Episode 433: Pets are Family. Empathy-Driven Leadership with Erika Sinner

Episode Summary

Throughout this episode, you’ll hear about the importance of empathy in the workplace, the benefits of fostering an empathy-driven culture, and practical tips for leaders on supportive team members through personal challenges. Erika also talks about including pet bereavement policies, and how it can lead to better communication, increase trust, and create a more positive work environment, her Moments that Matter document, and much more.

Steve Shallenberger: Welcome to our podcast listeners, wherever you may be in the world today. Thank you for joining us. We love the fact that we can be together with you. Today, we have a compassionate guest with us. She is the CEO of Directory and the author of “Pets Are Family.” She is more than just a leader; she’s a catalyst for change in the realm of empathy at work. So, welcome, Erika Sinner.

Erika Sinner: Thank you so much, Steve. It’s so wonderful to be here.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, I’m looking forward to this. This will be a bit of a different interview than I’m used to having, but I think it has so much of an overlay over everything that we do that impacts leadership in a significant way. I’m looking forward to our discussion on this. Her background, rooted in humble beginnings and marked by hard work, instilled in her the grit and tenacity that propelled her to entrepreneurship and success. She founded Directory, which is a company dedicated to supporting small to medium-sized life science organizations in delivering essential medications to patients who need them most. First of all, let’s just start off, Erika. Tell us about your background, including any turning point in your life that’s had a significant impact on you.

Erika Sinner: Absolutely. I grew up from very humble beginnings. I’m the American dream, I guess I would say. My parents are from Mexico, and moving here was a tough childhood. But I think it really instilled in me all the things that have made me very successful today. The road to entrepreneurship definitely requires tenacity. I started off in a life science professional career. When I identified this need for a company like Directory, it was about betting on myself to make that happen. Last year, losing my dog Kingston is what sparked my book, but I’ve always been a huge proponent of empathy-driven leadership and having an empathy-driven culture.

Steve Shallenberger: Your book is full of empathy; I could feel it. Thanks for providing it to me in advance. I enjoyed reading it. One of the things that you mentioned in your bio is that Directory is a company dedicated to supporting small to medium-sized life science organizations in delivering essential medications to patients who need them the most. Can you describe what that is?

Erika Sinner: I think everyone’s aware of big pharma. You have the names that you know and trust, like Pfizer and Merck. But there’s actually a lot of really incredible innovation happening. Every single year, there are over 300 new drug applications go to the FDA. What’s hard about that, and what a lot of the general public isn’t aware of, is that for all of those medications, you need to have a full team available for commercialization. So, you’re preparing the market and getting the websites ready. We come onto your commercialization team, but the actual approval rate is only about 12 to 15 products a year by the FDA. For all those companies that didn’t get approval, they need more data. Rather than having to disband their entire team, we’re an agency that’s able to be there for them. So, it’s not severance packages or letting people go. For my team, we just move on to the next project or come back to them when they’re ready to resubmit. Again, from an empathy approach, it’s about getting to do the things that we really love—supporting these important medications—but also not having employees worry about “What happens if we don’t get approved. Will I have a job?”

Steve Shallenberger: If you don’t mind, for our listeners, I was captivated by your book, “Pets Are Family.” Erika happens to write quite a bit about how to deal with the loss of pets. They are part of our family. So, I invite our listeners to think about all the pets they’ve had or been around, whether they’re family or friends’ pets. I was thinking back about this. I guess I have six dogs buried on our hill overlooking the valley here. Some of the passing have been traumatic. We lived in Spain for three years and have our very favorite Miniature Schnauzer buried in the corner of the yard there. She was 13. We just don’t forget these pets. My first pet was Sarge, a big old dog who died in my arms from liver disease. We learn a lot of lessons. I don’t want to trivialize this in any way, but I think there are also crossovers to losing family members and friends with some of the similar emotions you described. So, tell us about the book, the journey for you, and what do you feel is the main purpose of that book.

Erika Sinner: I think, for me, it was important to write the book for two different types of audiences. One is for those who have lost a pet and are really struggling, wondering, “Why does it hurt this bad? Is it supposed to hurt this bad? Is something wrong with me? Should I go to the doctor?” Maybe the answer is yes, but for me, I thought it was important to start having a conversation. As a society, we struggle with talking about grief. Everyone wants to get back to normal and being okay, even with human beings. So, when you think about your animals, it’s even harder to talk about just how hard it actually is when you lose them. It’s interesting what you just said about your own furry family members; some losses are harder than others. I think normalizing that, too—that you do have different relationships with each animal. Some people call them your “soul dog” or “heart dog” or animal. I’ve always had bereavement leave in my corporate policies, but I didn’t appreciate how much I was going to need it, nor how I would feel taking it. Here I am, owning my own company, able to take time off work, and my employees can take advantage of that as well. Even while I took the time off, I still felt a little bit of shame thinking “Will people understand? Am I showing up as a good leader?” Is anyone thinking, “Can’t you just get it together? It’s just a dog.” The answer, for me, is no—they truly are your family, and it’s really hard when you lose them. Showing up with vulnerability and speaking about it in public is my calling and why I had to write the book. The other audience I wrote it for is those who don’t understand. Part of empathy is giving others grace even when you don’t understand what they’re going through. I thought it was important to let others into my life to be able to bring them along the journey with me so that if they are loving or caring for someone who is really hurting from losing their animal and they don’t understand, maybe this could give them a little glimpse into what’s happening.

Steve Shallenberger: Erika, what kind of sensitivity should there be that you think is helpful for people who have lost their pets when they go back to work? What recommendations might you make to give people comfort?

Erika Sinner: I think it’s really about taking it back to how you would interact with somebody who lost a human family member. When people hear about Kingston or when they can see that I’m still visibly hurting, I find it interesting to hear things like, “He had a good life,” or “You could just get a new puppy now.” You would never say that about a human being. You would say, “I’m really just so sorry,” and “You must miss them.” You share stories about them and understand that they aren’t ready to be their bubbly self, so you give them a little grace. Every call doesn’t have to start with, “How was your weekend?” or “How are you doing?” while thinking, “Well, it’s just your dog,” or “It’s just your turtle or your rabbit,” or whichever animal is your family member. It’s about trying to help people understand how to support those they love and their colleagues at work, normalizing that pets are family in the same way we grieve for human beings. For humans, we have funerals, obituaries, and ceremonies. We know how to show up for somebody—you send food, donate to their charity in their honor, or plant a tree. For pets, it becomes a little gray. We’re comfortable sharing cute photos. They are with us every day, and they might show up on our Zoom calls. I think it’s about making the connection for the world to see that, yes, they are just as important. So, in the same way that you would engage with a colleague, I think it’s important to engage with a colleague who has lost an animal.

Steve Shallenberger: Erika and I had the opportunity to discuss Becoming Your Best as we traded thoughts about each other’s books. There is a chapter on building and maintaining trust in “Becoming Your Best: The 12 Principles of Highly Successful Leaders.” One interesting thing we talk about in seminars is the New York Times research showing that 35% of people feel like others will take advantage of them, but 85% feel like if they know a person, they will be treated fairly. We’ve often thought, could it be that simple? If we knew another person’s story, trust levels would be much higher, and we’d be more effective together. The other thing we’ve observed that in some organizations, people sit next to each other and don’t know each other’s stories, even after 10 or 20 years. So, I’m thinking about this dynamic—whether it’s a pet loss or a human loss—of how we can give support to the people sitting next to us or in our organization. It’s an opportunity to have a closer relationship and better understand another person. When they feel understood, they will just break their pick to help you reach your goals and be good to you. So, I have another question, that’s why I gave this preface. Because it takes both sides of us. You’ve just shared with us some of the things we can do to lend support and empathize with others. What are some ways that a person who has suffered a loss can express this both professionally and authentically to communicate it to the team? Should they, or what are their thoughts, and what are the best ways to do it?

Erika Sinner: I wrote in my book that at the end, I have resources available both for how to welcome an employee back as well as for the employee coming back to work. How do you ask for some grace while recognizing you still have deliverables, you have responsibilities, and you’re accountable for your projects? Some of the tips that I have in there, I think you do have to talk about it. I think you have to open up, even if it’s not fully; it’s enough to be able to say to your manager, “I’m really grieving now. I understand all the projects on my plate today are important. Can you help me prioritize them? Are there any that we can addeven a couple of days?” This helps to relieve some of the pressure while the employee is coming back from grieving. The CDC reports that every year, the productivity cost from unmanaged grief is over $200 billion. So, it’s mutually beneficial both for the employer and the employee to talk about it. Your mind is in other places; you’re hurting, you’re suffering, and you also want to do a good job. You care about your role and what you’re working on. Trying to manage your projects, along with getting through your days, can be really tough. So, it’s important to talk about it. But I do think that starts with the leadership team and the culture of the organization, creating a place where employees feel safe enough to share their personal grief and what they’re going through. In my organization, we have a document called “Moments That Matter.” The moments are meetings—it’s our team meetings, all-company meetings, and one-on-ones with managers. We outlined a structure for each of those meetings, and I think the one-on-one with a manager is one of the most important meetings that can happen in an organization. We train all of our managers that these meetings have to happen. It can’t just be when you need something on a project; it really has to be that weekly you’re checking in with your direct reports and that you are starting off with asking them about their life and how things are going, such as “What’s something you did last week that you were really proud of?” or “What’s something that was really frustrating that you thought maybe could have been easier?” Take a moment to actually care about the response your employee is giving you. Those are the ways if I think you consistently do that, you can start to build trust and create a space where your employee will feel the trust and the safety to share with you when they’re going through a hard time.

Steve Shallenberger: What’s the name that you’ve given that, Erika? What did you call that?

Erika Sinner: Moments that matter.

Steve Shallenberger: “Moments that matter.” How has that been received? How has it worked for you? What’s the impact?

Erika Sinner: From the first rollout a few years ago, I think some thought it was interesting, “Wow, there’s such a structure to all of the types of meetings that we’re having,” especially around these one-on-ones, because usually, you go to an organization and there’s not someone who’s mandating that you have these one-on-ones. Your boss is busy; they’re canceling meetings or moving things out. But by us prioritizing and doing so with intention, we want to check in with our employees every week. It’s become important to them, and the benefit has really been they get to know their teams and have these human moments with them. The employee can also feel like “I have a dedicated time where I can share the things that I’m doing at work that I can be proud of.” But also when things are hard, you can get the support you need from your manager because they’re asking. I really believe it has been very beneficial to do that. I think it’s not inherently a skill that you’re going to know in terms of how to manage meetings and people. By having some sort of structure or roadmap for your managers, I think it benefits your entire culture. I read something somewhere that I really believe in, which is that corporate culture is how your employees feel on Sunday night. The way you get to that question is not always by a survey you do every year to understand how they’re feeling, but by having these check-ins weekly. If you are checking in with your employees, and then the directors are checking in with their managers, and the vice presidents are checking in with the directors, you start to feel the culture bubbling up through those conversations about how the team is doing, how they’re feeling, and what’s going on within your organization. For me, the benefit has been I can keep a pulse on how my employees are feeling.

Steve Shallenberger: Do you find, Erika, that people are ready for that question: “Moments that matter”? How do you introduce it? How do you bring it up?

Erika Sinner: So, I think “moments that matter” from a work perspective is more like, “Hey, these are the really important moments that matter because we’re connecting as a team. We’re able to figure out how we are going to move projects forward together. How can I remove roadblocks for you?” That’s the initial introduction. But I then take it a step further to say, “Hey, it is not a reasonable expectation to care about every single person in your life, every single thing they’re doing, every birthday, every anniversary.” That’s a lot of responsibility to try to manage as an employee, as a manager, and as a human being trying to be a good wise, a good cousin, and all of those things. However, there are those moments that do matter. It is so meaningful if you can show up for somebody during the hard ones or the happy ones. They’re getting married; they’re buying a house—there are truly these moments that matter that I think can change the game.

Steve Shallenberger: Just thinking about this, trying to see myself doing this. At first, I might say, “Well, how are you doing?” But it sounds to me like you start this with business responsibilities or professional responsibilities. Or do you start with the personal part?

Erika Sinner: We start with the personal. As soon as you start your one-on-one, it’s like, “Hey, how are you doing? How’s your day going?” They might come in and say, “Oh, my gosh, I’ve had the best day today,” or “You wouldn’t believe what I accomplished today.” Or they might come in and be like, “Oh, my gosh, today has been a day.” “Yeah, tell me what’s going on,” and they might share with you what’s happening. If you ask how they’re doing after you’ve built the trust week after week, they might come in and say, “I had the best weekend, and I’m still riding the high of the weekend,” or they might share something hard. For example, “I’m moving.” Moving is one of the top five stressful things to do. Now, you’re hearing, “Oh, you’re moving. How is that going?” “I’m packing all these boxes and doing all these things, and I’m worried about this presentation next week.” Now, you can get ahead of a really stressful situation at home while also balancing how to ensure your deliverables are not missed at work. This goes back to why I really believe it’s mutually beneficial for an employer to be asking, and for a manager to be asking, but also for the employee to be sharing as well.

Steve Shallenberger: That’s a great answer. I love it. “Moments that matter”—there we go. That’s something we should all be doing, and it should be cultural. And that’s what you’re talking about: how you make it part of the culture, so everybody does it. It’s a way to build trust. What’s one thing anybody listening today should take away from your message, Erika?

Erika Sinner: I would say don’t be afraid to ask somebody how they’re doing. If they feel open enough to share with you, that’s a beautiful thing. If they don’t, that’s okay, too. But it’s okay to just reach across the table, across Zoom, or in an email. I think even in our email communications, adding the human element is important. We aren’t robots showing up to work. There is a way to have at least a little bit of fun while you’re working. Yes, work is work, and jobs are jobs, but you do spend a lot of time at work. I would hope you’re making some memories and having a little bit of fun.

Steve Shallenberger: Amen. This impacts every part of our business: the satisfaction and the desire to stay with the job and make a contribution. That’s a really good point. Well, we’re at the end of our interview today. It’s always amazing how quickly it goes. Any final tips you’d like to leave with our listeners today, Erika?

Erika Sinner: I would love for anyone to know that I really believe in an empathy-driven culture. I think a really wonderful entry point is pet bereavement. It signals to employees, in a black-and-white compassionate policy, that you understand their life outside of work and past work. It could be the start of a bigger conversation about other things that we’re talking about today, which could be introduced later. It doesn’t have to be everything at once, but this could be a really nice entry point and could be really meaningful.

Steve Shallenberger: And are you saying there should be a policy about pet bereavement?

Erika Sinner: I do. I know that there’s no federal law even for human beings. I’ve been asked, “If there isn’t one for humans, why are you advocating for pets?” My response has always been that maybe we’re talking about it now, and maybe it just took animals to help us have that discussion about how to bring more empathy to work.

Steve Shallenberger: Great thoughts. How can people learn more about what you’re doing?

Erika Sinner: I have a website, I actually have all of my tools that are at the end of my book available in PDFs on the website. We also have a petition on the website advocating to inspire business leaders to incorporate pet bereavement leave. So if you’d like to make a difference, taking a quick second to sign our petition would be amazing.

Steve Shallenberger: Well, thank you, Erika Sinner, for being part of our show today. I’ve really appreciated your insights, your feelings, and your spirit.

Erika Sinner: Thank you so much, Steve, for having me. This has been wonderful.

Steve Shallenberger: To all of our listeners, wherever you may be, we wish you the best and are grateful for you. I would love to have the chance to sit down and have a moment that matters with you, but it’s a little hard. Thank you for tuning in. We feel your spirit wherever it might be. Wishing you the best. This is Steve Shallenberger signing off today, wishing you a great day.

Steve Shallenberger

Founder, Becoming Your Best

CEO, Executive, Corporate Trainer, Entrepreneur, and Community Leader

Erika Sinner

Founder and CEO at Directorie

Founder and CEO at Directorie, Empathy Driven Culture Advocate, Author

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