On Having the Courage to Connect

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I found that the essence of business was basically based on voluntary exchange for mutual benefit. That was sort of a revelatory idea that business isn’t really all about selfishness and cheating people. I mean, if you cheat people, they find out about it eventually and they don’t want to do business with you anymore.

Whole Foods Market CEO and founder John Mackey

As public trust in corporations reaches an all time low, empathy and the role it plays in corporate success was highlighted again as the second Lady Geek 2015 Global Empathy Index was released. Far from being wimpy, Lady Geek’s model based on customer and employee data, share price volatility, board diversity and social media activity demonstrates that empathy can also be measured, which means its levels can be assessed, weaknesses identified and improvements made.

Speaking at this year’s EQ summit, Sky’s CEO Jeremy Darroch (an alumni of P&G, no 5 on Lady Geek’s Index; Sky has some way to go at no 89) stated “empathy is now the single most important skill when you get to the top of an organisation”. Sky’s leadership is currently undergoing a year-long development programme to increases leaders’ self-awareness, their sense of self-liking and self-confidence, and apply it to their teams, as the business moved away from “functional, repetitive training that is better delivered on the job” towards leadership skills that might be seen by some as “softer”.

Echoing the Chinese proverb “the fish rots from the head down” the Sky CEO recognises that “it starts with me…when you’re at the top you realise how vital you are to people. How I act, my mental state, my level of optimism, how I deal with stress and challenge, is fundamentally important to people”. Although as this article for Forbes explores, Darroch’s self-awareness is atypical – emotional intelligence actually declines with seniority.

It is easy to see why business is seeking to leverage empathy for commercial advantage. Whether you are a DHL delivery driver being trained to “see a customer not just a delivery address” (their brand campaign is “connecting people, improving lives”) or the Ariel India Brand Manager seeking to grow share of detergents through raising awareness of inequality on the domestic front (#ShareTheLoad), meeting consumer’s needs through emotionally connecting with them can drive business results.

However, business leaders need to be mindful of the authenticity of their actions, and ensure such positioning is credible and consistent with their core values.

This week the Australian Competition Commission ruled that Nurofen manufacturer RB (formerly known as Reckitt Benckiser and not ranked by Lady Geek) had “engaged in misleading conduct” by labeling the identical products as being targeted for different ailments. Citing consumer research that suggests 71% of consumers say pain-specific packs “helps them decide which product is best for their needs” RB’s Regulatory and Medical Affairs Director didn’t explain why that meant consumers should pay more.

According to their corporate website RB’s core values are achievement, entrepreneurship, partnership and ownership, which is described like something you’d hear on The Apprentice, as “doing whatever it takes to win”. According to research by the Barrett Values Centre, organisations that are values-driven are amongst the most successful on earth; I assume only if those values don’t endorse cheating.

Whether an organisation is values driven is fast becoming key for talent acquisition and is something proponents of the conscious capitalism movement have long known. In this interview for Forbes in 2012, Jeff Klein (who sadly passed away last year aged only 57) said: “the younger generation require that their work and their businesses align with their values, and their values call for sustainable growth that considers people and planet. They have no problem with wealth, and they see no reason why financial wealth cannot co-exist with ecological integrity and serving the greater good.”

Research this week from Korn Ferry provides data to support this. Predicting the top talent trends for 2016, the organisational advisory firm states that the impact of the reduction in the ratio of workers relatives to retirees (from 3:1 in the last 10 years to 1:1 by 2025) will be to “put candidates in the driving seat”. Candidates will be “entertaining multiple job offers and will choose employers whose values align with their own”. Alternatively frustrated candidates will choose themselves and seek to channel their energy into fulfilling their higher purpose through creating their own enterprises.

Frustrated with an industry which patronises 40% of their consumers by “pinking up” and “dumbing down” their products, Lady Geek founder Belinda Palmer did exactly that. Little Miss Geek, is their social enterprise focused on inspiring young women to become tech pioneers and has already increased the number of girls taking computer science at GCSE by 52% at a London girls’ school. Their #HerinHero campaign celebrates women who are carving their own path in male dominated industries.

We have shifted from the information age into the connected age. Empathy is connection – we cannot enjoy authentic human connections without it. Courageous leaders know this. We’re not connecting for commercial advantage; we’re connecting because it’s the only way we know how to make life work.
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