The Power of Women in Leadership: Leading With Empathy

A Q&A with ATC's Executive Director, Artavia Berry, and Director of Operations and Finance, Tara Khan on what it means to lead with empathy in a sector where it's often overlooked

    • Announcements, Community, News
    • March 29, 2024

As Women’s History Month comes to a close, we reflect on the women in our community, both inside and outside of our organization who are making a difference. Women offer a leadership style that is intuitive, nurturing and bold, characteristics that have fueled social change movements for decades. In a sector dependent on authentic compassion, empathy, and resilience, At The Crossroads (ATC) has always championed a rich landscape of organizations with women in leadership positions in the non-profit sector. Appointing Artavia Berry as ATC’s Executive Director further exemplifies this commitment.

Currently, ATC’s Executive Director, Director of Operations & Finance, and 75% of our counselors are women. Our leadership approach reflects a balance between emotional intelligence and operational discipline, ensuring that our services not only meet the immediate needs of our clients, but also the needs of our staff, empowering the organization towards long-term stability.

We asked ATC’s Executive Director, Artavia Berry, and Director of Operations and Finance, Tara Khan what it means to lead with empathy:

Q: What does leading with empathy mean to you?

Artavia: Empathy is a powerful leadership skill that helps us to connect with others on a spiritual level. Trusting intuitive instincts, leaning into emotions and leveraging them as a strength allows us to push deeper beneath the surface to connect in ways that nurture authenticity, truth, connection and vulnerability. At ATC, this allows us to foster a sense of community, compassion and innovation – allowing the organization to lower the stakes when testing new ideas, making mistakes, recovering and reiterating based on our learnings. Empathy allows us to really “see” each other, our clients and our supporters through the lens of our shared humanity and frees us to bring our whole, best, imperfect selves to the process.

Tara: I believe empathy should be one of the top leadership qualities sought after as part of good business practices. Leading with empathy means taking the time to listen and understand the people around you. You’re able to make space for the needs of the whole person, not just the employee identity, and adapt your practices to be compassionate and strategic. I’m able to build trust as an empathetic leader by being self-aware, presenting my authentic self and being transparent so folks know what they can expect from me. ATC’s core values have had a huge impact on my leadership style. Our values of empowering others, being accessible, meeting people where they’re at with individualized support, in order to ultimately build authentic lasting relationships, all have shaped the way I relate not only to other staff but to people in general. 

Q: What impact does this have on our Staff? Clients? Strategies?

Artavia: This is paramount, as it anchors & guides everything from our program design to employee retention policies to how we deepen our authentic connection with clients.  Centering our shared humanity is at the core of everything we do. This results in ATC enjoying high levels of trust that the organization will always put the needs of our clients first, and understanding that to do so means deeply supporting the needs of our staff to achieve that goal. Some examples include the extension of food benefits to our staff as a result of skyrocketing inflation, the removal of “exit ages” for clients as we navigated the pandemic and the intentional design of an annual fundraising event that brings ALL of our constituents together (clients, donors, board members, staff, partners, etc.) for a day of shared joy, connection and belonging.

Tara: Without proper organizational support and boundaries, the emotional labor burden that direct service staff and by extension their managers, experience can lead to high burnout in nonprofits like ATC. For every staff member, our clients are the first priority. As leaders, we have to remind ourselves and our staff that we are not an infinite resource and need to “fill our own cup before we can fill others’ cups”. At ATC, we are normalizing that putting clients first can also mean taking time for self-care so that we can continue to provide quality care long-term. This mentality has helped direct our staff retention efforts as well as our program structure. 

Q: How do you find balance and care for yourself as a leader? 

Artavia: This is a tough one! The need to have empathy for self and to choose self without guilt should not be as tricky as it is. While I understand the power of self-care, particularly for the long term health of myself as a leader and for the long-term stability of the organization, it continues to be a challenge. Some strategies I’ve learned along the way include encouraging others to prioritize themselves and reminding myself to model it for them; taking intentional breaks throughout the work day; scheduling time to walk the shoreline or go on mini-vacations and taking Tara’s advice to “go get a mani-pedi!”, smile. Am also exceedingly grateful for the generosity of our supporters at the Bothin Foundation for granting resources restricted to wellness support for me as the Executive Director this year.

Tara: I’m not sure this ever gets easier! As often as I encourage others to practice self-care, it can be challenging to follow your own advice. I try to remind myself that not everything is urgent or an immediate priority and it’s okay to allow myself space to disconnect. There are some small practices that I try to incorporate into my day like not being in multiple consecutive meetings without a break or not working through lunch. My dog, Aloo, is a great distraction, always ready for a good walk or play break. I also get a lot of joy from my close friends and family who help keep me grounded and encourage me to prioritize self-care. 

Q: Who are some other women leaders you see making a difference in our sector?

Artavia: Internally, I am super grateful for my right hand and partner-in-good, Tara Khan who has led in many capacities at ATC over 8 years. She’s a stabilizing force, helping ATC connect our past to our future. I continue to admire Merissa Hernandez, a rising star in our program department. As we navigate an important leadership transition, Merissa has been able to show up for our clients and her team, leaning in to take on supervisor training with passion and enthusiasm. I’d also note our board co-chairs, Christina Luah and Whitney Wineroth, who have resiliently led our board through 3 Executive Director transitions in 5 years and forward through our post-pandemic era. Am also excited about a new leader at ATC, Jennifer Gavin, who has accepted the Chair role on our newly revamped Advisory Board and is leading our efforts to create a new flagship annual fundraising event that truly reflects our core values.

Tara: There are so many fantastic women leaders in our community. Executive Director Sherilyn Adams of Larkin Street Youth Services, Executive Director Mary Howe of Homeless Youth Alliance and Executive Director Joi Jackson-Morgan of 3rd Street Youth Center & Clinic are just a few of our partners that have been an integral part of the homelessness services landscape alongside us for many years. I want to shout out our Board Co-Chairs Christina Luah and Whitney Wineroth for their years of service to ATC. I also want to mention our own Artavia Berry, who not only makes a huge impact at ATC but is deeply involved in various social justice causes making a difference in her personal time.

Looking Ahead:

We need your support more than ever to continue addressing several pressing needs in our community. As we navigate obstacles and build for the future, we understand that we can’t be afraid to ask for help. We’re asking our donors, volunteers, partners, and advocates—to join us in this critical mission. Next week, we are launching our Spring Forward campaign to help us raise funds for our next stage of growth. Please consider making a donation and sharing our call for support widely:

Help ATC Spring Forward