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How to Lead Your Team With Empathy


As part of DMA Scotland's regional content, guest contributor Dr Helen Rippon, Chief Executive, Worldwide Cancer Research takes a deep dive into how to lead with compassion in times of crisis.

As the ongoing pandemic continues to reshape our daily lives, it’s important not to lose what it is that makes your organisation great.

From ‘Zoom fatigue’ to work-life balance, effects on wellbeing are taking their toll – AKA the covid-effect. Here’s Dr Helen Rippon’s top tips and experiences of leading her own team through this very different time of work.

Put mental health first

With support from our HR team, regular 1-2-1s between managers and staff covered wellbeing as well as performance.

Check-in with your team - is someone trying to live and work in a shoebox studio flat? Or trying to juggle professionalism and parenting in the absence of normal childcare? We foster a culture where people can be open about their difficulties and know we will be flexible in finding a solution.

To ensure mental health is looked after, we offer a free counselling service through our Employee Assistance Programme; have arranged wellbeing talks from external trainers; completed workplace mental health training provided by another charity, Mind; and we are encouraging everyone to structure their working days to make sure they have time to exercise during daylight hours.

Regular internal communications are a must-have – not a nice-to-have

From weekly newsletters and monthly ‘meet a colleague’ e-profiles to planned, organisational updates from the leadership team, it’s essential that your staff still feel part of the team when working from their makeshift ‘offices’.

I make a point of being open about my own life in my weekly email, including the challenges I’m facing, in the hope it encourages everyone else to talk about their own obstacles. It’s much easier to cope mentally when you know you’re not alone and that nobody has all the answers - including the CEO.

Get social

On top of internal communications, we added an array of events to our virtual calendars.

Friday chats and quizzes replace our previous social gatherings, and ‘Tea and Toast’ calls replace our kitchen chats and catch-ups. We even had our annual Great British Bake Off competition virtually this year, and have set up a walking club where we all spur on each other’s step counts. The key takeaways for me are:

  1. do your staff have enough opportunities to laugh together from behind their screens?
  2. Are you catering both for your extroverted and introverted staff, who are likely to need different things?


If you’re unsure how your team is really feeling and how you are performing as their leader, then why not carve out some time to conduct an anonymous employee engagement survey? It has taken a lot of thought, energy, and deliberateness to maintain our team cohesion and morale but it’s so worth it.

Give your staff a space to embrace their values

2020 saw the creation of our charity’s Diversity and Inclusion Steering Group – a space where staff from across the organisation share their own personal experiences and ideas to encourage a culture that strives for equality and values diversity.

Once the conversation was started internally, we noticed that there was a strong passion for change from staff within the charity, and we knew they deserved a safe space to champion these thoughts and ideas.

The D&I Steering Group meet up to learn from one another, share experiences, and consider all aspects of our organisation to identify any areas where we contribute to the current system of structural inequality – however unconsciously or unintentionally.

Since the creation of the group, we’ve: improved the promotion of diversity and inclusion in our recruitment and research grant processes so that we can ensure there’s no bias in our hiring decisions; we’ve invited leading cancer researchers from BAME backgrounds to start conversations around racism and limitations in the medical research sector, and we’ve held a ‘D&I roadshow’ throughout the charity which allowed every team within our organisation to learn about what steps they can take to make their areas more inclusive.

Not only does this space allow our staff to feel “heard” and valued as individuals, but it also contributes to their well-being and engagement while at work. If your organisation is considering making moves in this area, then I highly recommend reading this article. This is just the start, and it’s something that we will keep working on every single day.

CEOs, look after yourself as well as your staff

In some ways, it has been easier to keep in touch with my network remotely than in person, with less difficulty getting diaries to align.

By simply having a conversation with a fellow CEO last year, I was reassured to find that the CEO of a huge household brand had approached scenario planning in the exact same way as we did.

Another reliable support for me since March has been the mentoring provided by long-term charity supporter Pelham Street, and leadership conferences from the likes of the Association of Medical Research Charities and the Institute of Directors, which have been invaluable for swapping ideas with fellow leaders.

I know we have all heard this a million times, but we must take the self-care advice we so liberally hand out to our staff. When I was a new mum the most valuable nugget, I got from a baby book was “take care of yourself, because if Mum is OK, the baby will be OK too”, and I think the same thing applies to leadership. If you’re always on the edge of meltdown or burnout, it’s only a matter of time before your team joins you.

Plan early and collaboratively

Our Trustees were pivotal in speedy scenario planning and forecasting when the pandemic first hit and then we moved straight into drawing up 2021 plans, allowing time for input from teams across the organisation. Our senior management team now meets weekly rather than fortnightly, which helps us keep a closer collective eye on performance and priorities. We’ll keep this up - even when the world goes back to some sort of ‘normal’.

Never give up

Taking inspiration from one of my heroes, John Kelly – US endurance runner, CTO, and elite athlete – we have “a fall-back plan, not fall-back goals.”

We know what we will do if the environment hardens and it’s impossible to execute plan A, but we don’t have a backup package of softer, safer targets. We have a promise to fulfill to people affected by cancer and the thousands of supporters who have been so extraordinarily generous with their donations this year.

As well as the safety of the Team Worldwide family and running of the charity, our priority is to keep providing the funding to start new cancer cures around the world. This will not change. To help us stop the suffering caused by cancer, please visit:

- Dr Helen Rippon, Chief Executive, Worldwide Cancer Research

Dr Helen Rippon became the Chief Executive of the charity after spending four years as its Head of Research. Before joining Worldwide Cancer Research, she held management positions at Prostate Cancer UK and Age UK.

If your company or organisation would like to find out more about how it can help start new cancer cures, please contact Neil Woodley – the charity’s Head of Philtropic and Partnerships – at

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