When asked, “What advice would you give to a new chief executive?” the remarkable Angela Ahrendts, Senior Vice President for Retail Sales at Apple and former CEO of Burberry, has a one word answer: “Listen.” And what is the greatest mistake a leader can make? “Not listening.”
When interviewing for her role at Apple, Ahrendts told CEO Tim Cook, “I just want to be really honest with you, I’m not a techie.” After a statement like that, why would Cook hire her? Because she lacked in technical knowledge she more than made up for in experience, a desire to learn, and the ability to empathize with team members and customers.
Her Burberry Performance
Under Ahrendts’ leadership, Burberry has gone from a declining brand that had lost its appeal to a world leader in the high-end clothing market. Burberry revenues have tripled to more than $3 billion and shares have tripled in value. Burberry fashion shows draw a million viewers on YouTube and 15 million followers on Facebook, making Burberry the leading luxury brand in the world. Clearly, Angela Ahrendts knows something about leading.
“Just listen, just learn, just feel. It’s tough for type-A personalities to do that in this position, but you’ll be better off in the long run.” For Ahrendts, listening with empathy is the key leadership skill. The resurgence of Burberry was totally unexpected, as the brand had been hijacked by counterfeiters and knockoffs—the famous Burberry plaid essentially meant nothing anymore. Angela quiet listened and put herself in the position of the Burberry customer: “Where are the great old trench coats Burberry was famous for?” She listened to the sales force: “We can’t make near the commission on a stack of polo shirts as we can on one trench coat.” She listened to millennials: “We want to see it online. We want to click on it and buy it now.” By reaching out to understand, Ahrendts knew what to do. She swept away hundreds of mediocre products, resurrected the chic, beautiful Burberry outerwear, and put the whole company online, sponsoring the first YouTube 3D fashion show in history. Burberry took off.
Many new leaders start by imposing their vision on people, but great leaders allow empathy to shape the vision. “If I had implemented everything that I thought about the first 30 or 60 days, I can’t imagine where we’d be,” Ahrendts says. “The biggest mistake a leader can make is not listening, not feeling, not using your team. You hire functional experts for a reason. If I go to another country I hire an interpreter. If I go to court I hire somebody to defend me. It’s no different in business.” Why have a team if you’re not going to leverage what they have to contribute?
Why Listening and Empathy Matter
Picture a business leader with no empathy for her customers—how long will she stay in business if she remains totally disconnected from their needs?
- a project leader with no empathy for his team members?
- a teacher with no empathy for his students?
- an aeronautical engineer with no empathy for the passengers on the plane she’s designing?
- a hospital administrator with no empathy for the patients?
Obviously, most leaders have some empathy already—the problem is not that they can’t understand people, but that they feel they must solve all their problems. Leaders have a compulsion to fix everything at best and smooth things over at worst. For many it’s a natural urge to want to jump in and save the day, to be the answer to everyone’s problems. Of course it’s important to get to a solution, but you can’t solve a problem you don’t understand.
“I don’t have time to listen,” says the notorious Alpha leader. “I already know what the problem is and I know how to solve it. My brain is way ahead of theirs. Time is precious—why should I waste it sitting and listening to people?”
Your goal is to understand. If you’re a leader, that’s your job. You can’t connect with customers and colleagues without empathy and understanding. Only by getting into the shoes of another can you serve them in a customized way—the way they want to be served.
“Leaders who take an interest in people merely because they should will be both wrong and unsuccessful. They will be wrong because regard for people is an end in itself. They will be unsuccessful because they will be found out.” – Dr. Stephen R. Covey
Jim Collins encourages leaders to be more interested than interesting. If you are striving to be interesting, you engage in conversations with the intent of getting your point across. You constantly wait for the pause in the discussion so you can interject your point of view. You may even hijack the conversation so others know how interesting you are.
Being interested means you want to understand the perspective of others, you want to listen, to ask questions, and to truly understand. This starts with making a commitment to do better in your very next conversation.
Patrick Leddin, PhD is a speaker, global leadership consultant, and The Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Five-Week Leadership Challenge. Patrick is an Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University with a thriving leadership blog and podcast, and 25-years of leadership experience. He offers an unparalleled mix of academic rigor and real-world experience.