Empathy, Service and our Contribution to Sustainability

By May 1, 2015Blog

About the Author

Remarks by Managing Director, Terry Nelidov at the 2015 Erb Institute Graduation dinner

I would like to add two words to what Andy just said – “empathy” and “service”.

One of my learnings from the Institute’s alumni engagements around the country last summer is that business is hungry for leaders who not only know how to get things done, but who know how to work well with other people. The word “empathy” came up again and again in alumni conversations – especially from alumni who have been working for a while – as the most important attribute to be an impactful leader.

The word came up again in January when I met with the sustainability department of a partner auto company to brainstorm possible areas for collaboration. We started the conversation asking what they need from SNRE and Ross grads. Interestingly, the first word out of their mouths was “empathy”.

In essence they said that MBAs seem to have all the technical skills they need, but they also need managers who are able to reach deep down into other people’s hopes, fears, and dreams to understand what everyone at the table needs from a collaboration in order to get it done.

We already talk a lot about stakeholder engagement in business. For me the difference is that if stakeholder engagement is about what others are thinking, then empathy is about feeling what they’re feeling.

It was Bill Drayton, who coined the term “social entrepreneurship”, who said, “We have to teach empathy as we do literacy.”

But I wonder if empathy can really be taught. I prefer to think about how to create the opportunities to simply experience it. Fortunately, Erbers are exceptional at this, mainly because of who they are and the paths they’ve taken to get here.

Some of those paths have included working in service organizations like AmeriCorps or Peace Corps, which happened to be one stop for me along my journey to Erb. As a Peace Corps Volunteer in rural Paraguay, I learned a whole new way of thinking by living and working alongside small farmers. When I first arrived to Paraguay, I noticed the yards full of bricks for construction and thought, “Wow, there are a lot of houses falling apart around here”. I eventually realized that those were actually houses in pre-construction, and that the bricks were the only form of saving for a house in a community with no access to banks or mortgages. As were the exposed steel rebar dangling out of the tops of the columns, ready for the construction of future floors. Likewise, the cows were family savings for school supplies or dowries, and alpacas in Peru the only source of meat for a long, cold winter ahead…

And there are lots of other avenues that Erbers pursue every day to do the same – from design thinking applied to starting up an online retailer of ethical apparel (Erber Marianna Kerppola); trying to understand what Chrysler’s stakeholders are feeling in Detroit (Erber Kristine Schantz); to understanding how small farmers in Morocco think about solar pumps (Erber Pavel Azgaldov); or coffee farmers are preparing for climate change in Nicaragua (Erbers Will Morrison and David Wang).

My hope is that it is this empathy that distinguishes Erb leaders from “business as usual” managers, and that you’ll always be looking for opportunities to put yourselves in others’ shoes. If you’re working on a new agricultural plantation in Indonesia, why not find a couple of days to work out in the fields with small farmers? Or on the production line with migrant workers in a factory? Or teaching a class or two in an elementary school in an inner city of the US?

All of these come naturally to Erbers, and I hope that you’ll continue to train your empathy muscles – especially with people who you don’t fully agree with, to understand how they feel about the same issues you’re so passionate about – to better serve them.

Speaking of service, I think George Bernard Shaw says it better than anyone. This is one of my favorite quotes of all time – not for work/life balance, but rather to remind us that we are here to serve.
“This is the true joy in life — being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one… being a force of nature instead of a feverish selfish clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.

I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake.

Life is no ‘brief candle’ to me. It is sort of a splendid torch which I have a hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it over to future generations.”

 

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