Jul 20, 2021
For anybody listening, you can learn empathy. It's not something that somebody should go. You know, I'm not an empathetic. So I'm just going to stay the way I am.
Human skills ARE business skills. You cannot create lasting, high-performing teams without paying attention to and caring for the actual humans on your team.
This is something that my guest, Joe Staples, has seen again and again in his years of work. We are going to talk about tips and tactics to build connection (hint: nothing brings people together like food), how walking a mile, literally, in someone else’s role can build empathy, and why a group softball game was one of Joe’s biggest misses in team building. You will hear stories of high school bullies and reflections on the changing expectations of generations in the workplace. All in all, it is just one fine episode full of wisdom.
Let me begin with a little bit more about my guest, Joe
Staples. Joe is a senior B2B marketing executive who advises
companies around go-to-market strategy and activities. He has spent
decades in the business and developed expertise in building a
powerful, differentiated brand and generating demand.
Joe is also the author or coauthor of numerous articles on leadership, customer experience, marketing, branding, employee engagement and work management. His work has been featured in all sorts of publications from Ad Age to Digital Marketing Magazine.
Joe lives out in Salt Lake City, where he gets to spend time not just working but enjoying the great outdoors.
What are some of your favorite things that you get to do out in Salt Lake City?
You know, we have we have a large family and so we're constantly going to parks going up in the mountains. We have we have a cabin that's kind of our getaway place. And, you know, we just we like the outdoors. The interesting one of the most interesting things about Utah is you can you can golf in the in the morning and ski in the afternoon if you hit the time of year just right. And we're 20 minutes from the closest ski resort.
So a lot to do.
You can you can just have a whole day of recreation at your fingertips.
Right. And when you when you think of small grandchildren, it doesn't take much to entertain them, give you like some rocks and potato bugs. And there's that
That's that is true. I feel like in my own family, I have four. I was going to say young children, but the eldest is now 13, so they're getting less young with each passing year. But we know 13 down to seven. And as you mentioned, the cabin, we did well.
We still do a fair amount of camping. And it's amazing when you strip away some of the electronics and iPads and all the interactive toys that are so dazzling. How really entertaining a good puzzle, a little bit of mud and a pile of sticks can really be.
That's exactly right. I agree completely. You know, the other thing for me, so getting to our cabin, you go through what's called the Heber Valley, which is this little old farming community, and then you go up into the mountains. And as I come down into that valley, I could physically feel the stress just kind of fall off of my shoulders. And I forget about everything that's good.
There's a there's a particular power about familiar land, just that you revisit again and again. And I can think even this weekend we're going down to Bloomington, which was a meaningful place for me. I did graduate work down there. I gave birth to a young daughter who died shortly afterwards. But there was a lot of emotion that's tied up in that time. And there's a particular trail that I I ran and walked a lot during those years. And then I always make a point to come back to.
And there's something too I like I can feel it in my spirit, in my body of the familiar trees and bend in the path and the invitation that ushers me into to be tied to a story that's bigger than me to think like some of these trees, you know, they they came before me. They will outlast me. They're being sustained in much the same way that I am. And I I can hear that a little bit in your statement, like the the familiar land that evokes something in you as you're able to go to it.
Yeah. Those things I think they build us. They they. They. Help us become who we are.
We have pictures of my wife standing on the spot with nothing but trees and then a hole in the ground and then framing and then being all done. So, yeah, it's been it's been great. And then the other we do a family reunion there every year with all of our kids and grandkids. So those kind of memories just are important, as beautiful.
I would love for you to tell me a little bit about what your current role is in the work that you do.
Yeah. So it's changed pretty dramatically in the last year. So I was a CMO, a chief marketing officer for the last 20 plus years. My career was all in the tech sector and now I spend all of my time advising other companies on their go to market strategy. And those companies range from little startups that are trying to figure out how to get to market and what their product should look like and how to message and position it to companies that have multibillion dollar valuations that are trying to better understand their brand and what they do.
The thing that I like so much about it is that the work is super diverse. You know, I go from company to company and engage in these projects and to meet new people and see the struggles that they're going through and try and take the experiences that I've had and help them navigate where they're going well.
And what a two decade span to be in tech. There have been so many reinventions innovations and disruptive technologies within that space over the years that you've been working there. I'm sure that that has contributed to a really diverse toolkit of experiences at which to draw.
Yeah, technology has changed dramatically, as you mentioned, but marketing has changed dramatically over that time. The way you approach and engage with customers or prospects is just night and day. Different than what it was twenty or twenty five years ago, and so the need to adapt to those things is is critical but also fun because there's there's always new things to learn.
One thing I really like to ask guests is when we talk about empathy and connection at work, what is a personal story for you that emphasizes the importance of empathy and connection specifically in the workplace?
So I think, Liesel, I think as you think about all of this, it's important to recognize that the workplace isn't separate from our personal life, that those two are just intertwined and inseparable. And so, as I think about empathy, I think I learned that from my son, from one of our kids. We lived in Seattle for a number of years. And this particular son, I think, got picked on every single day that he went to junior high school.
And, you know, it was not super evident as he went through it. But I think it was it certainly was impactful. And then we moved to Utah and he flourished here, you know, just found the right friends and and all of those kinds of things. But while he was he was probably a senior in high school. My wife and I met a woman who her grandson went to the same school as our son and. The things she told us is she said that her grandson told her that she could go, that he could go three weeks at school without a single person ever saying hello to him, engaging with them, talking to him.
And she said, but the grandson told her that the one person that he always knew, if he passed in the hall or saw in a class that would say hello to him was our son. And, you know, I I thought about that and I thought, you know, what would our son have to have developed that that trait or understood that need if he wouldn't have gone through the challenges that he did earlier in junior high and and high school.
But I also thought, you know, I'd take that over him being the star of the basketball team any day if he would develop that kind of character. So it was a really important lesson for me of the need to kind of look out for the the team member or the person that that may be struggling. But then obviously empathy expands well beyond someone who's struggling and really is just do you take an interest in other people to make connections with other people or are you just looking out for yourself and what will benefit you?
And I think those distinctions are really, really important.
I love that story. Thank you for sharing that. If I could, I could feel a little bit of a catch in my throat, even as you said, because I one of my children, I have a son who is just on the precipice of middle school and has had a hard year with those dynamics of old school is rough. It is rough.
I feel when you said, like it's important to note that our work selves and our personal selves are there, not divisible. What I have observed is that that awareness signals a change in the workplace from when my parents probably were working or definitely my grandparents, where there is a sense of, you know, this is your home life, this is your work life, you really need to shut off that part of yourself in order to show up and get the job done.
Does that resonate with you? Do you feel like you have seen some of that movement in your lifetime of work in what is expected in a given office as to what you're allowed to bring to work?
Yeah, really good point. I think you're right on. I think that today's workplace, it it's you're able to talk about those things in in a much more profound way or more ready way than you were you rewind a couple of decades ago where it really was a bit more separate and distinct. But I also think a lot of it has to do with the individual. You know, my my dad worked in in the corporate world his whole life and based on his personality, he was just very engaging.
He still has those friendships that he had from, you know, 50 years ago that he developed at work. And I think a lot of that is how you approach your work. Do you see it as a task? You see it as a goal that needs to be accomplished, or do you see it as a collection of people who are engaged and connected together trying to accomplish something? And if you if you look at it through that people lens, I think I think everything changes.
All of a sudden you're just naturally interested in the life of that other person and what they're going through and both positive and negative.
I think that's a great point of. The individual and what they bring to the table into a given work environment, I mean, even as some of the cultural expectations around the accessibility of these conversations have changed, I still find in the consulting work I do in the coaching that the companies that are most able to successfully implement a strategy for cultivating empathy. What that stems from is usually the executive team or champions within the organization who really like this is in line with their heartbeat.
And they say this is the kind of person I am. This is the kind of company culture I want to cultivate.
Yeah, I think you're right. You know, the the culture needs to permeate throughout the company, but the tone gets set by that leadership team. They care about the people inside the business. Are they doing things to understand what those needs of those individuals are and then and then making changes to to help meet those needs? I'm reminded of a place that that one of our sons worked at a short time ago, and they had terrible health care benefits for for people who didn't live in the headquarters city.
And even though it was brought up a number of times, the company just didn't didn't recognize it or or didn't care. So if if the message gets sent that what you care about isn't what I care about, then, you know, that's a that's a culture that will quickly understand that and good people will move on.
Right. The lack of receptivity and feeling hurt. Well, and I mean, especially with what we're recording July 2021, the current labor market dynamics really. I mean, there's always a cost to people leaving in recruitment, rehiring, reputational loss, but especially as people are clawing back to full staffing and being able to keep and retain people, it takes on an extra measure of urgency, like, are you keeping your people because they have choices and they can leave if the culture is not life giving.
Agree? Yep, definitely agree. You know, just one other point on on empathy. I think sometimes it can be misunderstood. You know, our goal isn't to avoid disagreement in the workplace. The goal is we're going to disagree. How are we are we in a place? Do we have the kind of culture and connections and trust and empathy that allow us to go through those disagreements in good, healthy ways versus the counterproductive and toxic ways? And so I think that's where this culture of of empathy comes into play and really shows its worth
Right. I, I, I talk with companies. They say you already have a de facto way of dealing with disruptive life events, of dealing with disagreements and in many places because because we don't actually train for this in our management programs, it's not a core of how we promote or analyze managers that, you know, people just have their bad habits or their personality, like default positions and ways of dealing with things that you know, that the way they work themselves out in practice as it becomes kind of.
Your your operating principles, do we shut down any disagreement? Do I shame someone for having a problem? You know, it's just getting in the way of productivity. And I found that a big, you know, part of getting to growth is being aware of those habits.
What is a time for you when building connection has felt really easy.
You know, I I think it's I think, you know, it probably goes to. And this I hope this doesn't sound wrong, but kind of when you're when you're in the battle together, it's when the connections have happened. You know, a lot of companies today promote cooperation with with other companies. I'm a competitive person. So I I never had a problem picking a competitor and saying we're going to go take market share from from that company. We're going to build marketing plans and branding plans.
And they're the they're the company that we think we can go succeed against and we can win against. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that kind of a competitive spirit. And so I've I've used that to our advantage. But I think that when your team then feels that, then all of a sudden they're not looking internally and saying, hey, that you're the enemy. They're looking externally and saying, we've got this other company that we're competing with and we're going to we're going to win against them.
Sometimes I think businesses can confuse some of these softer skills with being overall soft, and I think they can coexist. I think that you can use trust and empathy and connection internally, but externally use competitive juices to your advantage.
Yeah, I read a turn of phrase that rang true recently. It was saying instead of calling them soft skills, we should call them human skills because that's much more representative of what they are and how they serve us in the very, very good.
You know, one other thing that that's interesting to me is how much time people invest in their their trade skills. So I'm a marketer and, you know, I'm just surrounded by marketing people who are trying to learn account based marketing and new digital marketing skills and search engine optimization skills. And then you look at how much time are you investing in? Let's call them human skills, leadership skills. And they look at you like. None, right? And those two don't they just don't match up because as I look at my own career and I think really the career of most executives, it's it's much more based on leadership skills than it is on how good of a marketer I am.
There's lots of people that are way better marketers than I am that I didn't didn't ever get to a C level position. So how they think they would get there without investing time into those skills doesn't make any sense.
I was just interviewing a CEO of a growing tech company and he was talking about his how his education framed him for some of what he's doing. And he studied both psychology and finance as an undergrad. And he said, you know, people people are always thinking that I lean into my finance skills a lot in the role that I have. And he said psychology always wins. You know, it's it's the people skills. It's knowing how to get the most out of a team and knowing who to promote and when.
It's knowing who needs a break and who needs like a rousing, encouraging speech at that moment. And I like that just turn of phrase. Psychology always wins.
Yeah, and I, I don't think it gets taught certainly doesn't get taught at a university. And even when people start into their positions, nobody's really you know, the CMO isn't taking the junior marketer and saying, you know, let's let's talk about your leadership skills and in your human skills. Instead, they're taking them and saying, OK, you know, do you understand how to do this part of of your job? And it's much more of those technical skills.
Right. And that's I think that's one of the problems that people have when they continue to try and have their career progress. They hit a ceiling. And it really is not because they're not good marketers or finance people or salespeople. It's because they haven't developed the leadership skills. And that's that's the value that they're going to bring.
So it it doesn't happen in a formal way the way it could or should this equipping and human skills. How did you find throughout the course of your career that you continued to skill up in these important capacities?
Yeah, for me, it was because I was so interested in it. You know, if I if I had if I had the choice to read a book on the latest marketing skill or read a book on the leadership perspectives, I would always pick the latter. So it just came really natural for me just because of interest. So I in January of this year, I went back to school. I'm going to get a graduate degree in organizational leadership from Arizona State University.
Most people look at me and go, no, what not? How come you're doing this? Because it's a commitment and takes time and costs money and all those kinds of things. But it is fascinating to me. And, you know, so I look at it and and say the the more I can understand leadership and and how to motivate people and how to engage with people, the the better I'm going to be at mentoring others and teaching those skills.
Absolutely. Well, in that posture of lifelong learning, it serves us in our homes and our relationships as we are members of a community and as we're members of a workplace.
We will return to the interview with Joe in just a moment, but I want to take a second to thank our sponsor, Handle with Care Consulting. As we said at the top of the episode, human skills are essential to business. Especially during the tumult and labor shortage of 2021, building connections of care is a competitive advantage. If you want to skill-up in empathy, Handle with Care Consulting has an offering to fit your needs. From keynote sessions to certificate programs to executive coaching, let us help you engage you people and show care when it matters most.
What are some times for you we're building connection has felt really hard. And then as a follow up, how you still pressed into the messiness and importance of building connection anyway.
Yeah, I, I think when it's hard is when it's forced, when it feels forced and. You know a lot, just about every company that that I engage with, they do some form of. Team building, and I'm not a big fan of it, I you know, I and I think the the reality of this set in for me, what would it be? Probably 15 years ago, I decided that this will be great. We will have for my team.
We're going to do a pretty large team. We'll do a team softball game, and then we'll have a barbecue after. And again, I love softball. So error number one was I took what I wanted to do and now projected that on 30 other people and said, here's here's what we're going to do. And we played this game and it was evident that there were some people there that had never. Played softball in their life, but with the three week notice that I gave them, my guess is they actually practiced to try and not look terrible, terrible, terrible, but they would rather have gone to the dentist and play this softball game.
I mean, it was just painful to them. And I can remember being at this game and looking and thinking, what have I done? Look what I just put these people through in an attempt to build team dynamics and help them feel more a part of the team. I have just done the exact opposite of that. And so from from that point on, I've really tried to shy away from from these team building activities where it's a force fit and you got to come.
The one team building event that I still love and that I still think works is so simple and it is eating together. Everybody has to eat and you go to any restaurant and you can find something that you love. And what it does is now all of a sudden you're actually getting to know each other. A softball game analogy. You know, the person on third base doesn't get to talk to the person in right field. You're not developing any connection that way.
But sit next to somebody at a dinner that you didn't know or a lunch that you didn't know before. And all of a sudden you found out that you went to the same school as you did, or he has the same number of kids that you do that are the same ages. And or even better, he's going he or she is going through some of the same problems you're going through now. You can create some connections.
Yeah, well, the again, the shared experience of eating and providing the space for conversation that isn't just about tasks to be accomplished. I like that. How what what are like some micro practices that you either formally instituted for yourself or just started doing regularly within the office as a leader to make sure that you stayed connected to your team and especially team members, that maybe you naturally didn't have as many affinity points with.
Yeah, so the team members that work directly for me, I always found that was quite a bit easier. The the challenge was, you know, if I had an organization of one hundred people and I was trying to to lead this entire organization, there may be three or four levels between me and that other person. How do I develop some of some of those connections? So I again, going back to my meal, they didn't think that I, I eat a lot.
That's not the point. Right. I would set up monthly lunches with newer team members. So it may be your. First day or it may be your third week, but you're you're a newer team member and we usually have eight or nine people in in the lunch and it accomplished two things. One is I got to know them, but they got to know each other because, you know, they may be working on on different teams. And so I always I always felt that that was useful when the other one that we did, I worked for a company called Novell in kind of the heyday of of the tech scene for them anyway.
And we did something that was where we took executives and had them work on Frontalot in front line jobs, customer service jobs for a day. Yeah, it wasn't really long, but I, I still have a picture of of the the general counsel for for the company, very senior leader on the phone, taken from our service complaint calls. And you think about empathy, they came away from that, recognizing that this these jobs aren't that easy. Right.
And number two, I certainly couldn't couldn't do it. And now all of a sudden, they thought about what those jobs were a bit differently.
One of the other practices that I did for a number of years is once a year I would go work a really small trade show where we had a little bitty booth by 10 booth, because for the event staff, that was the worst. An event that you go to where you have a big, you know, 30 by 30 booth and you have speaking engagements.
That's fun and exciting in the back corner of the of the trade show floor in this little booth. And you're trying to get people to talk to you. So once a year, I would sign up and I would go work those booths just to remind myself what the people on that event staff did and how hard it was. It was it kept me kept me aware
If you had like a magic wand that you could wave to give them an awareness about empathy or a new sort of perspective, what what capacity would you give them or what words of wisdom would you want to impart for them to take away?
My experience is people love to be challenged. They may not say that. They may think, no, I'd rather just kind of sit here and do my job and go home every day and and do the other things that I love to do. But people love to have somebody show confidence enough in them to come to them and say, hey, we have this brand new project. Even if you say, I don't I don't think you even know much about it, but I want you to learn and I want you to lead it.
And I think that just causes people to rise to the occasion,
I think it works when you have a star performer and when you have a a poor performer, because I think even with a poor performer, you can come to them and say, you know what, I can see that you're struggling in this area. I believe you can do this. So let's talk about what that means. And, you know, why are you struggling and what can I do to help you?
Those are the kinds of connections that cause people to go, wow, like you really you really do care about me and want me to succeed. And then together, you figure that out if if the person because most of the time the employee knows they're struggling. You're not telling them anything they don't know. But if they feel that you want to help them not struggle, that's so different. Then I'm struggling and you don't really care. The only thing you care is that the work isn't getting done or our results are not where they should be.
You only care about the results. You don't care about me. You just sent a very different message. Wouldn't you sit down with that person and say, look, let's talk about why you're having a tough time with this, because I really think you can do this. This is right. This is you're capable of this.
Yeah. Simon Sinek talks about, you know, he had like a little micro training video module, but he talked about the importance of both empathy and curiosity of a manager at that moment. And it's a different way of phrasing some of what you said to to sit down. And it's you know, it is in one part about the numbers or the metrics or the performance, but it's also that measure of curiosity, of saying there's probably more of a story that's going on right now.
And, you know, can we can we engage at that level that can really signal something powerful.
Right. And if you don't have that conversation, you may never know that. Yeah, I'm just distracted because, you know, two months ago, my dad was diagnosed with with cancer, just struggling to keep my. Wits about me, right? You never know that if you don't engage and have those conversations.
Yeah, it can make you draw all of those sideways conclusions. Is this person just lazy or unmotivated or are they looking at job somewhere else and function off of those unvalidated assumptions? They can really lead us away when it could be exactly what you said. You know, I'm I'm really distracted because my dad's been in the hospital for the last three months, and that's hard.
Yeah. You know, the other thing I'd love to hear your perspective. The the connection between empathy and trust, I think is is pretty fascinating.
Yeah, I it's interesting because as I as I train companies, as I coach different teams, there's some people that they they love this movement towards empathy and connection in the workplace. And, you know, it's it's close to their heart beat. They want more of it. And then, you know, I definitely interact with people that it feels like just one more demand, like somebody need me to be their counselor. And do you know all of these, like, large assumptions about what it's going to take from them to have to get into more of the human side of interacting with their people?
And one thing that I talk about is, you know, those those moments where you're getting more of the story, where someone is sharing both, you know, a really good thing that's happened, you know, a new baby, those a new marriage, the celebrations and also some of the hard stuff, you know, my my child is really sick and we don't know what the test results are going to be, that those moments, even moments a little bit like what you said, moments of that can feel like confrontation.
“You know, you're you're not cultivating a place where it is safe for me to express who I am as a Black woman.” You know, those those moments that can feel hard. They're actually depending on how you navigate them. They are invitations to much deeper connection, you know, that like vulnerability as we can move into those places with better habits, better ways of connecting. It's a tremendous moment for trust. And trust is the foundation. Google did this widespread study of what is the defining characteristic of high performing teams and what they came away.
You know, they're they're finding was the number one characteristic was psychological safety people where they felt like they could bring their humanness there. And whether you term it psychological safety or trust, you know, that's the place where you can have true like creativity and innovation and people who say, you know what, through the ups and downs, I want to stay with this company because they see me. And so that connection between empathy and trust and what can flourish out of that, I really encourage people to see see these moments as opportunities to really cultivate some beautiful things within your organization.
Wow. Whoa. Really well said. I think you make a number of great points there. And, you know, the the more sincere somebody can be in that caring and concern and understanding, the better it is. Absolutely. The employees definitely recognize when it's when it's forced. You know, when I come and I say, how are you? I know you and you tell me you're terrible. And I go, Yeah, that's too bad. You know, that goes OK.
So results of the and you kind of jump over there they go. You don't really care about me, right?
I am. I view people as on a continuum of this skill set because it is a skill set and everybody can get better. There's some people who are naturally much better at it. But occasionally I use the illustration of bowling like I in my training. I'm going to give you a tip like you don't want to end up in the gutter. And there are some things that we instinctually do. Well, just it's it's always darkest before the you know, these tired cliches are just telling people to buck up and that are really going to be off-putting.
So let's make sure you don't do those things. And then, you know, even even if it feels like a little bit of going through the motions at first, you know, hopefully as you as you build and you see that connection and you get better and you get more comfortable within the skill set, just like anything, you know, whether it's training in a new capacity with technological platform or training for a new skill in our bodies. You know, when I start shooting layups, I'm not super good at it when I start learning.
But the more I do it, the better I can get. And empathy is like that. What we're moving towards is like sincere, wholehearted engagement. But even if we just start with you not saying the same stupid stuff that you used to say and asking how they're doing and then pausing because, you know, you're supposed to pause and nodding because, you know, you're supposed to not like that.
Still not having softball team building activity.
Yeah. You know, we're all learning along the way
But but the summary point to what you're saying here is for anybody listening, you can learn empathy. It's not something that somebody should go. You know, I'm not an empathetic. So I'm just going to stay the way I am.
That's not true. You can learn the skill of being empathetic.
These are skills worth working on. These are things that every middle manager, executive and team member should invest in. Is these human skills, these leadership skills. Yes. You've got trade skills that you need to keep current with.
But to to have a fulfilling career, to have a career that you enjoy is really about can you have an impact on other people? I mean, this isn't about us as much. It is as it is about. Can I be the person that, you know, 15 years from now, somebody looks back and says, and I hope I loved it at that company because I worked with so-and-so or because I was managed by so-and-so. And I those people interactions are they're just so important.
And if they're that important, we should invest in learning how to be the best that we can at them.
Couldn't agree more. Thank you, Joe.
Thank you, this was a lot of fun.
Here are three key takeaways from my conversation with Joe…