Start with the Personal: Managing and Coaching with Empathy

By Natalie Soltys (Kansas City, Missouri)

In a competitive, fast-paced and ever-changing industry such as information technology, caring and nurturing instincts are usually seen as detrimental to success. Oftentimes, women are encouraged to suppress this natural predisposition in order to grow their careers. (For example, check out Karen Firestone’s recent Harvard Business Review piece.)

However, one executive with Cerner Corporation has found her stride by emphasizing these particular characteristics. She uses cooperation, empathy and thoughtfulness to thrive in this Kansas City-based health care information technology company.

“Building strong professional relationships is very important,” explained Tricia Geris, senior director of Corporate Meetings and Events. “I always start with the personal.”

Having built her career from an event coordinator to an executive with a continuously growing team, her approach has certainly been successful over the last 20 years.

Geris admitted that she didn’t start in 1993 with a clear, laid-out path or direction for her career. With hard work, a good attitude and the ability to model her behavior after other successful women, the “growth and recognition just happened.”

The individuals she worked for, most notably Cerner’s current Chief People Officer, had personality traits that she admired and emulated. They were honest, fair and respectful of everyone from the newest associate to the CEO. They impressed on her the importance of being a good listener and not being quick to judge. What truly helped her along were their great mentoring and coaching skills.

Finding the Right Balance

Over the years, as she shifted roles, met new people, engaged in new activities, and gained more responsibility, Geris did realize she had to find the right balance. “I had to develop a bit of an edge,” she acknowledged.

Both as a manager responsible for her team’s success and for the attainment of company goals, she knew there would come a time – more than just once or twice – where she would have to make a hard decision. Also, working with a male-dominated senior executive leadership team, she would have to stand up for her beliefs, voice her opinions and answer tough questions.

In these instances, it became more important to stay true to herself and use her natural tendencies of nurturing, caring, and being empathetic. By putting herself in the other person’s shoes and imagining the circumstances from his or her point of view she was able to manage through the situation.

“You have to understand when and where you need that [edge],” Geris explained. “I have a very amiable personality trait, and I want people to like and interact with me so finding the right balance is key.”

Building a Team

“I pride myself on how much people appreciate and enjoy working with my team,” she beamed. “When you create a positive environment, you get loyalty and hard workers.”

Cerner, much like any other technology company today, is fast-paced and quite hectic. It can be easy for employees to get burned out or feel overwhelmed. This is where Geris has found her niche as a manager because she seeks to create a calm, supportive, and rewarding environment for her team.

As a mother – like many women – she has had her own challenges and different circumstances than her male counterparts and leaders. Yet, instead of using these as an excuse, she relies on that experience to help her relate to her team and peers.

“I can appreciate the importance of life balance, of going to a child’s holiday program,” she noted. Or, any other activities or outside engagements that are important to her associates.

Recognition is also an significant piece of Geris’s management style. Celebrating small successes both at an individual and a team level is one way she keeps everyone motivated.

“I do have a responsibility to make sure they’re recognized. It’s even more important in a support organization because we can easily be overlooked,” she explained.

It’s taking the time to notice her team members as people outside of a job that earns Geris respect and trust. Team members even tell her that they don’t mind taking on extra work because they know it’s a favor for her and will help their team.

“Yes, it’s a little touchy-feely,” she laughingly acknowledged, “but they [her associates] seem to appreciate coming to work and work very hard.”

As the traditional saying goes, trust your instincts. These instincts and traits do define your character and can determine your growth within a company. Use what comes natural to you, especially when that includes nurturing, caring, cooperating, and being empathetic.