Leadership and Culture: Why a Healthy Workplace Depends on a Human Approach

A senior executive walks into a room of 300 employees, who all work for him. He then leans in and whispers to a director flippantly, “I don’t really know anyone’s name.” The director notes to herself that day that this executive also walks throughout the building and doesn’t greet or speak to anyone. This always bothered my friend, the director in this story, because it not only showed a lack of humanity, but also poor leadership.

With the massive upheavals over the last several years, it’s clear that the 2022 workplace demands a more human approach to leadership. Today’s workforce is more interested in workplace culture—how leaders support how work gets done, than perks like onsite foosball tables. What I’ve found in my work teaching leadership communication skills is that what leadership actually means is often misunderstood. So I asked my friend and Director of Global Customer Programs at Google Cloud, Cynthia Hester, what leadership means to her.

“We have lots of people with some very big titles, but they are not leaders.” —Cynthia Hester

With over 25 years’ experience working at organizations including HP, Salesforce, New Relic, and now Google Cloud, Cynthia Hester has seen many leaders come and go, and she’s learned a thing or two about what good leadership looks like. Her motto? Everyone can be a leader. It’s about the values you bring to the table and how you treat people that matters.

“We have lots of people with some very big titles, but they are not leaders. Then we have folks without titles that are leading with such intensity, such passion, and really making a big impact on their business, on their partnerships, and in our world.” The senior executive who doesn’t know the names of any of their employees is not a leader because they’re not operating on a human level.

“They’re operating like they are a celebrity,” says Hester. “Everybody can identify you, but you don’t actually know them. So to me, the onus is on you to make that effort to look them in the eye and say, ‘Hi, it’s nice to meet you.’ It doesn’t make you less than whatever stature you think you have, it makes you human. You would not allow your children to walk into a room with other people and not introduce themselves. So why do you think this is acceptable behavior at work?”

Leadership is about listening

While listening represents the majority of communication skills, being compassionate is not often found in a leadership job description. “One of the things that I try to do as a leader is always make room for the voice that either isn’t represented or the voice that is quiet,” says Hester. “I think that’s really important for young people, especially for young women early in their careers because you don’t know how far to lean in.”

“One of the things that I try to do as a leader is always make room for the voice that either isn’t represented or the voice that is quiet.” —Cynthia Hester

Today, leaders need to have the emotional intelligence necessary to read between the lines of performance. They have to be mindful of an individual’s needs. That means asking about and listening to what those needs are. You can’t lead people if you don’t really know what’s going on with them. You may see that John is in a performance slump, but getting curious about why can help you understand the context better, which could then help you to inspire better performance.


Mentorship plays a big part in Cynthia’s leadership practice too. “Mentorship is about listening—about being willing to be supportive to that person,” states Hester. According to a 2021 Gartner survey, managers who lead with empathy are better at building high levels of trust with their employees, which serves to foster a culture of transparency. Hester sees this as one of the keys to why mentorship is so powerful. “I feel that as humans, we need more of these connections. It will make us better people. We will show up with more empathy. We will show up with more of a spirit of belonging and really start to dismantle this us and them, management and employees.”

Leadership is about authenticity

“Authenticity means saying the same thing no matter who you’re speaking to,” says Hester. “Because if you’re authentic, then people can connect with you. Then they can create a feeling and a culture of psychological safety and trust, which again, to me are table stakes for leadership.”

According to a study in the Leadership & Organization Development Journal, employees’ perception of authentic leadership serves as the strongest predictor of job satisfaction and can have a positive impact on work-related attitudes and happiness. Being authentic is about speaking from your values, not from a script someone else wrote for you.


“When I see people who belittle other people or use their influence just because they can, then they’re not being true. They’re not speaking from their heart. And I think we all have had situations where you’re listening to someone and you can tell they’re just reading from a script. We’ve seen those executives who are talking and we’re wondering who wrote that for you because that doesn’t sound like it’s your voice. They’re very stiff.”

“I want everybody to be able to approach me.” —Cynthia Hester

“It gets very isolating, the more senior you become, because people do start to build assumptions about who they think you are, how you’re going to show up, and they’re really cautious around you. That’s why it’s important to me to be approachable. So whether I’m a director or a CEO, I want everybody to be able to approach me.” This means looking people in the eye and knowing their names—even if it’s not in the job description.

Leadership is about good behavior. It’s about values. It’s about bringing your full self to the table in service of your people. What I tell my clients is that leadership is when you’ve got your eyes on the whole room, and you’re taking stock of everybody and what everybody has to contribute. Then you’re forming that into something manageable: a course of action or a strategy. It’s that gathering of voices that makes you a leader. What’s being said about you as a leader when you leave the room? Are you curious about those working for you? Are you kind? Are you inclusive? What does leadership look like to you?

Watch the full interview with Cynthia Hester here.

. . . . .

If you struggle with communicating for impact, or just want to master this skill set so you can be more visible as a leader, check out our community.