Lead with Empathy

empathyFamous marketing executive Bruce Turkel tells the story about a magnificent piece of business that was won, and then lost, in the space of an hour. It was a really, really, big opportunity ….

And it was lost because of a key question they failed to ask.

The presentation of the conceptual proposal was perfect. The client was thrilled with the advertising concepts. They gushed on and on about how well they liked the assigned account managers and the creative team. The customer was leading the discussion about next steps and asking how quickly the contracts could be signed and the work begun.

As high fives were being exchanged all around, the president of the client firm complimented Turkel and his team on their level of competence and commitment. And then it happened….

In a moment of self-effacing humor, Turkel minimized his role on the team, saying that the team was so strong, there was practically nothing for him to do. (Cue the sound of a ship crashing on the rocks…) The deal died on the spot.

What Turkel and the team had missed was that this client had recently completed a project where the consulting firm they chose completely failed in executing their vision. In the client’s eyes, the consulting executives had not provided the committed hands-on leadership the project required. It foundered and ultimately failed miserably.

What Turkel and team failed to understand that the client’s team had been emotionally devastated by the previous failure. His single ill-considered remark brought all those ugly emotions back, in high definition and Dolby sound.

Said another way, they failed to understand the emotional issue and show empathy to the client.

They hadn’t made the critical connection because they had not asked enough questions and uncovered what the client felt, where they were emotionally. Instead Turkel’s team went to their own comfort zone, by emphasizing the technical details of their proposal, impressive as they were.

The rational side of the client was very impressed. But, on the emotional side, Turkel’s remark inflamed them. And that was the deal breaker.

What could have turned this sad story into a success story?

Emotional intelligence expert Steven Stein defines empathy as the “ability to be aware of, understand, and appreciate the feelings and thoughts of others.”

Empathetic consultants are able to read others’ emotions and describe them accurately from an objective, non-judgmental perspective…   even if they personally don’t agree with the emotions. As a result, the client knows their emotions have been heard and understood.

Here are five tips to help you lead with empathy and get the back-story you need to gain your client’s trust:

1.  Remember that most major decisions are driven by emotions and not the facts of the matter.

I watched a military service make a $25 million bad vendor selection because the decision board had an emotionally charged fear of software risk. The wrong company won because they had understood that fear and they played to it. Game over.

2.  Respect the rider, but convince the elephant. 

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt describes a model that argues that humans have two sides:  1) An emotional/automatic/irrational side (the elephant), and 2) An analytical/controlled/rational side (its rider). Authors Chip and Dan Heath, in their book, “Switch”, build on Haidt’s theory and describe it this way: “Perched atop the Elephant, the Rider holds the reins and seems to be the leader.  But the Rider’s control is precarious because the Rider is so small relative to the Elephant.  Anytime the six-ton Elephant and the Rider disagree about which direction to go, the Rider is going to lose.  He’s completely overmatched. “

3.  Ask “excavating questions”

Turkel’s team might have asked questions about previous successful and unsuccessful projects. How did the project leadership make a difference in the success or failure of the project? That question alone would have probably prevented the disastrous outcome they experienced.

4.  Talk about you and your advantages only after you have talked about the client, their needs, their dreams, and their fears.

Of course, they need to know about what you bring to the table. But usually the “elephant” (emotions) will run away with the “rider” (logic and facts) because it is so big and powerful.

5.  Put your own emotions and beliefs on hold.

Our own emotional reactions have a huge impact on what we see, how we use our beliefs to acknowledge and interpret it, and the conclusions that we form. It’s hard to get into our clients’ shoes, if all of our inputs are so heavily filtered by what we feel and believe.

Don’t make it about you!  Keep the focus on the client, and what they care deeply about.

Lead with empathy!





About Jim Cooper

Jim Cooper is a leadership consultant and executive coach. He is the founder and principal of Ascendent Leadership LLC. Jim focuses his work on helping firms to develop their leadership skills, team effectiveness, and emotional intelligence and to support that development with coaching. He is especially committed to helping leaders deploy coaching skills broadly within their organizations. Jim believes that world class leaders: 1. Understand that true success “is not just about the numbers” 2. Lead from a mindset of serving their teams and enabling their personal growth and success 3. Help their teams see their individual roles as critically linked to the success of the organizations mission, and the success of others that they care about within the organization 4. Focus their teams on building the commitment to excellence and personal growth that make success a habit and truly sustainable over their lives and careers 5. Create a sustainable coaching culture by broadly deploying coaching skills through their leadership ranks.
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