Donald Knight

The Power Of Empathy In Building A People-First Culture With Donald Knight

PSF 75 | Power Of Empathy


The people are at the heart of every successful organization. Leaders know that just as crucial as its systems and operations is cultivating a people-first culture. And empathy holds a transformative power to that. In this episode, we are joined by a trailblazer in HR, Donald Knight, the Chief People Officer of Greenhouse Software. His people-centric strategies lie at the center of his impressive track record of driving organizations to growth and increased value. He tells us in this conversation the crucial role of empathy in building a people-first culture. From his background and influences that shaped his empathetic leadership style, Donald talks about the power of proximity and emotional awareness in understanding employees’ needs. He also discusses the importance of valuing your people as humans as well as finding alignment between values and behaviors within the organization. What is more, Donald breaks down the three key factors for creating change and how Greenhouse can help you through it. Tune in and learn the great benefits of prioritizing your people and how empathy can drive that transformation.

The Power Of Empathy In Building A People-First Culture With Donald Knight

We’re a show that guides leaders on how to elevate their overall workforce. We believe that every great leader inspires, motivates, and rewards their people for their performance. We believe that people are at the heart of every organization. It’s an important piece that we’re trying to bring awareness on how to use these better people strategies to elevate the workplace overall.

The first thing I want to do is introduce our co-host here. We have Char Miller. I call Char our serial entrepreneur. She’s a Founder of Mountain & Sea Career Strategy for leaders and she also runs a health advocacy organization. Among many of the hats that she wears, she’s a Chief People Officer of Rocky Mountain Health Advocates. We’re very pleased to have her here.

I’m Sam Reeve. I’m the Founder of CompTeam, a talent and employee compensation company. I’m a certified global compensation professional. I help companies scale in that critical infrastructure that they need to retain their top performers and attract the best people to work at their organization so that they can motivate the overall workforce through some of these pay and talent strategies.

In this episode, we’re going to discuss the power of empathy in building a people-first culture. We have the honor of hosting a true trailblazer in the field of HR, a visionary leader who has redefined the role of Chief People Officer, Mr. Donald Knight. Donald Knight is the Chief People Officer of Greenhouse Software. He brings a wealth of experience and his dynamic approach to the table of these people strategies.

His impressive track record speaks volumes about his ability to drive growth and increase value through people-centric strategies. What truly sets Donald apart is his unwavering belief in the power of human performance. I’m super pleased to have him here on the show. I know his insights and expertise is going to offer us some valuable lessons and inspire all of you readers out there to elevate your game as a people practitioner. Without further ado, let’s welcome Donald Knight to the show.

Sam, thanks for having me. I’m super excited to talk to you all right in the middle of my week, which allows me to have a nice energy boost to finish the week.

Donald, I’ve experienced your leadership firsthand as you coach executives on your team and so forth. You bring this panache, this style that I love to see. It is getting people energized and engaged as they come into meetings so they have the right mindset. That’s something I love about your style and how impactful you are. For our readers out there, I want to dive a little bit into what made you the person you are now and your path toward being a people-centric leader. Can you fill us in on the story there?

First and foremost, I need to hang out with you all during the week more often. If I’m ever having a stressful week, I need to call the team up and talk to you and Char. There are three major things that have shaped my entire life. The first one is I have to give extreme reverence and appreciation to my parents.

Both my parents were in the military. They both served in the US Army. We moved all over the place. Before the age of 14, I lived in 6 states, 3 countries. The beauty of that is my best friends were always either coming or going. Char, to your point about being a people person, I totally connect and dig with you there. I don’t live in Puerto Vallarta, but I understand how that makes you feel.

The energy you get from hanging around people resonates with me because that’s what I got, moving so many different places. The other thing is my appreciation of so many other people’s cultures, way of life, and where they landed on the planet. It’s extremely high. You’ll never hear me say like, “I live in America and people live abroad,” because that’s not a global way of talking. No one in Italy says, “You live abroad in the US.” No one says that.

The first thing is my parents helped shape me from that perspective, moving me and my siblings around so much. The second one for me is there’s this amazing woman named Kay Kennedy who convinced me to go into HR. We didn’t have a Char in HR when I was coming up, so I didn’t like HR. You don’t go talk to those people. Anytime you talk to them, it’s like you have to advocate for yourself for money or you’re getting in trouble. They didn’t seem like it was fun.

I tried to stay away from them, but Kay was the one that convinced me to like, “You can make a meaningful impact in business because you understand what most business leaders don’t understand, which is people.” I didn’t look at that as a superpower. I didn’t think seeing and valuing others was something that can help me in business. Many years later, she was right. I give a lot of credit to her. The last thing is I’m a continuous learner. I don’t feel like I know it all.

PSF 75 | Power Of Empathy

Power Of Empathy: You can make a meaningful impact in business because you understand what most business leaders don’t understand, which is people.


Part of the reason I encourage my team so much or why I give them speeches is because, in so many cases, I’ve learned from them. I know we’ve partnered with you, Sam and CompTeam on some of our stuff and I want to say thank you for your leadership and your team’s leadership. I’ve learned more from my Director of People Rewards, Tisha, than she probably could say that she learned from me since she joined. Her wealth of experience being in so many different places, that’s indicative of how I’ve been able to be marginally successful in business. People like that. People feel the authentic energy and authenticity that comes with living in so many different places. They feel welcomed and their voice is appreciated.

There’s this young lady named Nia Darville who leads our IDEA Activations, and IDEA stands for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Allyship. She was like, “You know what it is, Donald. You’re good at giving people oxygen in the room. They’ve been in rooms where they felt suffocated and not seen. When people need to breathe, they can call you.” When you said that you feel that in my leadership, that makes me feel good. I can do a cartwheel now because I’m glad you feel that. I want people to feel that when they experience me.

It’s truly engaging, and I love the passion and power. You brought out the core piece of that having something that’s some whirly experience coming from and being familiar with other places on the globe have given us an understanding of the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion, the fact that there are different perspectives out there, different ways of life and we all work in a different way. That that gives us great power in understanding how to be great leaders for our organizations in a people-centric way.

One thing I want to dive into is how the world is changing. Now, we’re in a period of acceleration and we’re seeing some wonderful technologies come out and so forth. We’ve all gone through a very difficult time in our lives in the past few years. It’s been quite difficult and still proves to be difficult in this environment. One thing that proves to hold true is that there’s a greater focus on humanity and empathy for people. I would love to hear your perspective on that, Donald, about how important it is to be human-centric in the world nowadays.

That’s a great pivot. You mentioned AI. I’m going to date myself a little bit. I am old enough to remember growing up AI meant Alan Iverson, one of the greatest basketball players that ever come from the state of Virginia. Now I’ve lived long enough for my son Dalen, where AI to him means Artificial Intelligence. It means ChatGPT. It’s mind-boggling for me that we both lived at the exact same time but have very different defaults on what those two letters actually mean.

I tell you that story because it leads into things empathy. It starts with this idea that people’s starting place may be very different than your own. As a leader, one of the things I’m challenged with every day is to make sure I’m creating or fostering an environment where empathy is free-flowing. In difficult economic times, that’s where things empathy and vulnerability are super important. To your point, Sam, it makes people feel the human side of leadership.

PSF 75 | Power Of Empathy

Power Of Empathy: People’s starting place may be very different from your own. As a leader, one of the challenging things is to make sure you are creating or fostering an environment where empathy is free-flowing.


I feel like in the past, if you talked to prior generations of leaders, those weren’t the default skills that people would talk about for you to be successful in business. For Char to be successful in business now, she’s demonstrating that connection with people and understanding who they are. You could see she smiles every time we talk about people. That’s where her energy comes from. If we were trying to figure out who was the Chars, Donalds, and Sams many years ago, those habits around empathy wouldn’t be the default skills that people were having.

It was understanding compliance, how we make sure that the business is profitable, how we measure productivity, and how we make sure people continue to work the assembly line. What we’ve seen is this evolution. The way I try to explain it is if you look at how long humans have been on the planet and you made it a book and each page represented 250 years, the book didn’t get good to page 998 and now we’re on page 1,000. The stuff that we’re talking about now, you think about how many evolutions have happened in our timeframe. The empathy, those human skills, not soft skills because there’s nothing soft about demonstrating empathy for people, it showed up early in my career.

There's nothing soft about demonstrating empathy for people. Share on X

When I first started interning in undergrad, I was doing employee and labor relations. I can tell this story now, but if you had talked to me back then, there’s no way I would tell this story. I was ashamed of this story, but I can tell it now. I was doing employee and labor relations for the Department of Defense. We had 180,000 employees. Particularly in the business I was in, it was the defense commissary agency. It is super unique and it’s not because I worked there. It’s super unique because they sold groceries. It’s still the only retail business that’s owned by the US government.

There was a young lady, who was a military spouse, and she was a mom of three. She was always showing up late to work. You know what happens, we all know this. You have the conversation, you document, and there’s discipline. She’s trending toward legit termination. She was on, “Don’t do this again.”

She was late. We called, but she didn’t answer, and then she didn’t show up, so we terminated her. It’s the right thing to do. I looked at the rules. It was black and white. I was young in HR. I was like, “This makes all the most sense.” When we went to arbitration, because she was part of the collective bargaining unit, what I ended up finding out was her husband was deployed, and the oldest daughter had run away because it was the anniversary date of when he was supposed to be home, but he was still not home.

That’s the reason she didn’t prioritize coming to work. She prioritized family. That one story taught me early in my career the importance of empathy and trying to understand like, “These are the rules. We’ve got a business to run.” I get it, but you also have to be empathetic for people’s situation and trying to figure out what they’re going through.

I vowed to that young lady. Her name is Daneta. I don’t know what she’s doing now and where she lives now, but I told her, “Daneta, you’ve taught me probably the most memorable lesson for me as a leader, which is always lead with empathy. Always assume that you don’t know what’s going on in someone else’s life.” It influences the way that I talk to people on my team. If their energy’s different, I’m like, “Your energy’s off. What’s going on?” Most leaders do that.

Anybody that’s read our show over the years, my years of the corporate world, I always felt like Joan of Arc where I’d have the CEO yelling at me to fire people. They had a special list of people they wanted out of the organization. What am I going to do? Tell the CEO that this person’s on FMLA, that they have a disability, that they have special circumstances trying to protect HIPAA laws and protect the person, but at the same time, be that fine balance? Also, I’m a very empathetic person. I lead with passion, dignity, and respect. That’s why when I started my own company, I applied our TMA and one of the tools that our company likes to use.

It’s all about positive psychology. The beauty of it is I was able to accommodate people with disabilities, wheelchairs, and all kinds of situations in their life, circumstances, families, mothers, and older generations. It created a very positive culture. As a result, we became a multimillion-dollar business. When we had to close down, when we terminated our employees, I was getting hugs because they said, “You prepared me to move to a better job.” I love what you’re saying, Donald. It’s totally in my heart.

I’m glad it resonates in your leadership as well, Char. Especially, to your point around those, when you see those economic headwinds and you have to make tough decisions like reductions in force, one of the greatest compliments is people being able to not only demonstrate embrace for you as a leader, but they would opt back into your leadership again until there are so many companies that talk about the quality of hire.

I look forward to the day we get to talk about the quality of leadership. When you start to talk about how many people have left your teams, but would opt under your leadership again, how many people have moved on in their career, but they speak fondly of you the way I speak about Kay or the way some of those people may be speaking about you, Char?

It’s an honor that I have many employees that say I was one of their best leaders, but I also have employees that say they didn’t like Char. I wasn’t liked by all my employees. Particularly in a union organization, that’s a little tough, but it’s a fine balance. It’s like you have to have a psychological perspective and then also an analytical perspective in the business sense. It’s a very fine balance as an HR leader. I love what you’re saying.

Donald, I’d love to hear your perspective. You mentioned that as leaders, we need to be aware of our people and see those behavior changes that happen. A person might be upset or on edge one day or me not being in that same character. First, how do we ensure that we are observing that behavior in remote environments and so forth? Do you have some examples that you can provide leaders on how they can improve their empathy and that gauge to determine whether or not something is going wrong with their people?

The first thing I would say is I don’t want to assume that everybody has seen what intentional leadership even looks like. When it comes to things like empathy, I don’t want to assume that people have seen that demonstrated. What I have found in my career as I’ve continued to progress is that’s not the case. Some people have worked in environments where they have not seen that. It is through that lens that I’ll answer your question, which is the first thing around that emotional awareness to be able to know what’s happening with folks on your team is super important. In order for you to be aware, you got to have real proximity to them. I don’t mean physical proximity.

Sam, I don’t think you and I have ever met in person, but I know a lot about you. I know where you live, I know where you travel. I’ve heard about your family and your career because you and I when we talk, we don’t talk about business all the time. We talk about each other as humans like, “What’s going on in your life as a human?” We get the business stuff done. For those that are looking for an amazing consultant, look no further than CompTeam. I can strongly endorse them because I’ve been partnering with them. In order for you to be emotionally aware, you can’t talk about business all the time.

I’ve had conversations with folks on my team about everything under the sun. Babies get sick all the time. I come to find out that my son, when he was young, used to catch everything. Apparently, it’s still true. Kids are still catching everything. Also, empathy to be flexible on meeting start times because they have to run to urgent care or go pick up pediatric formula or for their caregivers that are doing caregiving for their parents and trying to understand what that looks like.

Part of empathy starts with emotional awareness, but that emotional awareness only happens if you build real human-to-human proximity. I’ll give you an example. With our entire people team, some of our monthly team meetings, I’ll kick them off and say, “We can get into the business, but for the first fifteen minutes, we need to have a human-to-human conversation. Tensions and emotions are high right now. Let’s acknowledge that.”

PSF 75 | Power Of Empathy

Power Of Empathy: Part of empathy starts with emotional awareness, but that emotional awareness only happens if you build real human-to-human proximity.


Post-George Floyd was the first time globally the world was able to somewhat slow down and have more of these types of conversations. To me, it’s around that proximity. The last thing is to create space for people. There are two questions I ask people in my one-on-ones, and I will give this to you for free. This is not a charge. The first one is, what barriers to your success can I help remove? I always end my meeting with that. I want to create a space for people that if they’re having a barrier of any kind, let them share that. Most of the time, those barriers are professional. I often don’t hear the personal things in life that may be stopping them from being successful.

Since then, I’ve added a second question that I started when I joined Greenhouse, which is, “What’s throwing you off your game?” It’s simple. Sometimes people will join and they got the most amazing excitement. Similar to Char, they’re like, “Nothing’s throwing me off my game. I’m crushing it. I got this client. I’m talking to this. I’m working on this project.” I’m like, “Great. I’m glad you’re on your game.” Some of those same people will use that as an opportunity to be like, “My mom is sick,” or, “We lost my grandfather,” or, “My kid cried the entire time on the plane and I felt embarrassed that I was being disruptive to people on the plane.”

I’ve heard things around parental guilt. I’ve heard things around dads traveling and feeling they’re missing out on things. I’ve heard moms traveling and they feel they’re missing out on things. I’ve talked about things around emotional labor and mommy guilt. All of these things happen when you create space for people to share. For me, what resonates with the team is the fact that I’m creating the space in the first place. If there’s something bottled up, they can share.

You probably said this, but is that online discussions or do you have the beauty of having in-person discussions predominantly for you? How do you do that?

They’re both. Our company is fully distributed. We want it to be able to tap into talent all over the world. We have talent that sits in most of the 50 states. We have talent in Canada and we have talent in Ireland. Sometimes those meetings are over Zoom more frequently, but sometimes they’re in person. I do this with our executive leadership team too. There is one of our cofounders, who I get to nerd out with a lot. His name is John Strauss. When I go to New York, we call it strolling with Strauss.

Our one-on-one sessions are walking through the parks or walking up the different streets in New York and we’ll have those, like, “John, what’s throwing you off your game?” We come to find out that sometimes, most times, nothing’s throwing him off his game. He’s doing well. In those ever so often moments when something is, having a listening ear that’s empathetic to whatever’s going on in their life makes a world of difference.

We’re often trying to increase performance in our organization where we have to do more with less during these difficult times and so forth. You brought up a good point, Donald. Sometimes, to increase performance, we need to open our humanity. We need to ask questions. As you mentioned, “What are those barriers? What’s getting in your way? What’s throwing you off?” That’s a huge call out for leaders out there.

What I want to dig into now is that you mentioned that one of the things that help spread this across the organization is modeling that behavior. I know, Donald, you’re an exceptional leader and you model this great performance, but how do you encourage your executives and your peers to model the same behavior and be as open as you are?

I feel very fortunate that we subscribe to this idea of putting people first at Greenhouse. We don’t make a business decision without calculating the impact it’s going to have on people. Culturally, it wasn’t a heavy lift for me, if I’m honest with you, to model that and lead by example. I share my failures. Anybody who works at Greenhouse can tell you this. There was a time when I put a message into the all-company channel and I let them know, “If I haven’t been that jovial, high-energy, fist-pumping guy for you over the last two weeks, I want to acknowledge that I haven’t been that person because my brother and my sister-in-law were trying to have a kid and it was touch and go.”

It was tough. Seeing the overwhelming support from people inside Greenhouse was amazing. Even more importantly, having leaders see me as a person on our exec team share that in a shared space in a Slack channel gave them permission to be that type of leader too. That’s how I try to do it in my one-on-one instances and occurrences, creating that space, but also in shared spaces. I don’t mind being the guy who, when I’m good and everything’s great, I’m going to give you this Char energy.

We are going to run through walls. It’s going to be super exciting, but there’s also going to be times when I’m not that guy. Letting people know is helpful. It helps them demonstrate empathy with me as a leader, which is huge. I try to lead by example, but culturally, it was easier for leaders to accept that because we do typically try to find ways to put people first.

I want you to know I do have a red side when it comes to people. I’m one of those that I put up with all the BS and I let it stuff. Speaking of volcanoes, I’m nice and then, all of a sudden, I’m making another island.

I like how you brought that full circle.

You have to do it in a professional way. I can be the business person and lay off 80 people in a day. It’s a matter of how, and I have, sadly. However, it’s about people-focused planning, involving your CFO, and involving the decision-makers in the people focus process. It is standing in front of the board and explaining the impact of the community and removing a corporate division from downtown and where you live. If you remove 80 employees from the downtown central location, how are we going to take care of our community and our people and then also help our employees find new positions within the organization?

My strategy has always been to always focus on career mobility and prepare employees for those changes. In this day and age, these things are going to happen overnight. In every single one of my meetings, I always prepared my employees for a change that could happen overnight. In my case with Rocky Mountain Health Advocates, because of the federal regulations and the changes with reimbursements in healthcare, it happened overnight. We were able to utilize the PPP and various other resources that many companies were lazy about, and we were able to prepare our employees for that major impact.

One of the big pieces on that, and when we covered this a little bit earlier, is when you put people first and when you’re thinking about people-centric ways, you’ve developed relationships with these people that you might have to say goodbye to. The important thing is to make sure you make the best experience possible. What are some of the ways you think, Donald, that we can help our leaders reading right now?

If they have to say goodbye to some of their trusted colleagues that have contributed so much to their organization, what is the guidance that you would give them to do that in a way where those people are leaving with their dignity intact and that are ambassadors for the company in understanding what’s happened?

A lot of people struggle with this question, Sam. You want to be an empathetic leader. You want to be able to put people first, but equally at the same time, there are also business objectives that you have to make. How do you make sure that you’re putting people first but also managing the business? The way I always tell people is like, “If you prioritize people, you’ll always meet the business need.” I’ll give you an example. If you go on my LinkedIn, anybody can go there. We did have some very difficult decisions to make. One of the ways that I’ve tried to make sure that I demonstrate empathy and demonstrate putting people first is like, “Did we make the decision through the lens of how it would impact our people? How do we make sure that we can let them know their value is not diminished because of a business decision?”

If you prioritize people, you'll always meet the business needs. Share on X

I’ve always told people like, “Your value is not defined by your salary. Your impact is not defined by if a company chooses to retain you or not. You have value because you’re human. Sometimes that means your tour of duty or the time that you’re spending with people at a particular organization may change. That’s okay, but that doesn’t define your value. If your boss doesn’t give you a promotion, that doesn’t mean that your contribution is meaningless. That’s not what that means.”

So often, we have propped up people who have been outwardly successful, whether through promotion, wealth attainment, or title, that it sends the wrong signal to others that that’s not where real value is derived. I encourage everybody to go to my page. If you want to connect, I’m happy to connect with you. The more important reason I would ask you to go to my page is we set up an inbound form for any company to tell us about open career opportunities at their company.

I wanted any party that was a Greenhouse alumni to know just because you’re alumni, Donald still has your back. Our goal is to get you to land as quickly as possible. I have personally served as a reference. I have personally brokered intros between people that were departing. That’s the empathy side. I’ve personally called on friends in my Rolodex and said, “Sam, you’re looking for a comp person. We had a comp person that was impacted.”

I’m using that as an example because our CompTeam was not impacted. Still, you get my drift, which is there’s a way to do that. There’s a way to make sure people know that you may be changing jerseys, but I care about the person underneath the jersey. It’s less about if you are wearing our company crest or our company logo. I can tell you what that has meant to people far exceeds any business decision we’ve ever had to make.

The return on empathy is phenomenal. One guy sent me an email, and I won’t disclose his name because I didn’t ask him, but it might be the greatest piece of feedback I’ve received. He said, “Donald, the hardest part about this decision is less about the disruption in my career and what this will do to my family. I’ll find another role.”

Now that he’s seen an empathetic leader and what that looks like day-to-day, his concern is that he may be forced to work in an environment with a leader that’s not like that. He knows there’s better out there. He’s experienced it. He’s witnessed it. His concern is like, “Now that I’ve experienced that, my concern is, to put food on the table, I may have to subject myself to an environment like that.” I read that email and I was almost in tears. I called my CEO. I was like, “This is heavy.” As you can imagine, I’m super invested in making sure where he lands.

That’s the main reason why the show does what it does because it’s so important to ensure that we create good practices across the industry in a way that elevates leadership to have that empathetic style of leadership. I just wanted to point that out. Go ahead, Char.

We have a question from Anna. This is to you, Donald. It says, “I appreciate your leadership skill being empathetic. Can you elaborate on how you’d be empathetic and still meet the business needs at the same time? Sometimes it could come across as certain groups of employees receiving a special accommodation. Thank you.”

The way I’d answer that question is, in every business decision you make, make sure you consider people. I’ll give you an example, reductions or forced layoffs. There are some companies that looked at how they were trending financially and said, “Expense is too high, growth not happening, and revenue is down. We need to cut 9%. Go make it happen.” That’s what some companies did. It’s a business decision. It did not calculate the impact on people.

In every business decision you make, just make sure you consider people. Share on X

There were other companies that said, “Economy’s bad and revenue’s down. We need to decrease our expenses. Where should we start? Should we consider business travel? Should we consider stipends? Should we consider closing offices? What are all these other trade-offs we can make, knowing we still got to hit this number?” Ultimately, if they still had to make an impact on people, they could tell them with a straight face, “Here are all the trade-offs that we’ve made. In making all these trade-offs, we see no line of sight to reducing our expenses without having a tough decision to make about our people.”

There were companies that made that decision. Same outcome, a different path. I know those second companies because we were one of them. The other thing I’ll tell you is accommodation, which is important. I’ll try to reserve my passion here, which is part of the reason we have an IDEA Team, we believe inclusion is an output. Inclusion happens when diversity, equity, and allyship are present. What do I mean by that? Sam, tell me how tall you are. I’ve never met you in person. How tall are you?

Six feet.

Char, how tall are you?

Five-foot-three and three-quarters.

I’m 5’9”. If all three of us wanted to look over a six-foot fence, Sam can see it pretty easily. He walks up to the fence and sees over the fence, not a problem. For me to see over the fence, I probably need a three-inch stool. Get the three-inch stool, I can see over the fence. For Char to see it, she needs about a six-inch stool. She gets the six-inch stool, she can see over the fence.

Here’s the beautiful thing. Now all of us can see over the fence. Sam shouldn’t then say, “Why didn’t I get a stool?” You don’t need a stool. You can see over the fence. To the second part of your question around the accommodations, Anna, I try to make sure people are treated equitably, not equally. Equally would’ve meant everybody gets a stool even if you don’t need one. Equitably means you get a stool if you need one and let’s make sure we get one that’s the appropriate height for you.

When you’re making some of these business decisions, particularly with people with disabilities, we saw this in the pandemic, they’ve been telling companies that they can do these jobs from home for years and companies said they couldn’t. When able-bodied people went home because they were forced to, all of a sudden, people can work remotely and hybrid. When you’re thinking about the accommodations, make sure that as long as you’re treating people equitably, accommodations are okay.

If you’re treating people inequitably, if you’re paying men more than you’re paying women, if you’re retaining Sam because he’s the buddy of the CEO, but you’re not retaining Char even though her performance is better, that’s an issue. Make sure that the accommodation is seen through the lens of equitability. I promise you, people can understand that. You won’t be able to solve everybody. There will still be some Sams out there that will get mad at not having a stool. Lucky for me, this Sam is not one of those types of people.

He is an amazing leader. I had this argument many times. We had certain departments like coding and physician billing departments, but I had leadership that refused to allow people to work from home. If you’re going to have your employees work from home, you got to think about ergonomics and a proper working environment, sending your employee health department at home and helping create a good work environment for them.

One thing I want to bring up when we’re talking about accommodations and doing things differently for different people based on need is that’s super important why we need to ensure we’re communicating effectively about our programs. If we communicate the intent, then it creates an understanding of why one person didn’t get the stool where everybody else might have one.

That’s why as leaders, one of the biggest skills that we can have is effective communication. One thing I’d like to dive into here is back to Greenhouse. Greenhouse is an exceptional platform that helps companies enable their talent acquisition efforts. One thing that Greenhouse has done effectively well, as you alluded to earlier, is it brings in people with similar values in a very diverse way to create an overall environment for Greenhouse itself as being a very inclusive, collaborative leadership style.

You don’t have to do too much heavy lifting there, as you mentioned earlier, but some of our leaders out there that are reading didn’t have the advantage of the Greenhouse platform to bring in that exceptional talent. They do have people that may not have the same value or may have done some bad things that are against the values of the organization. How do we approach that in an empathetic way, knowing that somebody has earned it because maybe their values are significantly different from their experiences? What do you think?

When you have a mismatch in values versus actions and behaviors, it creates tension. I remind our CEO all the time that positive tension is good. If we have a difference of opinion, that’s great. We got a diversity of thought. He says this all the time. He says like, “If you and I agree on everything, one of us is not needed.” He’s the founder and CEO, so I better offer some different thoughts or I’m not needed.

I believe the negative tension is what you’re describing, Sam, which is if people have values, behaviors, and actions inside of the culture that is not living up to that, you got a real issue. What has happened is now that it’s created a place where those things are fostered, that we can say one thing, but do something else. For folks that may be trying to figure out like, “How do I turn this around?” you can turn it around.

The first thing I would tell you is that you can create the change that you want to see inside your organization. It starts with a few things. I always say it’s the same three things, but I allow people to pressure test me and tell me if there are other things out there. The first thing that starts with people and you’ve talked about this a lot, Sam, is mindset. You have to have a mindset that at least acknowledges that the environment that we have is not living up to the potential that we could have. We want to change that as a people, as a team, and as a leadership. If you’re not in leadership and you want to change it, there’s this whole concept of influence without authority where you don’t need a title to be influential.

PSF 75 | Power Of Empathy

Power Of Empathy: You have to have a mindset that at least acknowledges that the environment we have today is not living up to the potential we could have and we want to change that as a people, as a team, and as a leader.


You look at the suffrage movement. If we wanted to give equal rights to women, women weren’t in the leadership roles to create that, but they were able to influence without authority. Civil rights movement, the same way. We got equal rights for people from different nations, colors, creeds, or races because people were influencing without authority.

The same thing happens inside an organization. If there’s a nucleus of people that wants to move the organization where it could be, you don’t have to be in leadership to do so. The first thing is the mindset of people. The second thing would be is evaluate your processes. What are the things that are allowing the mismatch between the actions and behaviors of your values? What does that even look like? What are those processes that there’s bias and said process, whether joining a Zoom call or not allowing everybody to speak? That’s a process issue.

One of the easiest ways to do that is to be like, “Char, what do you think? Sam, what do you think?” to make sure everybody’s voice is heard. It’s a process issue. You could change the behavior if you switch the process. The last thing that is super important is what tools you are using. If you use biased tools, you’re going to get biased output. One of the things that people like about Greenhouse is that the tool itself is built by so many diverse people. When all these other companies are also placing a value add on diversity of thought, gender, race, and native tongue, they’re being successful with the tool because the tool was built for that type of environment.

For the folks that switch and they’re like, “We never had this before,” I know because many of the other tools are not built by diverse people. That’s what I would tell you. It is people and that mentality. The second one is around the processes and then what tools you are using. If there are folks that want to figure out like, “Donald, tell me more about the Greenhouse tool,” we’ll give them my email and my LinkedIn. I’m happy to have those conversations too.

It’s been a pleasure, Donald, having you on the show. Thank you so much for your energy, for being the leader you are, and then sharing your experience with all of us. It’s made good use of all of our time. Thank you so much for being here with us.

Char, Sam, thank you for having me.

Thank you. It’s been delightful. I love your energy. As you can tell, we are both so behind your passion and your mission. It’s amazing. Also, your mindset.

Thank you, everyone, for reading. We’ll see you next episode. Take care.


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About Donald Knight

PSF 75 | Power Of EmpathyDonald is a commercially-focused HR Leader with a proven record of driving financial results, business growth, and asset value through the development and delivery of people strategies. He has lived/worked abroad and excels in finding/optimizing talent on a global level. Maximizing returns on talent investments allows him to elevate human performance while delivering significant cost savings.

Donald is a high energy innovator with a reputation for moving businesses into the future through organizational transformation. He connects with people at all levels of the organization, and is a firm believer in people analytics and cross-functional partnerships. His passion for building high-performance teams and company culture allows him to drive change where it matters.

Impact Specialties: Mergers and Acquisitions | HR & Business Strategy Alignment | Business Transformation | Change Management | People Operations | Offshoring & Outsourcing Strategies | Executive Coaching & Mentoring | Succession Planning



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