Applied Empathy
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Applied Empathy

The New Language of Leadership

Michael Ventura

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  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Applied Empathy

The New Language of Leadership

Michael Ventura

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About This Book

Michael Ventura, entrepreneur and CEO of award-winning strategy and design firm Sub Rosa, shares "how to unlock our ability to design solutions, spark innovation, and solve tough challenges with empathy at the center" (Arianna Huffington). Having built his career working with iconic brands and institutions such as General Electric, Google, Nike, Warby Parker, and also The United Nations and the Obama Administration, Michael Ventura offers entrepreneurs and executives a radical new business book and way forward.Empathy is not about being nice. It's not about pity or sympathy either. It's about understanding—your consumers, your colleagues, and yourself—and it's a direct path to powerful leadership. As such, Applied Empathy presents real strategies, based on Sub Rosa's design work and the popular class Ventura and his team have taught at Princeton University, on how to make lasting connections and evolve your business internally (your employees, culture, and product/services) as well as externally (your brand, consumers, and value). "The most neglected fact in business is we're all human. Michael Ventura makes a powerful argument that empathy is the secret sauce of 21st century business. The more digital we get, the more empathy we need" (Chip Conley, New York Times bestselling author of Emotional Equation ).For leaders of all levels, this groundbreaking guide lays the foundation to establish a diverse, inventive, and driven team that can meet the challenges of today's ever-evolving marketplace. If you want to connect to the people you work with, you have to understand them first.

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The Way In

“If you don’t get into trouble, you’ll never learn how to get out of it.” That was the advice a friend’s dad gave me back in 2003. I was twenty-three years old, had a little less than two years of advertising experience, and had just lost my job. I wasn’t sure about the risk I was about to take, but I was ready to meet whatever challenges I was about to face head-on.
With faith in myself and the people around me, I decided to found my own company, a design agency in New York City that would grow into the business I run today. The risk of starting my own business would be the first of many challenges I’d encounter as an entrepreneur. More than a decade later, my company, Sub Rosa, has worked with some of the world’s largest and most important brands and organizations, from Google, Johnson & Johnson, and Nike to TED, the United Nations, and even the Obama White House.
I often say we work as translators. Companies and organizations bring us in to help them establish their vision, share their message, or bring something new to the world. We work with them to create a plan, to see a path toward what they want to become, and then we help enact it. Sub Rosa is full of talented people—designers, strategists, technologists, producers, and researchers, to name a few. We are the “land of misfit toys,” mixed with a drawer full of Swiss Army knives. Perhaps paradoxical for some, most of the time our best work leads to our own obsolescence. But we see that as a good thing. In essence, we solve problems using an approach we call Applied Empathy, and through this process we empower companies to explore, learn, and grow along with us. It’s work I’m insanely proud to spend my days doing.
So how did we get here? I had the dubious fortune of graduating from college in 2002, just when the dot-com bubble burst. It was not an easy time to get a job, and there were very few entry-level positions to be found. Whenever I did find an opening and applied, I invariably lost it to people who already had a few years of experience. It was disheartening for a wide-eyed twenty-one year old who was ready to take on the world if only someone would give him a chance.
Eventually I landed a job at a boutique advertising agency as a sort of utility player, shifting among office administrator, project manager, art department intern, and executive assistant for some of the leadership team. The job quickly exposed me to many facets of the industry, and I was able to see the ins and outs of running a company. I sponged up everything I could. In this role, I saw how important it was to understand the people around me—my bosses, colleagues, vendors, and clients—if I wanted to serve them better and get my work done effectively.
Luckily, I’ve always felt I had a knack for understanding people and situations. When I was a kid, I didn’t have a word for it, but we’re talking about empathy. No one gave me a lesson in it as I was headed out to the playground, and no one said it was something I needed to learn. But looking back at my childhood and my teenage years that followed, I recall an ability to innately sense when others were having a hard time or wrestling with a problem.
My parents tell me that when I was around ten years old, they asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I told them an “idea man.” They had no clue where I came up with this. “Idea man” wasn’t a career most ten-year-olds were thinking about. But something inside me knew I loved solving problems and using my mind to come up with ways of moving things in a better direction.
I know this makes me sound like a dork, but I was the guy who tried to help the overwhelmed substitute teacher calm down the class. It wasn’t that I had sympathy for her, but I did understand what she was going through, and I wanted to help. After school I could tell when my friends were struggling with a crisis of confidence at the free-throw line or in a relationship with someone, and I always wanted to lend a hand and tried to help them see the problem from a different perspective. In the high school lunchroom, I bounced from table to table, hanging with jocks, goths, musicians, stoners, AP students, and everyone in between. I always found ways of connecting with virtually everyone, sometimes even bringing groups together.
Don’t get the idea that I was the Dalai Lama or something. I wasn’t brokering peace deals during recess or volunteering my time in the local orphanage. I was a fairly typical middle-class kid growing up in suburban New Jersey. But I knew I was good at understanding people and seeing things from their point of view, and that was something I loved to share. It made others feel comfortable. And it was something I would always honor as an integral part of me.
During my short-lived stint at the ad agency, I relied on that skill a lot. Understanding other people’s jobs, their motivations and goals, was critical to doing my job well. I learned a lot of practical skills in those eighteen months, but I was also discovering a lot of what I didn’t want for my future. Too many people in the working world seemed to be going through the motions. I saw emotional blindness everywhere. I saw people do their jobs, punching in at 9:00 a.m. and out at 6:00 p.m. most days.
Of course, in the ad business there were plenty of late nights and deadlines and hemming and hawing at the bar after work. But generally speaking, I felt a lack of purpose. It was a job, and that’s fine—not everyone needs to derive their life’s satisfaction from their job. Some people work to earn a living so they can pursue their passions elsewhere. But that wasn’t for me. I wanted a job that was an expression of my passion. I wanted to fix problems. I wanted to help people better understand themselves and those around them. As my ten-year-old self had said, I wanted to be an idea man.
After I had worked at the advertising firm for eighteen months, the universe stepped in and gave me a nudge. The company didn’t wait for me to decide if I should leave; it decided for me. I was fired without warning. The CEO thought I wasn’t spending enough time on the executive assistant part of the job, and I was out. No formal review, no negative feedback for me to try to correct. Just “This isn’t working” and “Good-bye.” In retrospect, it was the gift of a lifetime, though I definitely didn’t feel that way when it happened.
There I was, unemployed in New York City, helplessly watching my meager savings evaporate. The job market was still down, and I was having trouble finding another job fast enough. At the same time, my college girlfriend and I broke up, and the rent-controlled apartment we shared was going condo. I couldn’t live there much longer, and before I knew it, I was doing the thing that pretty much every twenty-three-year-old dreads: I moved home with my parents.
Meanwhile, my friend Albert was withering away as a software engineer at Lehman Brothers. We were both stuck and needed to figure out how to change our lives. One night over a beer, I told Albert I had a plan. Remember, this was the early 2000s, a time when every company was looking to build a website, and I looked around and decided I’d learned just enough to be a little dangerous. I told Albert I was going to start a design firm. And I wanted him to join me.
Our resources were incredibly limited. We each had a laptop and some cheap business cards we printed ourselves. I borrowed my mom’s car and drove into the city, where Albert and I networked with potential clients. Even though those were the earliest days of our business, we knew we had something many other firms didn’t have. We had an innate knowledge of the Web because we’d grown up using it. On the surface, we looked like a Web design shop. But we were actually much more, an empathy-wielding problem-solving studio, even if we hadn’t realized it yet.
Of course, we probably looked like a couple of kids playing grown-up, wearing suits to meetings and talking like we had heard other execs talk: “omnichannel strategies,” “digital ecosystems,” and whatever other catchphrase du jour was being bandied about in the trades that week. But underneath that schmoozy business veneer, I like to think we stood out because of our honest desire to connect with people and help them solve the problems they were facing.
We drummed up a few clients before I even told my parents what I was doing. When I sheepishly came clean to them one night, worried that they’d tell me I needed to get a “real job” or something, they surprised me.
They told me, “You don’t have your own family to provide for. Or a mortgage. You can live cheap. Now’s the time to give this a shot!”
That shouldn’t have surprised me, because my mom and dad had always been my biggest supporters in whatever I was doing, but I was nervous about the risk and was subconsciously looking for someone to tell me I was crazy. They did the exact opposite, and that encouragement played a pivotal role in nudging my dream into reality.
Soon enough we were making a name for ourselves, and the studio grew. We took on partners and landed some bigger clients, and I began to realize that if we wanted to differentiate ourselves as an agency, we couldn’t just tell people what they wanted to hear. We would listen, we would connect, and we would always try to see the work through the perspective of the client and the audience it was trying to reach and not just offer one-sided solutions. It didn’t take long before we had built a reputation as a place companies came to when they wanted to learn how to create real engagement with their customers. We were becoming known as a company that could understand audiences authentically.
The agency was getting bigger than any of us was ready to handle. We were up to around forty people, and we’d added new services such as experiential marketing (back then it was called guerrilla marketing), as well as content creation. I was exhausted, and my body was literally breaking down under the pressure. I started doing whatever I could to cope: drinking, smoking, staying out till all hours, taking whatever upper or downer I needed to avoid thinking about the next day’s mess.
By 2008, the financial crisis was looming, clients’ purse strings were tightening, and the company was on shaky ground. My partners wanted to go elsewhere, but I still saw potential in what we’d started. But I couldn’t keep up at that pace. Something had to give.
That’s when I threw out my back. I was changing the water cooler in the studio, and the next thing I knew I was lying on the floor, the water jug glugging its contents all over me. I had herniated three discs in my lumbar spine. I ended up in the hospital, and the doctors said I needed surgery. The surgery wouldn’t fix everything, but it would help the pain. I couldn’t accept that diagnosis. I ambled out and went to an acupuncturist. It was my first visit to an Eastern medicine doctor. One session certainly didn’t cure me, but I felt a little better. I continued seeing the acupuncturist and combined that with other forms of Eastern medicine as a way of repairing my battered body. That introduced me to an entirely new way of understanding and caring for myself. My body, mind, and spirit all needed healing, and I knew this was the start of a long journey.
I began to delve deeply into the sacred wisdom of indigenous cultures. Mesoamerican shamans, Chinese traditional medicine practitioners, Native American tribal elders, Indian yogis—all of those and more opened their world to me and helped me better connect with myself. My back was soon mended, and my spirit had stumbled onto a new path.


In 2009, inspired by the ancient wisdom I was learning and a desire to integrate it into my work, I restructured our company, downsizing to a small core team and parting ways with my partners, who were ready to move on. I rebranded the company Sub Rosa. The term is Latin, literally “under the rose”; its colloquial meaning was that of conversations had in confidence.
The work we do for clients is modern and state of the art, but indigenous wisdom is fundamental to our practice. We don’t incorporate it overtly because we know some folks aren’t going to jibe with what might seem like abstract philosophy—at least at first—but it inspires our thinking and drives the way we approach problems and reach solutions.
But before we could get to where we are today, we had to discover who we were and what kind of organization we wanted to be. We’d built a good foundation doing work for clients like Kiehl’s and Absolut Vodka, helping them build programs that connected with influential consumers and thought leaders. We’d worked hand in hand with Levi’s to create a campaign that established the brand’s vision for its next chapter and helped it contribute in a meaningful way to local communities it cared for deeply. That was the kind of stuff we loved doing, and our successes helped establish our competency as equal parts strategic thinkers and creative doers.
We had worked with General Electric on a number of projects, ranging from its Ecomagination program to helping evolve the way the brand participates with influential thought leaders. Our partnership had developed into one of deep mutual respect based on the work we had done together. For that reason, the company came to us when it needed help with a new and complex challenge involving its medical imaging business. We were excited to continue working with the company; what we didn’t know was that the assignment would provide us with an opportunity to define who we are and what we do. Looking back, it was a critical turning point for us.
It began when General Electric’s chief marketing officer, Beth Comstock, presented us with an extraordinary challenge. “Today,” she said, “GE is lagging in the medical imaging business. We want to be the best.”
Of course they did. They’re GE. You don’t last long at General Electric if you’re comfortable anywhere but in first place.
The company wanted someone to help it spur rapid change and innovation throughout its massive medical imaging business, which included CAT and PET scanners, MRIs, ultrasound scanners, and mammography systems. These medical investigative tools provide physicians with vital information about what’s going on inside their patients’ bodies, and they had become an important part of GE’s health care revenue. The company could not afford to slip behind in this area, and their leadership believed we were the right partner to help reinvigorate the business.
I was proud that our studio of less than twenty people was being tapped for an assignment like this, but before I could even start beaming, Beth threw two conditions at us. “We can give you only five months,” she said, “and you can’t propose any direct product changes because that won’t move our business in the right direction quickly enough.” GE had already been working to develop new imaging technology and improved form factors for its machines, but those changes wouldn’t be implemented for several years. They wanted to spur growth faster than that, and we were the team charged with finding a way to do so.
She also told us the company wanted to keep our scope narrow enough to be successful, so it wanted us to focus specifically on its mammography business and to use what we learned there for the other imaging tools.
“Okay,” I said to myself. “All we have to do is completely reinvent the mammography experience in the next five months and help drive growth throughout the whole business.”
It’s a good thing I wasn’t in an MRI machine at that moment, because my brain probably looked as though it were having a ministroke. My palms had started sweating, and a pasty dryness had formed in my mouth. I swallowed hard and said we were ready to take on the job.
We got back to the studio, and all of us took a moment to catch our breath. I gathered the team to begin figuring out what to do first. It turned out that none of the women on our team had ever had a mammography, meaning that we lacked any firsthand knowledge. In essence, we were being charged with improving something none of us had ever experienced—and for that matter couldn’t actually change (though some of our team members did go for a mammography to understand the experience better). What’s more, even though theoretically all of us could sit in a chair and go through a simulated scan, that wouldn’t help us truly understand what a woman was going through when she was being tested for something as frightening as breast cancer.
GE’s confidence in us and its belief that we were capable of handling a challenge like this spoke volumes to me. I had no intention of letting the company down. But to do the job right, we would have to refine our process, and that was where our empathic methodology was truly born.


We had already been using empathy in our work with clients, but we hadn’t started using the word empathy to describe our methods. You could say we’d been practicing empathy, even if we hadn’t been calling it that. In the end, it became clear to all of us how much empathy played a role in our work improving GE’s mammography business.
To deliver for our client, we needed to immerse ourselves immediately. We knew right from the get-go that we needed to meet patients directly and connect with their stories. We needed to understand what goes on when you get a mammogram—not just technically but emotionally. And we needed to define what success for GE would look like.
We started by mapping out the entire process. The first thing we discovered was that GE’s business was focused on selling its machines to hospitals, not interacting with patients. That seemed like a rich opportunity. How could we incor...

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