The One Skill Most Leaders Lack

Many entrepreneurs lack empathy. Find out why this skill is important for business success and learn how to increase organizational empathy.
President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.
April 16, 2013 A study reported in the Harvard Business Review shows that one of the skills most serial entrepreneurs lack is empathy. Empathy is a powerful antenna for understanding the experiences of those around us. It helps good leaders become great leaders and is a key to business success. As management guru Peter Drucker said, "The purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer." Empathy is an important component of keeping a customer.

In Wired To Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy, Dave Patnaik illustrates how successful organizations practice empathy for the consumer in the way they do business. One such company is Herman Miller, which uses empathy to understand the customer and build better products. A company statement explains, "We gain empathy by engaging with nurses and other caregivers in multiple ways. Facility tours, focus groups, gaming sessions and job shadowing help us develop insight into the work of caregivers, to really understand what they do, what their workday is like." The company then shares those experiences with product development teams through reports, hallway conversations and workshops.

Some people are gifted with a high empathy level while others struggle with the notion. If you or your business struggle, here are seven ways you can practice empathy on an organizational level:

1. Use outsight. Allot five to 10 minutes in your regularly scheduled meetings for everyone to quickly share what they have heard in the field about your product or service. It's a good way to keep your ear to the ground to find out about customer issues that may otherwise not surface. Don't wait until you hear a complaint to respond. Use all the knowledge you gain to engage with customers and let them know you care. Empathy engenders loyalty.

2. Build a culture of empathy. When empathy is not practiced within the organization—with all constituents—it's impossible to expect it to happen with customers. Whitney Hess, a user experience consultant, talks about how designers, for example, focus their efforts on developing organizational empathy for the end-user, but neglect to do the same on their own home turf. As she put it, "They say you can’t truly love another before you learn to love yourself. Organizations are no different. If we don’t love and respect and admire the people we work with every day, we can’t collectively give our customers the love they deserve." Empathy is an inside-out job.

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3. Know who you want to do business with. Entrepreneurs often start businesses without being fully aware of who they want to cater to. A company might start with a B2C model, only to find out in midstream that a B2B model is where they would have focused if they had done a proper analysis. Seth Godin writes, "... too often, we pick the product or service first, deciding that it's perfect and then rushing to market, sure that the audience will sort itself out. Too often, though, we end up with nothing." Whether you're a real estate broker, a bowling alley investor, a yoga instructor or app developer, Godin adds, "in every case, first figure out who you'd like to do business with, then go make something just for them," Are you targeting the right people? Do you fully understand their needs? If not, what can you do to change this?

4. Build empathy in your post-purchase policies. While everyone should be trained to use an empathetic approach at every touch point with the client, this is particularly important in your post-purchase policies. Make it easy for people to seek redress, if needed. How a customer is treated when things go wrong has an impact on whether or not the person continues to be your customer. For example, watch commission-based frontline employees who may treat a customer seeking a refund with less warmth than they did during the purchase. In Nice Companies Finish First: Why Cutthroat Management Is Over And Collaboration Is In, Peter Shankman shows how a focus on empathic service builds revenue. A customer-centric leader has a framework in place to quickly meet customer demands, puts a premium on what customers say and do, and changes what's not working without looking back.

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5. Write intelligible user manuals. We have all been through the annoyance and frustration of having to follow instruction booklets that tested our patience. Some are so badly written, in a rush to get the product out the door, that you would never know from the writing that the person actually followed the same instructions themselves. Putting yourself in the shoes of the manual reader is one small but impactful way to show empathy.

6. Take an empathy test. People generally know whether or not they have empathy. However, we often misjudge the extent of our empathy. If you need help to raise your self-awareness in this critical area, consider taking this free online Empathy Quotient test. To get feedback from your constituents on your empathy level, consider taking an emotional intelligence test

7. Empathy as a way of life. If you have children, there is probably no greater gift you can give them than to help them understand and practice empathy early on. Take an inspiration from this video showcasing how Japanese fourth grade students are taught empathy. Closer to home, we have Roots of Empathy, an organization that has been successful in developing empathy in children and decreasing aggression and bullying.

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Bruna Martinuzzi is the founder of Clarion Enterprises Ltd., and the author of two books: Presenting with Credibility: Practical Tools and Techniques for Effective Presentations and The Leader as a Mensch: Become the Kind of Person Others Want to Follow.

Photo: Thinkstock 

President and Founder, Clarion Enterprises Ltd.