According to Catalyst research, empathy in the workplace boosts productivity, innovation, and engagement. Revati “Rani” Puranik, global CFO of oil and gas equipment manufacturer Worldwide Oilfield Machine (WOM), has used that skill to establish trust and make informed decisions while building the second half of her career in the organization her father founded.
Puranik discusses why empathy is important to finance and accounting executives and how they can cultivate the skill.
Revati “Rani” Puranik
Co-owner, global CFO, and executive vice president of Worldwide Oilfield Machine (WOM)
Author of Seven Letters to My Daughters, a memoir
Notable previous companies:
Integral Search for Harmony through Art
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
SANDRA BECKWITH: How do you define empathy, especially in the context of the workplace?
RANI PURANIK: It relates to leading with love. Empathy is what I call love doubled up, which means that I am not looking at a situation, an employee, or a team member as either higher or lower than me in the hierarchy. There's no judgment, no competition, no fear or insecurity.
I'm looking at you from a relatable context, knowing that every person has a backstory. Let me see you where you're at. Then I can relate to you. Hopefully, that allows the other person to start resonating at that level, too, so that we can both raise up and go higher together.
It might be easier to see others as equals when you’re at the top. Are there risks for someone who isn’t there yet to view leaders that way?
PURANIK: I've not always been at this level, so I have had leaders and mentors who were much higher up and more influential than me. But I do think with empathy comes respect. I have approached them with respect for where they are. I may not look at them as a peer because I know that there's so much to learn from them, but I'm going to them with a very authentic place of respect. That allows me to come to them not from fear or insecurity, but from the sense that I'm actually talking to them as human beings.
Why is empathy important?
PURANIK: Most organizations will have a variety of people who have worked there for different lengths of time interacting with each other. It's important in the workplace to not see each other from a competitive angle, especially when you have more experience, because every person has something valuable to contribute.
Even what’s perceived as the smallest or softest voice has something to say. And it's equally important that we all listen. The only way to listen is to be empathetic. That becomes the culture of the company. And that's why it's so important to me.
What role has empathy played in your career?
PURANIK: My father founded the company. When your own father is the boss, people tend to think that you have a silver spoon or that you come with some sort of entitlement. But that wasn't me. When I joined the company in 2007, I knew I needed to listen and hear what was going on. Only when I started working with people, not having them work for me, but working with people, did I start developing trust. A core fundamental to developing trust in any organization is empathy.
How can a leader cultivate empathy when it doesn't come naturally or when they need more of it?
PURANIK: I think one of the things to consider, especially when we're climbing our career ladder, is that we're so excited to share our ideas or what we have to say. But it's important to pause for a second. Listen.
Yes, your ideas will be awesome and they will be heard. But they will be heard even more if you take the time to listen, because when we listen, we're receiving information. And information is power.
When we are able to digest it – and we can only digest it when we take that pause and not be so quick to react or respond – we can reflect back on something meaningful or productive. When we do that, the other person we're talking to is engaged. They feel heard.
What are other softer skills that help make a good finance leader?
PURANIK: One is the ability to be quiet because that allows you to listen. Creativity and positivity are assets, too. It's very easy to say, “We didn't hit our targets this time” and get into that negative spiral. But it's about being positive and finding solutions, finding a way.
Being positive isn’t about seeing everything through rose-colored glasses, though. It’s about facing challenges with very complex issues from a positive mindset that gives you the ability to find a solution.