The first time I laid eyes on Ingvar Kamprad, founder of IKEA, he was manning a cash register in one of his stores. When I had a chance to ask him why he did this, he replied, “Because it helps me feel what my customers are feeling. This is what defines IKEA.”
Kamprad was one of history’s most successful CEOs, turning a small mail-order retailer into a company with 1 billion visitors and turnover of $19 billion annually. Not only was he a remarkable businessman, but he possessed one the most important traits a leader can have: empathy.
I haven’t often heard the word “empathy” on executive floors. Corporate types usually associate the term with sentimentality. But in investigating nearly 120 medium and large-sized companies over the past several decades, I’ve observed definite links among successful leadership, empathy and common sense. The more empathy possessed by management, the more common sense the organization tends to have. The more common sense, the greater success.
This insight became clear to me when one of the largest European pharma companies reached out to me for advice on how to become more patient-focused. Inspired by Kamprand, I asked the pharma executives when they’d last spent time with customers. Their reply was: “Never.” Thus started a journey to infuse a patient-focused mindset — and common sense — into the company’s DNA.
Tagging along with company executives on visits within patients’ homes, one encounter stood out. This asthma patient carries a straw with her everywhere she goes, and she asks her friends to breathe through the straw for a minute. Few of them can complete the exercise. “That’s what it feels like to suffer from asthma,” she tells them. In 30 seconds, she establishes a sense of empathy.
Replicating the straw experiment at the pharma company was key to introducing empathy. Just as Kamprand envisioned, it aligned the entire operation, everyone from innovation to communications to support services, around the patient’s point-of-view. Empathy proved to be the missing link, the first step toward adopting common sense in a company operating in one of the world’s most regulated, compliance-ridden industries.
Common sense is seeing things as they are and doing things as they ought to be done. Or, to state it another way: to treat consumers as you want to be treated. Common sense is linked with empathy, the ability to place yourself in another person’s shoes and feel what they’re feeling.
Inside a 1,000-person call center for one of the world’s largest shipping companies, I noted that call center staff labeled every customer inquiry “force majeure.” Surely not every shipment-gone-wrong could be the result of natural disaster? Here’s what we discovered. If call center staff pushed the force majeure button, they’d face a single-page form. Resist this temptation, and they’d have to fill out three more pages. With call center KPI measured by time-spent-per-customer, not by customer satisfaction, that “force majeure” button was irresistible. Common sense? I don’t think so.
Time after time, I’ve realized these little gems of nonsense stem from neglecting the other person’s point-of-view. As a CEO you may ask, is empathy that important? Is it a trait I really need to have?
Well, yes, because empathy is linked to common sense, and there’s a direct correlation between lack of common sense and the bureaucracy that kills productivity. It’s estimated that 35% of the world’s top 10,000 companies waste nearly 40% of their daily routines on bureaucracy, red tape, bad excuses, and corporate BS.
Seeing your company from every point of view—not just from inside out — sounds straightforward, but it really isn’t. Spending time in the shoes of employees and customers doesn’t mean commissioning a consumer research report. It means showing the organization that no one is too good, or too high up the food chain, not to do it.
When you experience the world through the eyes of an employee or customer, you’ll realize it looks and feels different than you expected. After all, the online form that resets when you mistype your password makes perfect sense from corporate headquarters. So does the requirement for a 17-digit password, including at least five upper-case letters, four digits, and five symbols. When you place yourself in your customer’s shoes, you’ll discover the root cause of customer dissatisfaction.
If you’re the CEO of a bank, spend a day as a teller. If you’re the CEO of a grocery chain, take a day stocking shelves. You’ll be astonished. Place yourself in your customer’s shoes. Bring along a couple of your colleagues. Identify a tiny yet essential friction point. Allocate 90 days to fix it. Don’t go big, don’t be over-ambitious. Go small, with a guaranteed outcome, then celebrate the success — and then have another group duplicate your success on another friction point.
It sounds simple — and it truly is. The problem is that no one does it. Why not? Because common sense is something that everyone needs, few have, and no one realizes they lack.