Empathy – A Leader’s Greatest Gift

It’s the planning season for many companies. Hours will be spent evaluating past performance, strategies and market opportunities all for the purpose of creating an exciting and profitable future. Often that picture is one of success. A picture you’ve gotten so close to achieving, but which always seems to slip away sometime during the year. You tell yourself next year will be different. Plans will be detailed. Budgets will be prepared and presentations will be made in the hope that everyone will be dedicated to the work ahead.  So much depends on the enthusiastic commitment of all hands on deck to get there. Unfortunately, as we’ve often seen, we fall short of the level of support we need to achieve our goals. What’s missing?

I believe that support and engagement comes more from our employee’s response to leadership than it does from the vision and plans themselves. Teddy Roosevelt said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.” When it comes to running a company, you can try to communicate and engage all you want and you’ll get the smiles and nods you expect. But people will go back to doing their jobs as they always have until they know you truly care, and when they do, they’ll do just about anything to support you. One trait that communicates to others that you care is sincere empathy.

Empathy is a word we hear a lot, but you might be uncertain of its meaning. Empathy is often confused with sympathy. It does not mean you have to agree with how someone is feeling or can even relate to those feelings. Instead, empathy involves being aware of how someone might feel even when you can’t sympathize with them. If you can appreciate what another person is going through, even without agreeing, you’re displaying empathy. Empathy is critical to leadership because it builds trust and without trust you’re not leading people, you’re managing them.

Listening is certainly part of empathic leadership, but listening with empathy goes beyond the words. It involves trying to understand the other person and the emotion and feelings behind their words. It doesn’t mean you have to agree with how they see it. Rather, it means you’re willing to try to see it through their eyes.  Empathic leadership is also non-judgmental. When we take the time to understand the needs of our people, we provide them with the support and safety they require to deal with the challenges or issues that might be holding them back from achieving their, and our goals.

Empathic leadership is also central to our being. Humans are by nature wired for sociability and attachment to others. We are driven to connect and care for those we interact with. You only need to turn on the television and hear about a natural disaster to feel the emotion and urgency to help others.

There are several things that happen when people know their leaders care about them:

  • Empathy allows people to feel safe in their short-comings and instills a sense of personal responsibility
  • It creates the basis for higher expectations and the safety net required for people to reach for riskier goals
  • It encourages leaders to understand the root cause behind poor performance and creates credibility, understanding and cooperation for difficult performance conversations
  • Empathy allows leaders to build and develop deeper relationships with those they lead.

If your employees don’t feel they’re cared about by their leaders, they will always feel they have to look out for their own interests. On the other hand, with an empathic leader, the employee knows that their feelings won’t be overlooked or ignored. Like children, they may not always get their way and may even have to suffer the consequences of their choices and actions, but they never doubt that their leader cares about them and has their best interest in mind.

When it comes to the keys for successful leadership, empathy is not often mentioned. However, I think it’s one of those common sense human nature concepts that applies to everything we do. So, as you plan that exciting year ahead, ask yourself: “How do your people know you truly care about them? How does your culture and leadership style reinforce it?” If you’re serious about next year being the one that doesn’t get away, learn how it feels to walk in other people’s shoes.

If you’d like to discuss how you can become a more empathic leader, call or reach me through the “contact us” tab on this page.

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Leadership Lessons From My Dog

If you have a pet you know they can claim a special place in your heart. A few weeks ago my wife and I experienced a loss in our family when after seventeen years, our little wiener dog, Gretchen, passed away. If you’ve grown close to a pet you know the hole that can leave in your heart.

Gretchen had a good life but it didn’t start out that way. We rescued her at age three from a breeder. After being a breeding mom, her usefulness was over. She lacked social skills and was the runt of the litter. When we discovered her, she was the only dog left to be adopted. She had been rejected by every other buyer, but we took her in. Despite her broken early life she blossomed into the most wonderful loving dog we could have hoped for. I realized that her story could be the story of many people I’ve been asked to lead in my career. But did I have the same compassion and patience with them that I had with her, or would I pass them by too?

As I processed her loss I thought of the many lessons and virtues she modeled for me. I began to think about how much we as leaders can learn from our loyal companions.  Without speaking a word she modeled lessons for us every day, lessons that could make our work environments and our worlds a better place if we’d just follow her examples. Here are a few she taught me that I’ll always remember.

Forgiveness – We mouth the words forgive and forget. But how often do we live it. Gretchen truly forgot. Her attitude toward us wasn’t based on past experiences. She knew how I felt about her and framed her response based on my potential, not my occasional failures. What she taught me was not to harbor grudges, but to lead individuals based on their potential, not just their past behavior. The only way to build deep and enduring relationships is to forgive and then forget.

Attitude of appreciation – While Gretchen’s desire was to always be with us, we left her most days as we headed off to work. Gretchen could have let us know how disappointed she was with us leaving her each day, but she didn’t. When we returned home, instead of displaying her displeasure, she celebrated our return with enthusiasm and an attitude of gratitude. How often, when we don’t get our way in business, do we find it in us to celebrate what we can of the situation?  Or do we complain to the boss or our coworkers? Maintaining the right attitude about our circumstances can make work and life a more positive experience for everyone.

Resilience – Gretchen came to us with a chip on her shoulder. Because of her upbringing she was distrustful of us and behaved badly in the beginning. But despite her shortcomings, we didn’t give up on her.  With coaching and nurturing she was able to overcome her negative behavior and gave up her victim mentality. Many people come into our lives and work groups who’ve had tough beginnings. Their personal lives or work experiences may have been one of hurt, loss, abandonment or abuse. It’s only natural that they would rebel and distrust. The easy path would be to give up on them, to fire fast and move on. But often, the toughest people can blossom into great individuals with the right coaching and nurturing. Certainly, don’t lower your standards and don’t ignore poor behavior, but sometimes we’ve got to step into the problem and invest ourselves in the “replaceables” to find the gems.

Gretchen was happiest when we were happy. She thrived on the attention and appreciation we gave her. She could feel that we really cared about her. In any work environment the highest principle is that it’s all about the people. If your people are purposefully engaged and believe you truly care about them they will do great things for you. They will walk through glass for you. I firmly believe that the more sincere appreciation you show, the harder people will work and the more loyal they will be.

As I worked through my loss, a friend sent me this note: “It came to me that every time I lose a dog they take a piece of my heart with them, and every new dog who comes into my life gifts me with a piece of their heart. If I live long enough, all the components of my heart will be dog, and I will become as generous and loving as they are.” Great lessons to lead by. Great lessons to live by.

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Creating a Team of Work Horses

On July 3rd the “greatest outdoor show on earth” kicked off as it has for over 50 years. But it wasn’t a fireworks show. In fact it had nothing to do with the Fourth of July. It was the Calgary Stampede, a ten day rodeo show attracting over a million attendees.  At the same time, I’d been thinking a lot about how we so casually use the word “team” when describing our work groups. We refer to our coworkers as our team. Sometimes we refer to those under our span of control as “my team”. So with all this talk about teams, I wondered: “What’s the difference between a team and just a group of people?”

Webster defines a team as either a group of people who work together or two or more draft animals harnessed to the same vehicle or implement.  A group is defined as a number of people that are together or in the same place or who are connected by some shared activity or interest. As I thought about these I concluded that we have more groups than teams.

So what does the Calgary Stampede have to do with teamwork? The connection is not the countless staff and volunteers needed to pull off an event the size of the Stampede. No doubt it takes a lot of teamwork and coordination. But that’s not the team I’m thinking about. I’m referring to the pulling teams. The pairs of work horses that will compete to see which team can pull the greatest amount of weight over a given distance. It’s when we look at these teams that we can truly understand what real teamwork should look like.

Working teams of horses are much more than just a group in the same place. These animals are gentle giants; big, massive horses capable of getting a lot done on their own, but they seldom do. Whether on the farm or at the pulling track, they are usually in a team of two and sometimes more. As I thought about that I began to wonder, how much more can they accomplish working together rather than working alone?

The answer came from a friend of mine who used to live in Calgary and shared this story with me.  On one occasion when he was at the Stampede he attended the pulling competition. The competition for individual horses had just completed. The winning horse pulled nearly 3,000 pounds and the second place horse pulled 2,800 pounds. At the end of the competition they harnessed the two horses together and asked for the audience to guess how much they thought the two could pull together. The general consensus was that they’d pull the sum of the two or about 5,800 pounds. Some felt that the amount would be a little lower theorizing that harnessing them together would sap some of their energy as they might pull against one another a little. So they harnessed them up and sent them down the track. The result was beyond everyone’s expectations. Those two horses, when harnessed together pulled nearly three times the weight, almost 9,000 pounds! The crowd was stunned. How could that be done, especially since the two horses had never been together before?

My uncle Hans once had a team of Belgian work horses. Their names were Fred and Jed. Unlike the two horses at the Stampede, Fred and Jed were actually a team. Immediately after buying them, my uncle sent them to an Amish farm for nearly a year to teach them how to work together. They had to learn to set aside their nature to perform individually and become a team that performed as a single unit. They were transformed from a group of two individually top performing animals, into a team who’s capability would be much greater than the sum of the parts.

So what are a few lessons we can draw from these stories? How much weight could we pull if we followed the example of these gentle giants?

  1. We must be closely harnessed That’s more than being in the same place. It means we’re yoked together such that our energy will be multiplied when we pull in unison lead by a common purpose.
  2. We have to be trained to work as a team. Quite often, not enough time is spent teaching a talented group of people how to set aside their individual habits and harmonize as one true team.
  3. Together we win in a way that makes it difficult to distinguish individual performance. In fact, one working harder than the others can dissipate energy and send the team off course. A good team is balanced despite individual differences in strength and talent.

Do you have “groups” or “teams” in your organization? Real teams have a multiplying effect and can accomplish much more than the cumulative effort of a group. So, the next time you’re out and see a team of horses pulling together, remember the unique relationship they have and the enormous potential of true work teams.

If you’d like to discuss your team and how it might be able to pull a bigger load, call or reach me through the “contact us” tab on this page.

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Leadership – the key to Price, Quality and Speed

Recently I was sent an email with a photo of a poster saying “Price Quality or Speed – Pick Two”. It struck me at the time how old this phrase was and how out of place it seemed today. In its time the slogan meant that customers had only two choices and that it was too much to expect a business to offer all three. A short time later I ran into an old employee who mentioned the same phrase, this time reminding me that I taught it to him. I felt terrible. I felt like I’d corrupted him and yet, at the time we worked together it was our truth – or at least we thought so. For people who didn’t grow up in business in the 1980’s and early 90s this phrase must seem odd. Who would think that way today and yet a few decades ago we did. This would be just another interesting history lesson if not for the fact that today, some individuals and companies still hold fast to the notion that only two of these are possible. So what took a phrase that was prevalent in business thirty years ago and turned it into an arcane strategy today?

One of the most significant events that changed our thinking was the quality movement that began in the 1970’s (first in Japan and then the U.S.). The quality movement was about more than just quality. It changed how we thought. It represented a fundamental shift from internally-focused decision making to the customer-centric business model and a leadership system that we take for granted today. Statistical quality control taught us how to reduce variation in the quality of our products. “Good enough” was no longer good enough. Eventually, consistent high quality products was no longer something we touted as a competitive advantage. It became the expectation of every customer just to be considered as a supplier.  Quality was taken off the table as a point of differentiation because everyone offered it. Now all we had left was price and speed.

International pressure also brought the need to be more competitive and cost conscious. So on the heels of the quality movement came “Lean” with its sights set on eliminating waste in systems. The result of leaner, more efficient processes meant we could deliver products faster and at a lower cost. We now had efficient and quick customer response time along with high quality. The nimbleness of highly responsive systems also enabled mass customization. No longer were we tied to long production runs designed to maximize machine efficiency.

There’s no question that technological advances in the digital age played a big role in making it all possible. Computer controlled machines made quality, consistency and speed possible. Electronic communication such as email compressed time and enabled data to be quickly and accurately dispersed to far flung corners of the globe.

I remember when one of my sales pitches was consistent quality and on-time delivery. Who would think of leading with that strategy today? Today the marketplace expects it. Decades ago we complained about the “unrealistic” demands of the customer. Not only do we not hear the complaint as much anymore, but we have a generation of employees who’ve grown up in a system of giving the customer with what they want, when they want it and at a fair price.

For most of us, improving quality, shortening delivery cycles and lowering costs required minimal if any investment. What it did require was that we change the way we thought. We began to look at all our processes with an eye for waste and inefficiency. We placed an emphasis on serving our customers what they wanted, when they wanted it. The quality movement changed our attitude. The digital revolution enabled it.

Satisfying customer expectations in a highly competitive environment is challenging for all companies. But those who embrace leadership strategies that support the idea that price, quality and speed are not only possible, but are necessary, have the greatest opportunity for success. Those that still expect the customer to “pick two” are often trapped in a perpetual struggle for survival.

Continually evaluating and evolving our leadership and competitive strategies to anticipate customer needs is critical to success. The competitive differentiating question we should be asking ourselves is “What do we believe today that ten or twenty years from now will seem as arcane as “Price, Quality or Speed – Pick Two”? Maybe, the new phrase for us today should be “Price, Quality & Speed – Pick More”.

If you’re struggling to get traction with a strategy or need to challenge old thoughts that are holding you back, let’s talk. I can help. You can  reach me through the “Contact Us” tab on this page.

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Bring Back My Old Inbox

Lately I’ve found myself reminiscing about how much I miss by inbox. Now, I don’t mean my Outlook inbox or the Gmail inbox on my phone. Actually, they’re the problem. It’s the other inbox. What I really miss is the wire basket that, for the first twenty years of my career, sat on the front-left corner of my desk right above the wire out-basket. What I didn’t realize then was the important role it played in my management development, how it served to bind my employees and I together socially and how it helped to maintain a healthy life-work balance for me. Here’s how it worked.

Several times throughout the day my secretary would stop in my office to deliver fresh mail and pick up items I’d put in an inter-office routing envelope for delivery. Inevitably, I’d ask how her day was going and for a short time we engaged in meaningful conversation about how she was doing. Sometimes the conversation was about her office workload while other times it was about events in her personal life. It may have been a bit of unproductive time for both of us but we engaged in face-to-face conversation. That inbox facilitated communication that strengthened the social fabric of our unit and the company.

By the late 80’s I had a PC and was able to schedule my appointments and write and send my own memos. I didn’t need my secretary and I could get a lot more done in less time. Although I could walk a short distance to my colleague’s office, it was faster and easier to send an email. We were more productive, we thought. We also talked less.

That inbox also enabled one of my first and most memorable management development opportunities. At the time, I was a young technician in a small but important unit in a large company. I had been to management development classes but had few opportunities to manage and to practice what I had learned. That was until my boss went on vacation and I was asked to serve in her capacity for a week. That meant that I had to open the mail in her inbox, read important memos, attend meetings and decide what needed immediate action and what could wait until she returned. I was able to experience her job by managing her inbox for five days. That was a meaningful assignment that I thoroughly enjoyed and have not forgotten. Today, with comingled business and personal emails, 24-hour access and the expectation of others that we’re always available, not only would it be difficult to do, but having someone handle my mail during my absence wouldn’t be needed. A developmental opportunity is missed and a new problem is created.

People today tell me all the time that they’ve lost a healthy balance in their lives. Work has crept into every corner of their waking time. It’s growing harder every day to escape the intrusion of work emails or texts. The line between work “on” and “off” has become blurred. That wasn’t the case with my old wire basket. Issues then were no less important to the future of our company than they are today. However, my inbox didn’t go home with me. The company and our problems could wait until the next day.  When I left the office, work turned off and life turned on. We didn’t have another option. We had clear separation and a healthy balance between the two. Time away from work was a time for rest and recharging.

Don’t get me wrong, technology is a wonderful thing and I don’t want to turn back that clock. But we tell ourselves that we’re more productive because we can work when we want or that we can create a better organization if we can conduct business after we’ve left the office. Rarely is that the case. Rather, it serves as a convenient rationalization for the trap we’ve found ourselves in.

Sometimes we need to slow down to go faster. To perform at our best we need good rest every night. For companies to perform at their best their employees need to rest also. Realizing that clear separation is both healthy for associates and for the business, some companies are taking bold steps to develop policies that limit or prohibit what work can be conducted off hours. They develop leaders who delegate effectively and are not missed when they’re gone.

Call me old fashioned if you’d like. I probably am. But I still think we all lost something of ourselves when we gave up our wire inbox for technology that promised to free us from the burdens of work. Company leaders should ask themselves if their employee’s work habits are in their best interests and that of the company’s. If there are doubts, it’s the leader’s responsibility to protect their employees, even from themselves if necessary. Now, has anyone seen my old rotary dial phone?

If you’d like help bringing balance back to your organization contact me off this site and let’s begin the conversation.

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