By: Ruthie Feinstein, VP, Insights and Engagement
Executive empathy is a hot topic in the workplace right now. The more genuinely empathetic a leader is, the better their teams and businesses are for it: operationally, emotionally and financially. So much so, that there are formal training programs around developing, shaping and strengthening the ‘empathy muscle.’
Recently, I had the great fortune of leading an Executive Empathy initiative and it was a highlight of my career. Guiding consumer conversations is what I do all the time, but this time was different. This time was for the C-Suite of one of our beloved national retail clients. I led real and honest conversations into how the retailer delivers a positive customer experience, and where they miss the boat; what they love about the retailer and what they wish the retailer really understood they needed. Sounds risky for some Executives…unless they are fully onboard and ready to hear and accept the truth.
Here are a few things that stuck with me and contributed to the success of the project:
- Be authentic. Although potentially risky, we needed to build in topics and exercises that would flush out consumer truths. That is my No. 1 job. Nothing would have been a bigger waste of time than safeguarding these leaders and only delivering ‘good news.’ There was plenty of good news to hear, but there were also moments of harsh reality; some things they knew, some surprising. In debrief sessions, it was the surprising news that lit the biggest fire and they were most excited about learning. And hearing it in-person vs. a PowerPoint presentation made all the difference in the world.
- Be agile. Importantly, behind the scenes, we also built in enough space throughout the day to be agile and pivot as needed based on what the Executive team was learning. Doing this was key so they felt they were getting the most out of the experience and had a voice in shaping it. As the conversations evolved, the day did too. We flexed with them. We could do this confidently because we were so well prepared (see next point).
- Be prepared. Obviously, it was important that recruiting, the flow of the day, timelines and budget went off without a hitch. Weekly check-in’s and tight collaboration with the Consumer Insights client team ensured the Executives were appropriately prepped, understood what they could expect (and not expect), knew necessary logistics, and roles were clearly defined. Know your audience: just ‘enough’ information so they felt informed but not overwhelmed.
Unexpectedly, I also walked away feeling inspired. This Executive team showed up to the day excited, engaged and ready to go. No phone distractions, no multi-tasking, no ‘other meetings’ they had to attend. They were taking detailed notes, talking to each other about what they were learning, respectfully challenging one another, ideating in the moment, asking to go even deeper on certain issues they needed to hear more about.
They were truly living out one of the company’s core values of customer-centricity. We all know it is too easy for Executives to lose touch with the people that make or break the brand; too many demands on their time, too much financial pressure.
It is inspiring to witness, first-hand, when leaders believe and act that their customers are at the center of what they do and be in the company of Executives who ‘walk the talk.’ This leading by example reminds us that everyone is responsible for the customer experience, not just those in the insights department.
Ruthie brings over 20 years of senior leadership experience in consumer insights, brand strategy and marketing communications to her work at SIVO Insights. She has deep empathy for client needs, high partnership standards, and an eye toward meeting business objectives. Ruthie is a seasoned moderator and strategist whose warm, approachable style makes consumers feel they are talking to a friend and results in deeper insights. Her strong relationships and strategic influence have shaped positioning, innovation, and growth strategies for blue-chip brands across food, technology, entertainment and retail.