says that’s the key to being a good leader. Here is his story, told to Robin Madell.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Padmasree Warriorthe founder and CEO of the social reading app Fableformer CTO of Cisco and Motorola, and former CEO of Nio US, a China-based electric vehicle company. Warrior also sits on the boards of Microsoft and Spotify. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

People choose people, not companies. More and more, everyone wants to work for or with other people with whom they feel a deeper connection. Two of a leader’s most critical abilities are empathy and creating a sense of belonging, so that everyone on their team brings their whole authentic selves to work.

To do this, my best leadership advice is to get to know the person behind the job title.

For almost 20 years, I have strived to get to know people, and I make a point of inventing rituals for doing so that depend on the size and scale of the team.

I have established a weekly gathering which I call fika

It’s named after the traditional Swedish coffee break and allows people across my company, Fable, to come together (physically or virtually) to discuss things other than work – hobbies, interests, pet peeves, families, friends, movies, music, art, food, wine, cocktails and, of course, books.

A different member of the team hosts fika every Friday, and they come up with a question for everyone to think about and discuss. Past questions have included:

  • What do you stock in your pantry that you should be throwing out but don’t have, and what does that say about you?
  • If you could live in any fictional world, which would you choose?
  • If you could time travel and not return, when and where would you go? Why?

It creates a safe space for everyone to be their true and whole, not just their working persona. It’s amazing how much we learn from each other this way – a big impact at virtually no cost that builds goodwill within teams.

The only rule for these cats is not to talk about work

Also, share by example. The leader should open up as much as he expects his team members to open up. If the leader is reserved and reticent, people will not feel comfortable sharing their personal experiences.

Participation should be voluntary; recognize that not everyone may be able to attend, and that’s okay.

It allows people to get to know each other more deeply. I’ve noticed how people’s eyes light up when they talk about their hobbies or their family or what they care about deeply.

This strategy helps me better understand each member of my team, which in turn helps me become a better and more empathetic leader.

At Cisco, I hosted birthday chats, where everyone who had a birthday in a given month was invited to join me for breakfast, either in person or virtually.

I want to foster a work culture that is based on authenticity and accessibility

People shouldn’t feel pressured to give up part of themselves when they come to work.

What we need to change is the notion that you shouldn’t put both your personal and professional mindset at work. Making personal connections with the people we work with helps blur those boundaries and certainly helps everyone’s work-life integration.

In return, my team members see me as a human being and not as a robot leader. This increases mutual respect and creates loyal bonds between team members and leaders, which in turn fosters a sense of belonging at work.

It’s a universal strategy for anyone leading people, regardless of your industry, company size, or country.

About Dwaine Pinson

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