This Father’s Day will be bittersweet for me. I’m looking forward to spending the day with my 5-year-old son and doing something special for his dad. And, I’ll be thinking a lot about my own father, who passed away in December.

The past several years have been challenging for all of us. Some, like me, have lost loved ones; others have dealt with illness, job loss, racial violence and discrimination, and a range of other hardships, including isolation and loneliness. One way or another, our lives have been upended throughout this pandemic. So many certainties, comforts, and familiarities changed or disappeared entirely. 

As chief people officer at Workday, I feel a deep responsibility to draw lessons from my own experience to help others. Leadership today requires a new level of humanity, and personal connection in our professional lives has never been more important. I’ve seen firsthand how, during times of great loss, colleagues show up for one another with profound empathy. 

By sharing my story, I hope to encourage others to be more open, lead with empathy, and support one another in the workplace.

My Experience With Loss

My dad wasn’t around much when I was young. Yet, despite his shortcomings, he always had a way of making sure I knew he loved me. In college, for example, while most kids rarely received a piece of physical mail, I got a handwritten letter from him every day. 

We grew closer when I became an adult, and we shared a sense of adventure, a love of the outdoors, and an interest in business. One of my favorite memories was fishing together. On our trips there was always something funny that happened, such as the time he accidentally caught a cormorant bird. I cherish those memories. 

Anyone who has lost a loved one knows that it’s really tough. The grief comes in waves, overwhelming you when you least expect it. I feel it most acutely when I want to share something with my dad that I know he’d appreciate, or when I see my son do something that would delight him. It breaks my heart that he won’t see his grandson grow up. I miss just hearing him say, “Hi, sweetheart.”

Leadership today requires a new level of humanity, and personal connection in our professional lives has never been more important.

Sharing Our Stories

When my dad passed away, my colleagues were incredibly supportive and kind. I especially appreciated the many people who reached out and shared their own stories. Loss is universal, and I’ve found comfort in knowing I’m not alone.

One positive shift we’ve seen during the pandemic is that people are now more likely to bring their authentic selves to work. We’ve seen each other in our homes, on our best and worst days, with kids screaming and dogs barking in the background. We’ve removed our facades and have let each other into our lives outside of the office. As a result, we now talk about things that never had much airtime before.

It’s OK to say, “I’m not OK.” We’re all humans going through challenges in life. And, as leaders, we have a responsibility to model openness and vulnerability.

Meeting People Where They Are

Anyone experiencing loss and grief needs something, whether that’s time away or help with their workload. During the pandemic, we reviewed Workday’s policies and looked for ways that we could best support our colleagues. For example, we expanded our “bereavement leave” to “compassionate leave,” recognizing that we are all facing an array of challenges. 

It’s important to have programs and policies that meet employees’ evolving needs. Equally important are the thousands of human interactions that make up our days. After losing my dad, I developed a greater appreciation for the little things. The text from a colleague “checking in to see if you’re OK.” The instant message simply saying, “Thinking of you.”

Being an open and empathetic leader builds trust, deepens connections, and strengthens a company’s culture.

If someone’s going through something, go ahead and send that virtual hug or leave them a voicemail. The seemingly small moments mean so much.

By making a habit of talking to your colleagues about their lives—so that you already know they’re caring for an elderly parent or that they have a beloved pet—you’ll be better prepared to show up for them when they really need you. 

Practicing Empathy

For some leaders, talking about mental health and showing up with compassion comes naturally. For others, it requires stepping out of their comfort zone. While it’s something I’ve always tried to practice, I know I don’t always do it well. It takes dedication and deliberation. 

It’s important that we help managers hone these skills—to recognize when their colleagues are facing challenges—and have the confidence to have courageous conversations. With this in mind, we’re giving our leaders at Workday new enablement tools to help them lean into conversations around mental health with authenticity and empathy. 

Being an open and empathetic leader builds trust, deepens connections, and strengthens a company’s culture. 

Valuing What Matters Most

Life happens to all of us, and it’s how we show up for each other—during the good and bad moments—that define us. If we’ve learned anything from these challenging times, it’s the powerful reminder that community and authentic connections matter most. Which brings me back to Father’s Day. 

While I plan to celebrate my husband for being a great dad to our son, I’ll be thinking a lot about my father. I’m not sure how we’ll spend the day, but maybe we’ll start a new tradition and go fishing in his honor.

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