Michael Ventura is quick to dismiss the notion that empathy is some touchy-feely emotion that makes leaders seem soft. In business, he argues, empathy is what can help a company vanquish the competition, gain loyal customers, retain innovative employees and elevate itself from good to great. Ventura, founder and CEO of strategy and design studio Sub Rosa, has put the lessons he’s learned from working with major brands into a book titled, Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership. He recently joined the Knowledge at Wharton show on SiriusXM to discuss why this particular emotion is becoming paramount in the business world.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: When did you start to see empathy as an important element in leadership?
Michael Ventura: I think that it really was a slow burn for us. It wasn’t a thunderclap kind of moment. We went back and looked at about five years’ worth of work that we had developed and asked, what made all of this work well? Why was this work landing for our clients in such a way? When we dug into it deeply, we started to see it’s not about sitting in a room and shutting the door and getting high on your own supply. It was when we got out of the building, got into the minds of the people we were trying to reach and really took their perspective, really got into their shoes and saw the world from their standpoint. When we did that and brought that insight back, the work got exponentially better. We latched on to it at that point and started to make a practice and a methodology around it.
Knowledge at Wharton: In today’s corporate culture, how prevalent is empathy?
Ventura: I think it is getting more important, but the problem is that there are a lot of misconceptions about what it is. There are a lot of people who hear empathy and equate it to being nice or being compassionate. Those are often side effects of empathy, but that in and of itself is not empathy.
Empathy is a fairly objective, perspective-taking process where you are aware of your own bias, you try to step as far out of that as you can, and you try to see and understand from someone else’s point of view. When leaders inside organizations do that — and that doesn’t mean just the C-suite — they are able to connect better with their teams, connect better with their customers or their clients, and ultimately deliver more well-rounded solutions.
Knowledge at Wharton: In the book, you call empathy a “squishy word.” Why?
Ventura: I think that because of that misconception we were just talking about, a lot of people have their own version of empathy. One of the clients we worked with early on using this work was an enormous, mulitnational manufacturing operation. We sat down with a member of their C-suite and said, “We really think empathy is an important aspect of how we are going to make this work successful.” We were almost laughed out of the room. We had to say, “Hold on. Before you judge, let’s talk about what this really means.” Fifteen minutes later, the exec said, “This is exactly what we’ve been looking for. I just didn’t know that it was empathy.”
“Empathy makes things harder before it makes things easier because it requires patience and re-commitment.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Your company has worked with West Point (the United States Military Academy). What did you learn there?
Ventura: That’s a fascinating little digression. We got out into the world and started doing this work with corporate clients. We also ended up going to Princeton University, which had reached out to us and asked us to create a curriculum. We taught three semesters there using this framework, this applied empathy process. One day the phone rang, and it said West Point on the caller ID. I answered the phone, and they said, “We’ve been listening to your podcast; we’ve been hearing the work you’ve been doing, and we would love you to invite you up to talk with us.”
I thought that was going to be the toughest room I was ever going to be in. I thought that these were going to be the skeptics of the skeptics. I walked in and I started talking about what we do, and heads were nodding, people were leaning in and taking notes, and they were asking smart questions. In the end, I went over to one of the generals and said, “I stand corrected. I thought this was going to be a really tough room.” He said, “The misconception with us is that we are very closed-minded. But we are a leadership development academy, and we are dedicated to creating lifelong learners here. This is something we are voraciously consuming as a topic right now, so this is a good place to be.”
Knowledge at Wharton: You also talk about empathy being a driver for growth and for innovation.
Ventura: Like innovation, empathy makes things harder before it makes things easier because it requires patience and re-commitment. One of the things that we’ve seen a lot in organizations is that they are committed to innovation when it happens quickly. But when innovation takes more than two quarters to turn a profit, they start second guessing.
We’ve got to keep writing checks for this? We’ve got to keep doubling down on this? Much like empathy, innovation does need this double-down mentality where we’re going to keep going for it because it will pay dividends. It just may take a while to re-orient ourselves towards that mindset before it starts to tick the meter in the right direction.
Knowledge at Wharton: In your book, you write that there are different facets of empathy: the sage, the inquirer, the convener, the alchemist, the confidante, the seeker and the cultivator. Can you take us through a couple of those?
Ventura: We created these archetypes as a way to understand how to put yourself into different ways of being empathic and gathering information. Thinking about it [personally], the convener is one archetype that I naturally tend towards. The convener’s behavior is to host. They know how to create an environment where people feel comfortable sharing, and in so doing they learn a lot about those folks. Think about a focus group, for instance. You create a focus group environment where people are comfortable and willing to share, and you are ultimately able to get more information out of them and understand them better.
“The biggest shortcoming of an organization without empathy in its DNA is that it starts to become very myopic, it starts to become very ivory tower.”
The alchemist’s behavior is to experiment, to prototype, to fail fast. Not my natural DNA. One of our clients that we have worked with over the years is Google’s Creative Lab, which is designed as an alchemist’s shop. They tell you on the first day, “We don’t want PowerPoints; we don’t want presentations. We want you to come in and show us what you prototyped, how it broke, what you learned from it, and where we are going next.”
In working with them, I had to get myself into a mindset where I could be a little more inclined towards being an alchemist and a little less inclined towards being a convener. These archetypes have been designed to help us try on different perspectives and see where our strengths are, see where our weaknesses are. We believe people are all seven, just distributed unequally. Once you know your strengths and your weaknesses, you can adjust accordingly.
Knowledge at Wharton: Do startups tend to fall in that alchemist category?
Ventura: Yes, I think they do. There is a tendency with them to make sure what they are doing is innovating within a category. They are always trying to be the game-changer or the shifter of perspective. But what’s interesting with startups is they often have a culture of “design by committee” early on because it’s three or four co-founders. They all believe in the same thing and sit around a room, so there is this behavior of real perspective-taking from each other early on. But when those companies grow at scale and exponentially shift from five people to 50 people to 500 people over the span of maybe 12 months, that culture doesn’t change. They still try to perspective-take to that degree.
One of the things we have done in working with startups is have them begin to understand that too much bottom-up feedback is going to slow you down. Too much top-down dictatorial behavior is going to [cause you to] lose your original culture. So, where on that slider do we need to plug ourselves into for the best outcomes of the business?
Knowledge at Wharton: Are you saying there is a negative side to empathy?
Ventura: I think the biggest shortcoming of an organization without empathy in its DNA is that it starts to become very myopic, it starts to become very ivory tower. For a while, that might be OK.
One of the cases I talk about in the book is the growth and massive heyday of Polaroid. They were living in a world where instant film was all there would ever be. Innovation had been happening off to the side, and people were saying, “Hey, we should pay attention to this thing called digital.” But the film business was so gangbusters at that point that there wasn’t really as much of an [incentive] to pay attention to it. Lo and behold, that led to their demise.
“When you start to become aware of how to … train the empathy muscle, you start to discover how your biases have perhaps held you back as a leader.”
Knowledge at Wharton: Kodak as well, correct?
Ventura: Yeah, exactly. They invented the first personal computer but were too busy running lease deals on photocopiers to pay attention to it.
Knowledge at Wharton: One of the firms that you have worked with in the past is eyewear website Warby Parker. What role did empathy play in their operation?
Ventura: If you think about the pre-Warby Parker era, going to get glasses was tantamount to getting your teeth cleaned. It wasn’t a great experience for anybody. We got a call from Neil Blumenthal, who is one of their founders, while [he and the other founders] were in their final year at Wharton…. He said, “Hey we’re thinking about doing this thing that’s going to be very disruptive in the eyewear category, and we want to sit down and talk with you guys.”
Our work early on with them was really talking about how their brand would show up at retail because their notion was they would never do brick-and-mortar. One of the first things they said was, “While we think that this is the right road to [go down], we can’t get caught unprepared for brick-and-mortar should that time come.”
Some of the early work we did with them was thinking about how we would take a really efficient and seamless online experience and translate that to a physical, real-world environment without losing the magic of it. That really came down to empathy. It was about understanding the consumer’s lack of grit in that process and asking, what would make a physical experience the same as digital? Not waiting for someone to take the eyeglasses out of a glass case for you to try them on, to let you just walk in, grab them, put them on, look in a mirror and decide for yourself. Putting the agency in the hands of the consumer.
Knowledge at Wharton: It is incredibly important right now for a company to give the customer the best experience so that they can retain them. It’s all about the relationship, right?
“When you look at organizations that are really nailing it in terms of understanding their consumer, their stock price rises, their employee retention rises.”
Ventura: Exactly. But the tendency with a lot of organizations is to think about those in silos because that is the way they are typically organized inside of the organization. You will have a digital team who thinks about the digital experience, and you will have a retail team who thinks about the retail experience. But consumers don’t say, “I am going to now go be a digital consumer, and later on this afternoon when I leave the building I am going to be a physical, real-world consumer.” They are just a consumer.
We have these false walls that we build inside organizations because it serves hierarchy and it serves reporting structures and it serves growth plans and things like that. But it doesn’t serve integration, it doesn’t serve cross-pollination of ideas, it doesn’t serve the collaboration that is ultimately what makes something work.
Knowledge at Wharton: Is empathy is also a way for companies to look at themselves differently?
Ventura: Absolutely. We have seen that time and again with this work, even looking at our own team. When you start to become aware of how to perspective-take and how to train the empathy muscle, you start to discover how your biases have perhaps held you back as a leader. If you have a tendency to not ask deep questions because you don’t want to get pulled into deep conversations with people, if you kind of just want to make a decision and usher people into action, that is going to limit the level of depth you get to with some of your colleagues. As we work in different ways with these leaders, they come to find that learning how to do this with others helps them learn a lot about themselves.
My hope is that this is the evolution of human-centered design in our world. This is something where we have put the consumer first in some of the best companies in the world. When you look at organizations that are really nailing it in terms of understanding their consumer, their stock price rises, their employee retention rises. All of those key metrics that you want to see are on the rise.
However, we are living in a more eco-systemic world than ever before, where things rely upon each other in a way that is much more dynamic and much more entangled than it was even a decade ago. Our view is that as organizations start to adopt this mindset and this way of thinking, it is going to allow them to not just think about the end consumer or the problem just at hand, but maybe perhaps something slightly adjacent.