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Business leadership: the importance of empathy.

figure By KHALIL ANJARWALLA Jeff Bezos is known for his relentless drive, Satya Nadella for his humility, Steve Jobs was famed for his intuition and visionary qualities, while Elon Musk is praised for his candidness and hands-on approach. Each of these leaders is iconic, but what is the common thread? What is it that makes them great?I have often asked myself this question during my tenure at African Cotton Industries.

Studying the leaders I admire, I concluded that their extraordinary success could largely be attributed to their relentless drive and sought to emulate this quality in my day-to-day role, adopting a steely focus on expanding into new markets and achieving profitable growth. I felt certain of the direction the company was going in and how I was going to get it there.

EYE OPENERAnd then everything changed. In 2015 my wife and I learned that our one-year-old son, Ayden, had Spinal Muscular Atrophy, a rare genetic disorder that causes progressive muscle wastage and paralysis.

The doctors told us he would never walk, and that over time he would probably also lose the ability to eat and breathe independently.Ayden's diagnosis affected me profoundly.

As someone who had everything clearly mapped out ndash major milestones my son would reach, professional milestones I would reach ndash I suddenly no longer felt certain of anything. It was a deeply humbling experience and, as I would later come to appreciate, an important turning point in my life both personally and professionally.

Critically, it taught me the importance of empathy. I realised that up until that point everything had been about me ndash my son, and my vision for him ndash when really it should have been about Ayden, and what I could do to enable him to achieve his potential.

WHY EMPATHISE?The ability to understand and feel what others experience is critical to the work of companies, according to Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who has noted that the most successful products that Microsoft has built have come with the ability to meet customers' needs. ''I think of empathy as not just something nice to have but [it] is core to [the] innovation agenda in the company'' he says.

''One of the things that I've come to realise is, if I look at Microsoft's core business, it is about being able to meet the unmet and unarticulated needs of customers and there is just no way we are going to be able to succeed in doing that if we don't have that deep sense of empathy.'' Having succeeded in making its computers ubiquitous, Nadella continues, Microsoft had to answer the 'existential' question of why it exists.

The answer? ''We build technology so that others can build technology.''Becoming an empathetic leader is not straightforward.

As Nadella explains: ''The challenge, though, is you can't just say ndash I'll go to work and turn on my empathyhellip I'm not even claiming that empathy is innate, it is something that needs to be developed.'' Empathy, in other words, is a quality that must be carefully cultivated and put into practice over time.

At African Cotton, we began by taking a step back and reflecting on the company's motto, Caring for You with a Tender Touch. Were we truly delivering on this vision? Was a culture of care embedded into the company's culture, and was this translating into the products we build and the care we show our customers? We revisited some of our products and re-designed them with our target customer foremost in mind.

This process led to the development of some of our most successful products today, including the Snuggles umbilical cord care diaper to improve new-born and premature baby care and the Flora blended-fibre kitchen roll made of 80 per cent recycled waste paper, lowering the entry price point and making the product affordable for the first time to many Kenyans.NEW OPPORTUNITIESMost importantly, an empathetic approach has allowed us to form new partnerships with Kenya Red Cross and County First Ladies Association to initiate the Menstrual Health Management Program, a pioneering project launched by First Lady Margaret Kenyatta that will help two million children in Kenya gain access to improved sanitation and hygiene facilities.

Many have dismissed empathy as a soft skill ndash a certainly useful skill in some situations, but not the leadership quality underpinning the success of business titans. They are wrong empathy is in fact an essential leadership skill, and one which all business leaders should take the time to develop.

Without empathy, companies cannot reach the customers they are trying to reach or understand their desires and purchasing decisions. Without empathy, companies cannot predict the effect that their decisions will have on core markets and adapt their strategies in response.

Without empathy, business leaders cannot inspire loyalty amongst their teams. So, dismiss it at your own peril.

The common leadership thread uniting the likes of Jeff Bezos, Satya Nadella, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk et al is their ability and willingness to place the needs of others above their own. That's what made them great!The author is the CEO at African Cotton Industries.

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Publication:Daily Nation, Kenya (Nairobi, Kenya)
Date:Mar 20, 2019
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