Maria Ross suffered a brain aneurysm that nearly took her life. The author of “The Empathy Edge” and founder of marketing and branding consultancy Red Slice now uses her journey through hospitalization and therapy as a model for how the power of empathy — being present, being curious — can help produce better results in business and our personal lives.

Business leaders like Chief Marketing Officer for Ethan Allen Interiors Rodney Hutton incorporate Ross’ teachings into their business models. “Empathy is not a slogan. It's not a buzzword. It's my choice,” says Hutton who leads with empathy to cultivate a genuine sense of belonging among his teams across the company’s 300 design centers. 

In this week’s Leading Through Change episode, we brought Hutton and Ross together to discuss the principles and practice of empathy in the workplace, and how leaders can embrace them to spark productivity, innovation, and redefine success for their brands.

Following are highlights of our conversation with Ross and Hutton, as well as some words of wisdom from legendary sports figures Shaquille O’Neal and Venus Williams. They have been lightly edited for clarity.


Discovering the power of empathy


I had what doctors don't often call a miraculous recovery. Over 40% of the people, with the type of stroke I had, never even make it to the hospital. Through group and individual therapies, I got strategies to deal with my cognitive deficits. Luckily, I’m able to lead a very productive life solely because of the great therapies I received after I was released from the hospital.

That was my first experience with the power of empathy. All of the things I thought were these nice little touches in the hospital were actually by design. I saw for the first time that you can, at scale, create an environment and operationalize empathy. By creating a wonderful experience for both customers — or patients in my case — and employees, you make a much better place to work, which then leads to bottom-line business results.



There comes a point where the most important thing is not selling. You have to recognize the world as it is. We made a conscious decision to sacrifice some of our sales touch points for value touch points. We want to relate to the consumer. [To let them know], we understand what you're going through, in all that's going on in our lives right now, and that we share your values. Whether it's sustainability, or initiatives that your company engages in with your customers — when you relate through a value system, even if it's somewhat aspirational, I think you get credit as a brand.


Practicing presence


Empathy requires you to be in the moment so you can read someone else and understand their point of view. In business, empathy is not necessarily feeling what they're feeling, but looking at the world from their point of view and their perspective, and using that information to make a decision — even though it might not be a decision they like. It means you can make a tough decision, and give people what they need.



As a leader, you can genuinely show you care about your team members and your employees, and it shows in how you accommodate them. I was starting to see the stress on a lot of the parents on my team and realized that it's a childcare issue. As a company, we have gone that extra mile to accommodate parents and really work around their schedules to make things a little easier for them.

This was a leadership choice — me understanding the mental and emotional state of my team members and recognizing we are in unprecedented times with unprecedented challenges.


Being curious


Curiosity is the number one trait of empathetic people. If you have to force yourself to ask more questions, and listen to the answers more than you talk, that's your first step to being an empathetic leader.

If you want the long-term benefits of innovation, productivity, employee retention, you've got to open up, and listen and ask those investigative questions that will help you come to the solutions. Know what they're going through and what they might need. Then you can reach some common ground.



You have to ask questions, you have to engage. I finish every senior management meeting by asking, “What's going on with your teams? How are they feeling? Are you noticing anything?” I don't want to be the last to know, nor do I want to know when it's too late.

I try to create a culture where senior managers need to need to ask, engage, stay close, and create an environment where associates can come to them with special needs and special accommodations.


But there’s a catch


We're not going to automatically become more empathetic. Why don't we start practicing where we spend the bulk of our time? Use your work and your colleagues and your team as a laboratory to practice empathy — your own empathy gym — to strengthen that muscle. 



[Accommodating employee needs] can only be possible if you have the infrastructure to be able to work remotely, communicate remotely, share remotely, and project manage remotely. You may have the right instincts, but if you haven’t invested in the right technologies, you're still not able to seamlessly maintain business operations.


Finding strength in vulnerability


There's this legacy that vulnerability implies weakness or softness. Cultivate your confidence. You can be confidently vulnerable — opening up, taking down the facade, letting people in. You are a leader but you're human, and that gives your team permission to be human as well.

It actually builds bridges. [Your team] is seeing each other as human beings, not just coworkers, and that's so important to be able to move forward, collaborate, and ultimately benefit the business. This is flipping the definition of success and strength.


What’s next

“I want to Trojan Horse the idea of empathy,” says Ross, who understands that once you adopt an empathetic mindset, the person on the receiving end reaps the rewards. “It transforms you from the outside in.”

Like Ross and Hutton, O’Neal and Williams understand the power of empathy, and use their respective platforms to model respect and the importance of well-being while serving others. 

To learn more, watch the full conversation with Rodney Hutton, Maria Ross, Shaquille O’Neal, and Venus Williams at the link below. 

This conversation is part of our Leading Through Change series, providing thought leadership, tips, and resources to help business leaders manage through crisis. Prior video interviews include: