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December 14, 2021

Leading with Empathy: Care and Compassion as a Management Strength

Technology is the overarching theme of this blog. But a staffing technology utopia must be built on a solid foundation. The successful implementation of technology demands the right internal culture – if your team doesn’t have the right mindset, your tech efforts will fall flat. And for leaders, a key pillar in this cultural development is one that has arguably been seen as a weakness in decades gone by.

Today we’re going to talk about the role of empathy in modern staffing leadership, and we’ll be taking our cues from someone who has brought this approach from the very beginning of his journey.

Empathetic leadership: an origin story

Rich Smith was a particularly young father when his three-month-old contracted influenza A. “I had no business being a dad,” he admits,” I had no idea what to do.”

Thankfully there was a particular nurse whose compassion and empathy helped him through that tough time and ended up leaving an indelible mark on Smith. “I think she spent more time taking care of me because I was a wreck.” As he checked his eventually healthy daughter out of the hospital, he said that he hoped to see that nurse soon. She replied that it wasn’t likely because she was a travel nurse – she’d be flying home to Seattle in two weeks.

Fast forward to today, and this experience has shaped Smith’s life in two major ways. One, he is the co-founder of Atlas MedStaff, a healthcare staffing firm that specializes in placing travel nurses. Two, he does everything that he can to lead with the empathy and compassion that he felt in that hospital, as he held his sick three-month-old in his arms.

How leadership can be informed by empathy

The hospital experience informed how Smith treated travel nurses from day one of his enterprise. “We're not making widgets in a factory. These are people who have feelings and career aspirations. They're trusting us, and that trust needs to be repaid. We need to ask ourselves: where does this person fit best?”

A lot of people presume that this sort of approach works for boutique agencies, not large ones. But with the help of technology, Atlas MedStaff delivers a personalized and empathetic experience to over 1500 travel nurses. “You can still offer care and empathy at scale,” says Smith.

The fact is that a lot of staffing and recruiting professionals begin with this empathetic approach but are worn down over time, their bleeding hearts eventually blackened. How has Atlas MedStaff managed to retain its empathy?

The company begins by recruiting the right recruiters. During the interview process, they work to identify those who have empathy, and once they join the team, they provide regular training and support. Atlas MedStaff eventually promoted one of its best and most empathetic recruiters to a training role, enabling him to guide others on how to continue to deliver the levels of service for which the company had by then become known.

The firm invested in automation tools that minimized busywork, leaving recruiters more time to add their human touch to the process and provide the care that they were famous for. Finally, the leaders got out of their recruiters’ way. They trusted workers to do things the right way.

“This approach doesn’t always work,” admits Smith. “We’ve been burned by both recruiters and candidates. But you need to be able to dust yourself off and go again. You need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, the greater good.”

Attracting and retaining staff with empathy and humanity

During the Great Resignation, most staffing business owners struggle to attract and retain people. Not Atlas MedStaff.

“Seven years ago our Director of Experience came up with a motto: ‘where you belong’. We initially developed it for our traveling nurses, but we soon realized it resonated with our internal staff too. It really represents who we are. If you're here, there's a reason why.”

These three words inform everything that the company does. They aim to create the best experience possible for both employees and candidates – one that their current people don’t want to leave, and that candidates and potential employees want to be part of.

Working from home made people feel totally disconnected from one another. Prior to March 2020 people didn’t connect technology to culture, but these days technology is critical to fostering a sense of connectedness and belonging in a remote working situation. The companies that figure out their own special sauce of communication and collaboration technology are going to be successful.

You need to create communities where workers can interact with one another, ideally in a safe and private place, because you need to be cognizant of the fact that gossiping, venting and sharing grievances is a fundamental part of the work experience. Teams and Zoom should be used to replicate the water coolers chats of yore in as genuine a way as possible. At the end of the day, technology is the enabler and amplifier of modern company culture.

Recruiting Methods You Haven't Tested | Able

Being accessible as leaders

Atlas MedStaff got a head start on remote working. When they started a decade ago, they knew that this model was the only way they were going to be able to take business off their biggest competitors. They’ve spent the last 10 years learning about technology, about communication, and about the importance of physically bringing people together, even if it’s just a couple of times a year.

But most of all they learned the importance of being accessible as leaders.

“Historically leaders would come in and just close their door,” says Smith. “I experienced that multiple times through my career, so I committed to never being that guy. My very first seat at Atlas was on the floor, right by the door. We didn't even have a receptionist desk – people called me the receptionist. And I loved it. I still talk to the mailman from those days – we're friends on Facebook.

“And you know what? When you walk into the doors of Atlas now, I'm still the receptionist.”

Smith still sits on the main floor, right next to the door, greeting people as they walk in. Next to him is his co-founder Steve. All the other leaders are right there too. They’re accessible, they’re vulnerable, and they’re leading by example.

“We never ask people to do things we wouldn’t or don’t do ourselves. People also see when we screw up or make poor decisions.”

Know your team, know yourself

By removing the physical doors and the more invisible organizational barriers, the Atlas MedStaff feedback loop is almost instant. If you don't understand why your employees do what they do, you’re no chance of getting the best out of them. Making yourself accessible, as Smith and his team have done, allows you to gain that understanding. And one thing that they’ve come to understand is that their feelings about their company might be different to those of their employees, but that’s OK.

“Steve and I are so passionate about Atlas. We race to work every morning, and I get angry if I get there after him. But it’s important to recognize that the average employee will never care as much as I do, or as much as he does, about the company, because it’s not their baby. All I want is for them to feel just a little bit of the excitement and motivation that I feel; for my passion to impact them in some small way. Being accessible gives me that chance.”

Having been named one of the fastest-growing staffing companies in America over the last few years, it appears that Smith and his team are doing something right.


Listen in to episode 42 of the You Own the Experience Podcast to learn more about leading with Empathy. 

Topic(s): Podcast