In A Rapidly Changing Workplace, One Surprising Skill Helps You Stay Adaptable

Apr 21 2014, 11:16pm CDT | by

Tom Monahan serves as the Chief Executive Officer and Chairman of CEB. As part of CEB’s leadership for more than a decade, Tom has helped redefine how the world’s leading companies make their most important decisions. This is the first interview of the Empathy Initiative’s Philanthropy Series.

What would you say ‘empathy’ really means for you – personally and professionally – in the course of your life?

Two things in particular: one, we’re a company that has invented a new set of business models over the past 25-30 years. Most of them are built upon working backward from our perception of a need rather than looking forward from something that we knew how to do. So the first step is to empathize with the needs of the market, and usually if we’re doing our job right, empathize with the higher order needs of the market — asking ourselves not what product or service someone wants, but rather what ambitions do they have, and what do they want to get done?

Secondly, I think empathy matters a lot from a talent management perspective internally, in leading people. Every single one of our 3800 people has a unique set of ambitions, gifts, and skills, and things they can bring to bear in the organization. We’re trying to galvanize them into a coherent set of outcomes. Our best leaders in CEB begin with an understanding of each individual on their team, and their specific interests, gifts, and strengths, and connect them to the broader purpose of the organization as a whole. From the standpoint of a leader, empathy is a vital skill because if you see the world only through the goals of the organization and fail to connect these back to how the individuals can uniquely and individually contribute to those goals, you fail to motivate, engage, and align them. We look at empathy from those two vantage points: a market-based empathy and a talent-based empathy.

It sounds like empathy has been incredibly relevant in terms of building external relationships with clients, as well as internally, in terms of recognizing talent at the workplace. Can you tell me a little more about what you think is the link between empathy and innovation?

Most of our customers are very well-resourced, senior executives in large companies. It’s not as though nobody has ever thought of trying to sell them stuff before. And, as a newer company, in essence, our stock in trade has to be in understanding them differently from others. By definition, they’re easy to identify, they’re well-resourced, and thus they are targeted by many vendors. So in order to help them, we need a distinct understanding of what they’re wrestling with, what they would like most help in achieving. I think in this sense “empathy” is a highly relevant skill or ability.

Is this something that you have become more attuned to since you assumed this role at CEB, or was this always a part of your business mindset?

I think our business model is highly dependent on exchange of ideas, on people who will listen and interpret, as well as on market demand. There are some changes in the world of work that make this skill more relevant than it would have been 10, 15, or even 20 years ago. One is the persistence of change. Really how often does your average company reorganize? How often does your average company confront disruption in marketplaces? 54% of the leaders we talk to have more changes in their job responsibilities, so change is a constant.  Empathy correlates strongly with how leaders understand new contexts or changes in context.

Second, no matter how we look at the data, the amount of inter-dependence at work goes up every year. More and more work gets done in collaborative formats across geographies, cultures, and even organizations. People need to work with different sets of colleagues to get their jobs done.

I think there are some changes to the world of work that are raising the importance of empathy as a part of a basket of skills that one needs to have in order to succeed.

It sounds like you very much look for these qualities in the people that you hire. Is that something formalized within CEB? How do you screen for empathy in this capacity for the people you’re looking to bring on board?

Yes, well, there’s actually some science around this. If you actually look into what some of the core competencies we look for are, and what we’ve structured some of our assessment technologies around, you will find that they include the ability to network, to encourage the ability to develop people networks, the ability to listen; the ability to accept new ideas, and the ability to deal with ambiguity. So ultimately, empathy is not a passive activity.


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