Leadership Development

Advising Today’s CEO…takes “Strategic Empathy”


Advising The CEO


It’s more than just being a good listener or even a great problem solver…you have to be “Strategically Empathetic”. “Strategically Empathetic” is not necessarily knowing when to be empathetic but understanding “WHY” empathizing is the best strategy. I’ve advised/mentored CEO’s of small to medium size business and those stressed because their business has become a behemoth albatross (lol!), and from all that experience I find there’s one consistency between them…”relevant empathy”. While I spend the majority of time mulling over vision statements, strategy and people development I’m finding most CEO’s just want to know that you feel their pain. To be clear I’m not an educated/certified psychologist and I don’t play one on TV (although I suspect the money would be great!), I nonetheless have to connect with my CEO clients in a way that their experience is my experience. I often find that there are similar complex and challenging issues we ALL face in life when dealing with personal and professional adversity. Most of my work table sessions start out in some form or fashion dealing with “Communication”. Whether it’s dealing with organizational ambiguity, influencing/persuading, or crisis management the overall objective always comes back to effective communication. Every CEO regardless of the size of their company has to deal with at least one of those issues, and unfortunately many do not reach out for help to reconcile those pains of the job and the crisis becomes a CRISIS. Being empathetic as an adviser as I’ve mentioned requires more than just superior listening and problem solving skills, and while those traits are necessary what I’ve found to be even more helpful is the willingness to totally immerse yourself in those experiences from which your colleague lives. By the way, I call all of my CEO mentee’s “Colleagues” not as a marketing gimmick but as a way to demonstrate my commitment to them that succeeding through their adversity takes 4 hands on deck.  Advising today’s CEO is more complex than ever before and it’s not because business has become more complex it’s the “un-humanistic expectations” we’ve placed on the CEO of today. We all say nobody is perfect yet imperfection is not tolerated for CEO’s who lead industries in Transportation, Finance, and Agriculture because these spaces affect us directly. With the recent horrific occurrences that have plagued the global airlines industry (e.g. Malaysia Airlines) it’s become the normal course to microscopically critique how the CEO handles such crisis…in other words his/her optics. Is the CEO transparent? Is the CEO visible to the public? And the favorite “Is the CEO out-front of the crisis? All are optics that has nothing to do with the specific problem and everything to do with our perception of how they are handling the problem. You see CEO’s today have to deal with the perceptions from you and me regardless what they do behind closed doors in strategic sessions where the work is really done. This is where “Strategic Empathy” kicks in from an adviser point of view and those advisers capable of supplying such a needed skill in my opinion should be in heavy demand.

My Adviser…My Friend

There are many reasons and most are obvious why we prefer our advisers to be those closest to us, but are those obvious reasons that obvious? One of my best advisers/mentors happens to be my mom but simultaneously she’s probably one of my worst. My mom absolutely loves me and I love her and in her mind whatever decision I make she’ll absolutely support…effective advising will not always support bonehead ideas.  I do agree that there needs to be a “mental connection” between the CEO and adviser because the stakes are so high, you wouldn’t hire me off the street and trust me with your secret of secrets if a connection wasn’t there. Choosing an adviser, confidant, mentor I’ve always preached is more difficult than the hiring process and getting that selection process wrong isn’t as simple as saying to an employee “You’re Fired”. I do not believe your key adviser should be someone very familiar to you because of the significant investment placed on that familiarity. Let me explain my madness this way:

When Familiarity Is Not Good For Business

Sam, who has created what looks to be a promising startup, has been taken by surprised by the rapid growth of his company. Like most startups that have had surprising success Sam is now receiving demands from investors to grow his business exponentially by 20% before the end of year. Sam determines that that growth is going to have to come from increasing the sales staff and moving quickly into a new market channel that has researched potential. Losing sleep and weight due to some crucial decisions Sam reaches out to a former colleague and current best pal Paul for consultation/advising. Paul who has been in the management consulting space for 8 years is happy to oblige and takes on Sam as a client.  Immediately it’s clear that the expectations between what Sam expects as a client and what Paul can provide as a consultant are miles apart, but because they are best pals the “business” part of the relationship was never addressed. Both Sam & Paul relied totally on their years of friendship and family outings when in reality they hadn’t a clue of each other’s business acumen or competencies.  Sam & Paul were “Friends”…. not “Client” & “Consultant”.

The Sam & Paul story is a case of knowing each other too well.  As human beings it’s a natural instinct to surround yourself around familiarity, it’s the comfort less risky move to avoid building a relationship with someone less familiar. Sam & Paul were consciously more concerned about jeopardizing their friendship then digging into the treacherous waters that exist between client and consultant.  To be sure the example above is not a foreign occurrence and there have been many opinions on why friendships almost never develop into successful business relationships. The challenge we all face when deciding that we need help is the trust factor we place in those we think can help us. Establishing trust is an interesting quandary because we all have varying degrees by which we evaluate trust based on our personal needs. If I’m a CEO operating a billion dollar business you can be sure my adviser is going to be vetted and someone familiar with my circumstances…not necessarily someone who knows my wife and kids. While there’s nothing wrong with subjectivity when it’s illustrated positively in a relationship, when it comes down to business however objectivity appears to work better and provides for better transparency.

Strategically Empathetic

The ability to “Relate” can never be underestimated. The best advisers are those that have the uncanny ability to relate and that’s what today’s CEO needs…to get assistance from those that can relate. The word empathy has been the subject of many debates and depending on where you place the word there are strong opinions on its use. For a long time I looked at empathy as the act of feeling sorry for someone, even though knowing that’s not its true application. Showing empathy in my opinion is really about relating, which is a step beyond just active listening and devising a solution to someone’s challenges. Tony Robbins the king of advising has a who’s who list of clients he advises and from what I’ve read his biggest gift is his ability to relate and master the skill of “Strategic Empathy”. Of course his years of motivational speaking and consulting has certainly helped his brand, nonetheless he’s orchestrated this perception that he’s the CEO’s CEO. As far as I know he hasn’t been President of the United States yet President Clinton is one of his clients, he hasn’t run a multi-billion dollar airline yet Richard Branson is one of his clients…what does this guy have? Some will say charisma, gift of gab or hyperbole all possibly true but apparently Mr. Robbins has the ability to make each client feel great about themselves and that’s using “Strategic Empathy” masterfully.

If you’re a CEO reading this post and searching for an adviser or even mentor avoid selecting the most comfortable approach select someone who’s willing to get in the muck with you….but kick you in the seat of the pants with “Strategic Empathy” when it matters.

Advising Today’s CEO…takes “Strategic Empathy”

Thanks and Happy Advising!

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Andre’ Harrell

AH2 & Beyond Consulting

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