Empathy and High Achievers

I’m kind of interested in figuring out what high-achievers have in common (in all disciplines, but particularly in business and entrepreneurship).

I had dinner a few weeks ago with Fred Reid, who is certainly one of the most high-achieving individuals I know. He’s currently President of Zee.Aero (Larry Page’s company developing next generation personal aircraft). Before that he was President of Lufthansa in Germany, and Delta in Atlanta before becoming Founding CEO of Virgin America, which he built from scratch into one of the most celebrated airlines ever. He also speaks several languages, runs a ranch in Sonoma, and sits on several boards. He’s definitely a high-achiever.

So over dinner (and an excellent bottle of local Zinfandel) I asked him what he thought made some people higher-achieving than others. “Empathy, perseverance, and smarts” he answered immediately.

Interesting. Perseverance and smarts could pretty much be expected, but I was surprised that the first thing he mentioned was Empathy.

Empathy is sometimes confused with sympathy, but actually the meaning is subtly different. Empathy is simply the ability to understand the feelings of others. The ability, as the expression goes, to put yourself in another person’s shoes.

Also, Empathy doesn’t necessarily mean “nice”. You can take the time to understand someone else’s point of view and then still screw them over. But being able understand someone else’s point of view is a key trait for success in business (and in life).

It’s self-evident, for example, that you’ll do a better job developing a customer service plan for your company if you can empathize with what it’s like to be a customer seeking service.

In fact, for developing innovative products and services of all kinds, the first step in the famous Stanford Design Thinking Framework is “empathy”, meaning that you can’t design a successful product until you can first put yourself in the shoes of a user and view that potential product as they would.

Even if you’re not developing products, over the course of your career you are going to have to deal with bosses, colleagues, employees, board members, investors, bankers and more. Successfully navigating them all starts with understanding their point of view. That requires the empathy trait.

I had a business school professor who told us “Setting business goals is easy. The hard part is all the damn humans standing between you and your goals”. The only way you are going to get through all those people (and get them to align with your goals) is if you take the time to understand them.

As Fred and I talked further, he reminisced about how one of his mentors, Leo F Mullin, the Chairman of Delta said to him once, “Fred, leadership is about getting a whole bunch of people to head, generally, West….that’s about it.” As a manager, you’ll never be able to get your employees all heading in the same direction until you take the time to understand the inner purpose that drives each individual.

So empathy matters. Or, as Teddy Roosevelt said, “Nobody cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”.