“There is no leadership without empathy.” Colin Mincy, Chief People Officer at Human Rights Watch, on belonging, leadership, and resilience.

Author Samantha Howie
September 24, 2021

Colin Mincy is Chief People Officer at Human Rights Watch (HRW). He serves on HRW’s Executive Committee, the most senior leadership body, and is responsible for global people operations.

This includes but is not limited to HR Strategy, Talent Management, Total Rewards, Recruitment, and Workplace Conduct. He is also an executive sponsor to diversity, equity and inclusion stress, and resilience work particularly with a lens on future of work.

Here, Samantha Howie talks to him about stress management for leaders, managing with empathy, belonging, personal development, authenticity, and finding professional inspiration even in the most challenging of times.

Colin, after many years in the for-profit sector, you’ve spent the last four years in global, high profile, mission-driven organizations in the Human Rights space. Have you noticed any difference in your needs as a leader (and those of your employees) considering the incredible lifesaving work Human Rights Watch does? 

This is a challenging question because Human Resources plays such a different role in the organization today than it did when I first started out in the private sector in the early 2000s. 

What I will say is that I’m glad I started in the private sector first, because I maximized my influencing skills to be able to encourage people to focus on and care about things that they may not ordinarily invest in and it helped me learn that the most effective Human Resource practitioners understand the business they are a part of which helps cultivate relationships, create trust, and bring sensible solutions to the workplace. 

A lot of HR teams deliver initiatives and solutions the organization doesn’t want or need, and that is the beginning of the end for the credibility of an HR leader and HR function.

How do you deal with stress and help others do the same? 

I am not an expert in managing stress for myself, but I am very good at helping others do so and build resilience, and I think a lot of HR leaders will tell you that they fall into the trap of caring so much for others that they sometimes forget to invest in self-care. I have a coach (Jennifer Logue) who has taught me each week to consider what I need to do, what I can defer, what I am able to delegate, what I can delete, and this intentional prioritization has really worked for me and others I have shared this exercise with. 

The other intentional strategy that I’m very disciplined about is ensuring that on Friday I have no more than 3 meetings scheduled so I can action on the week’s deliverables, have time to process all I’ve learned and heard from the week, respond to emails I couldn’t get to because of my heavy meeting calendar, and focus on reading an article, essay, or listening to a podcast to ensure I’m holding space to invest in learning on areas of HR that I need and want to grow in.

Burnout is real, especially among “the helpers.” In some ways, greater awareness around employee wellness was just coming into its own before we were faced with a global pandemic that threw many of us into unusual work patterns and uniquely taxing or anxiety-producing home and family situations. Given all this, what opportunities can leaders proactively seize that can both help in the present, and shape the future of work for the better? 

First, I think we can now put an end to the antiquated way of thinking that people can’t work remotely and be effective – there are few silver linings 2020 brought us, and I would say putting an end to that myth is one of them. 

Secondly, people work differently, and we should create space for people to work in ways and on schedules that best set them up for success and is consistent with their own level of comfort on how they contribute. 

If flexible work arrangements don’t impact team performance, impede productivity, or create inequities or disparities with other team members – I say work and let work.  

Third, leaders have to go beyond the work and invest in how people are doing, whether people feel supported, the extent to which people are overwrought or overworked and proactively determine when we need to reprioritize work because people go harder, work better and contribute more when they are operating in a supportive environment that they believe cares about them as much as they care about their work.

Have you carried any useful lessons on handling stress with you into 2021? What advice would you give to other HR leaders trying to balance their own emotional needs as well as those of their employees with meeting and exceeding their organizational goals (often with leaner budgets and teams), and doing so when life as we know it, has changed so drastically? 

First, you can’t effectively take care of other people if you aren’t mindful of how to take care of yourself, so take time off even if you can’t go anywhere, devote time to resting and resetting, and model to your team and to the organization that it is okay to take time for self-care and to take a break. 

Second, being intentional about investing in networking to establish a support system of HR leaders who have similar challenges as well as ideas and innovation was a critical learning lesson for me and others in 2020 that we should carry forward. 

Third, technology is not our enemy, it is critical – not only in leveraging how videoconferencing and other technology allowed us to continue to hire, onboard, sustain, grow, learn, collaborate, and we should make sure investment in technology and platforms to support and enhance our work is proactive now that we’ve experienced investing in this reactively as a result of a pandemic! 

Lastly, there really is no excuse not to attend conferences and learning engagements – they will be virtual for a long period of time, they are affordable because we’re not travelling, and the content and impressiveness of presentations have been very meaningful to me in terms of my own growth and thinking on how to innovate. I’ve met so many wonderful colleagues around the globe that have become friends and thought partners.

Good leaders are always resilient. What does resilience mean to you? Is it, in your estimation, something that can be learned without going through many trials by fire? Or do you really have to pay your dues before you get there? Are there any repeatable daily practices that can help us be resilient? 

To me resilience means recognizing when you are in a space of strength and when you are in a space where you need support, and then being open about it – so that you can be a support for others, or you can be in a position where others can support you. It is okay to be not okay. Someone can step up when others need to step back because of the complexity of balancing work and life in this moment. 

Resilience to me also means that you are adaptable and open to change, particularly when you recognize that irrespective of what your profession is or the success you have had doing the work, that you can never stop learning, listening, and growing. My resilience is borne from the fact that I am flawed too and have made mistakes along the way but learned from them. It is informed by my desire to push myself to be a better person and a better professional and that the investment I have made in relationships – personal and professional – is a constant source of strength and inspiration for me, particularly when I raise my hand and say, “I’m not okay.” Self-care and the focus on stress and resilience has always been important, even before the pandemic affected us and our nation’s reckoning with racial justice and political divide came to the fore. 

I hope one of the things that never changes when life returns to “normal” (whatever that even means and if that is even possible), is that we take how we’ve gone beyond the work to sustain people, how we proactively created space for people to be open about their struggles, and how we worked together to get through adversity, and ensure that this is always alive and well in our homes and in our workplaces.

You and I go way back, and I know you to be highly emotional intelligent and empathetic as a person and HR professional. Where do these qualities fit into your leadership style? 

Let me start by saying thank you for the kind words. We sure do go way back, but let’s not get too specific on how many years that is!? I am not a complex person, I’m very consistent. How I show up at work isn’t much different to how I show up at home or with my friends and family. I have always been confident enough in what I can deliver from a capability perspective that I have never felt as if I couldn’t bring my authentic self to work, and I recognize that is really a blessing. 

For me, if my authentic self isn’t right for the environment than the environment isn’t right for me. 

I am also an only child so as a young person developing solid rapport has been a part of how I connect with people. The commitment to this has developed some of the most amazing friendships one could hope for and while professional relationships are different, I try to leverage some of those mechanisms to connect with people in the workplace. 

Lastly, I am not interested in being a COO or an Executive Director or any other job, I just want to be a good HR leader so the work for me is not a resource, it is a source. I genuinely care about people and want to help them, and you can’t fix things or people you don’t understand. You also can’t get through to people who don’t trust you, so investing in relationships and determining how to reach people are critical.

Who is currently inspiring you? Famous or not. (doesn’t have to be one person!) 

The man that inspired me today inspired me for the first time in 9th grade in a class taught by a woman named Lois Goelz. My hero then which continues to this day is Atticus Finch, the character in ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’.  Atticus Finch taught us the value of preserving human dignity for all people and that the best feeling is taking quiet pride in service to others.  In ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, Atticus Finch says “the best way to clear the air is to get it all out in the open.” 

I once had a leader ask me why I care so much about people’s feelings. I am often considered too focused on staff sentiment, too open, and too honest. While I typically try to find ways to grow from feedback, this is a piece of feedback I have and will continue to ignore.  

People don’t always agree with me, but they know I come from a place of realness and truth. This means I don’t have to sell that I’m genuine, because they know that. I don’t have to convince them I’m being real; they know it. I don’t have to explain that my heart is in the right place, they know that. I don’t have to get them to see that I’m truly here for them, they know that too. 

If you’re interested in talking about anything covered in this article,  your career, or hiring in HR, please contact Samantha Howie.

About Human Rights Watch
Established in 1978, Human Rights Watch (HRW) is one of the world’s leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated – through rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy – they build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuses. For over 40 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.