Ivan Stegic - Leading with empathy
Ivan Stegic is the founder and CEO of TEN7, a Minneapolis-based technology studio specializing in Drupal, with a mission to Make Things That Matter.
In this episode, we talk about one of the most essential people skills and/or leadership traits of the current era – empathy. We start off by defining what it means to lead with empathy and how to display empathy towards external stakeholders – user, customers, clients, etc.
In the second part, we focus on empathy for internal stakeholders, so, the employees that actually interact with and create experiences for the first group. Ivan closes with some of his first-hand tips from the 15 years of leading TEN7.
Links & mentions:
“If you aren't able to be vulnerable and if you aren't able to bring your humanity, then you're going to be working in an environment that doesn't trust, that doesn't function at the highest level as possible. And that won't result in people that are happy doing what they're doing. And it won't result in a great product either.”
Welcome to the Agile Digital Transformation Podcast where we explore different aspects of digital transformation and digital experience with your host, Tim Butara, Content and Community Manager at Agiledrop.
Tim Butara: Hello, everyone. Thanks for tuning in. Our guest today is Ivan Stegic, CEO of the mission-driven technology studio TEN7. We actually recently featured Ivan in one of our Drupal community interviews, and we enjoyed speaking with each other, so much so that we almost immediately arranged to record a podcast episode together.
So here we are. We're ready for another great conversation. And this time we'll be talking about one of the key leadership traits that's risen out of the current digitalized era, namely empathy, and we'll be discussing why it's so important to display empathy both towards your users as well as towards your employees. Welcome, Ivan. It's really great getting to speak with you again and discussing this with you. Do you want to add anything before we get into the specifics and start with the questions?
Ivan Stegic: No, not really. Hello to you, Tim, and thank you for having me on. I did enjoy speaking with you last time. That was a lot of fun, and I'm glad that we get a chance to talk about empathy as a topic today. I think it's a really important trait and I think it's a really important topic of discussion that we need to address. I think it's underlying and it underpins a whole lot of business, or it should underlie and underpin business in today's modern world. So I'm glad we have the opportunity to discuss it.
Tim Butara: Yes, I agree. That's really well said. So in this line, what does it mean to lead with empathy?
Ivan Stegic: That's a great question because that's one of the things that we have on our website and it's one of our mantras. Right? We lead with empathy. To me, it means that we are always thinking about others' well-being and others’ needs ahead of your own. And that could be clients, which I think is what you think about when you first think about leading with empathy as a business. But I think it also means the employees and the people that work with you.
So there are those two things that you should be leading with empathy on. But most importantly, what both of those teams are concerned with are the user and the person that's actually using your service or product. And so having a mantra and having a mindset of leading with empathy, to me and to an organization like TEN7, means we think about everyone that we touch in our business, clients, employees, and users alike. And we consider their well being ahead of ours.
Tim Butara: So if you want to truly be empathetic as a leader, as a business, you need to kind of find this balance between all of these stakeholder groups and ensure that all of them are getting the most out of the interaction, the project, the collaboration, the most as possible.
Ivan Stegic: For sure. It's important to remember that we are all human, that we are not selling a product and a business just for profit or just to achieve a certain goal. We're all human. We all have our own story, and we all need to be able to contribute to the success of whatever we're trying to accomplish.
Tim Butara: Yeah, I think that's something that’s sometimes maybe forgotten in B2B marketing. Right. Because the term, the acronym, does signify “business to business”. And that makes you kind of assume that, oh, you know, this is just “business to business”. It's not the same as B2C or “business to customer”, where you're actually dealing with a person, a customer. But even when you're dealing with a business, you're dealing with the people that work for that business.
Ivan Stegic: Of course. Of course, I haven't met, I don't know, a single business on the planet that isn't made of humans.
Tim Butara: Yeah. Well, I mean, that might change in the coming decades. *laughing*
Ivan Stegic: *laughing* That might change, you're right.
Tim Butara: Okay. Now let's first focus on the kind of external stakeholder side. So the users, the customers, maybe the clients to some extent. So how do companies display empathy towards these types of stakeholders? What tools or what approaches do they leverage to put these stakeholders first?
Ivan Stegic: So I think part of the system, maybe the practice that you have as a company is to remember that there's always this stage, this phase of work that happens before a design gets created. 20, 25 years ago, I think that people were interested in taking what they had already created in a print world, in a brochure, in a magazine, and simply converting it, digitizing it, making it something that was online so that it was accessible. That was sort of the first step.
I don't think there was ever any thought to what a user might do and how a user might feel about that experience. And I think that's changed. And so there are many platforms that focus on customer experience. And so thinking about the strategy and thinking about the customer and the user on a particular website or on a particular app or any digital interaction should be first and foremost, you should have that strategy, that practice, that thinks about what their experience is like.
And sometimes it's as simple as even thinking about what a person sees on a giant digital banner on a freeway, like, that communication should be simple and clear and should also be empathetic. What kind of tools are used or should be used? I mean, if you're using tools and you're aware of the fact that you need to be using tools, that's clearly showing some sort of empathy.
But things like Hotjar and Crazy Egg that you can actually do analysis of data of the product that you have, that shows empathy using something like Punchlist or UserVoice or something that you can use to collect data from the user in real time, that shows empathy. Sending out personalized emails and asking personalized questions to users before– I suppose not before, but during the transaction, after a transaction – that shows empathy.
I know we all get a ton of email and a ton of surveys and a ton of newsletters, but continuing that cycle might not necessarily be bad if you are actually showing empathy for the user to solicit information. So I think those are sort of the tactical things that you could use to identify whether or not you're actually showing empathy towards your customer.
Tim Butara: Yeah. And really important elements here are accessibility and user experience, which accessibility is itself like a major part of. I would assume that they're strongly tied to companies’ capacity to empathize with their audiences, with their stakeholders. So how would you say that empathy correlates with UX and accessibility? Would you go as far as to say that empathy is prerequisite for doing user experience right?
Ivan Stegic: Absolutely. It's clearly user experience, not able user experience. And when we say user experience, we mean everyone, and we should mean everyone. There's a large percentage of users that don't have the same experiences on a website and don't have the same capabilities and don't have the same needs. And so having empathy for that is really important. I would say empathy is the baseline.
If you don't have empathy, you can't have a good user experience. If you don't have empathy, you're never going to think about accessibility. It's just not going to cross your mind. You're going to design something and create something that's based on what you want. And having empathy means that you're not thinking about what you want, you're thinking about your client needs, you're thinking about your team needs. You're thinking about ultimately the user's needs.
And thinking about the user means thinking about everyone. And so whether that's someone who's hearing impaired, visually impaired– I remember attending a talk a number of years ago now that reminded me… Actually, that informed me at the time, and that I'm reminded of now, that we're all going to be disabled in some way or not able in the same way that we are now. When we get older, our eyes are going to fail, we are going to need glasses eventually, we are going to be using command plus on our keyboard to make text larger. Why not think about all of those things right now?
Tim Butara: Plus, it's not like accessible experiences are worsened for people who aren’t disabled, for people without disabilities. Right. It's just a better experience for everybody.
Ivan Stegic: Everybody. Yeah, exactly. It's not like you're making something special that makes it worse for people when you're not thinking about accessibility, it's actually improving the experience all the way.
Tim Butara: And I think we've all been in positions or in situations already where we've had some kind of temporary disability. Even– you gave the example of us needing glasses once we get older. But what about trying to check something on your phone when it's 01:00 p.m. on a summer day and the sun is high in the sky and you can't see anything because of the sunshine? Obviously, there would need to be some accessibility tweaks for you to be able to continue using that experience in the same way as without this obstacle.
Ivan Stegic: That's a very good point. Yes.
Tim Butara: So what are the most popular kind of– I know it's similar to one of the previous questions, but what are the most popular trends or maybe the most popular digital technologies that really take this importance of empathy into account and really kind of realize it?
Ivan Stegic: So the fact that we have an accessibility community, not just in Drupal, but globally, that there are people who are lobbying and legislating for the rights of– to be able to have accessible products, that shows empathy. Right. I think when you think about it, the prevalence of APIs and the use of APIs is actually a show of empathy as well.
The reason I say that is, yes, APIs became necessary because we had this thing called an iPhone and apps needed to get at the same data that websites were getting, and we wanted to be able to have cross platform, cross product communication. And so APIs arose with that. And I'm sure there are a number of good business reasons why APIs exist and why they became a thing.
But when you think about having empathy for your user and allowing your user to be able to consume the data and the content that you are producing and that you are publishing, having that data available as plain text, as structured content, as structured objects or JSON objects, that actually shows empathy towards the user as well, because it means that user can choose to consume that data in whichever way they find most appropriate to themselves.
So I think that it's not just about accessibility. I think the prevalence of APIs show that we are being more empathetic towards our users. I think that's a trend that will continue. And then if you simply look at the number of software as a service company that exists that are generating tools to allow you to collect data and collate it and turn it into reports and turn it into knowledge, that shows that we're being more empathetic as well. Again, I mentioned this earlier. Products like Crazy Egg and Hotjar and to some extent Google Analytics as well. These all show that we can use data in a good way. We can collect that data and generate knowledge out of them.
Tim Butara: You know what's interesting to this point about Hotjar and similar tools, it's like if you demonstrate that you're a company that's really empathetic and really user first, then all of the regulations around data and everything can actually be a double-edged sword. Right. In the same way– they're introduced because they're supposed to force you to be more empathetic towards the users. But if you are already empathetic towards the users, if you use the data you obtained from them for good, for their own benefits, then any limitation on that will actually make you less empathetic towards them, in a sense.
Ivan Stegic: I love the term you just used, or the phrase you just used – user-first. Right. If we have user-first in mind all the time, then thinking about the user experience is easy, thinking about accessibility is easy. And what you've alluded to is – thinking about privacy is easy then as well, because you have the best interest of the user at heart. And when you have that, these other sort of major issues almost become nonexistent. Right.
Tim Butara: But I think it's the same not just for business or for digital, but it's the same for humanity. Right? If everyone were just good, if everyone were just good hearted and kind natured, we wouldn't need all the– I can't find the right word for it. But–
Ivan Stegic: The guardrails, all the rules, all the things that are trying to keep those people who aren't good in check. Yeah, we're both optimists, I think, Tim.
Tim Butara: Yeah, I guess we are. And I guess that we don't really have any other choice, considering everything that's going on around us.
Ivan Stegic: You are right.
Tim Butara: And I just wanted to reiterate or kind of revisit. I thought it was a great point about APIs being a sign of empathy. And I think that this is really where you can get this perfect balance or perfect joining of empathy and kind of business goals. Right. Because APIs are meant to power omnichannel or multichannel experiences. And companies want to have multichannel experiences, but they want to have them because that's where their users are. Right. Because their users want multichannel experiences.
So it's like, okay, if I want to reach my business goal, I have to be empathetic. And it's like, okay, I mean, that's perfect. Because as we just talked about, if you are a company, if you are a person that leads with that, that shouldn't pose a problem to you.
Ivan Stegic: Exactly, I agree.
Tim Butara: Okay, so for now we're mostly focused on users, customers. So the external stakeholders, but as you pointed out very astutely in the beginning, those are just one key stakeholder group. So now let's focus more on the employees. So the stakeholder group that's actually responsible for crafting and deploying these user-first experiences. I guess it stands to reason that you would first and foremost need to be empathetic towards these stakeholders. Right. Can we talk a bit more about this?
Ivan Stegic: Of course. People who work for the company, people who work in a team, in an organization, that are providing the services, it makes sense that they would need to be empathetic towards the users and the clients as well, as you said, and as we've talked about. But you're not going to find that I don't think with team members that themselves aren't being treated empathetically and that themselves aren't being set up to succeed and to be able to function and work in the most effective possible way.
I think what we've done at TEN7 is try to eliminate as many barriers to that functioning, not performance, but that work, as possible. And so we don't have universal health care in the United States. And so that's something that citizens and people need to think about. Right. They have to be thoughtful about, okay, if I get sick, what am I going to do? How am I going to pay for it? Does that come out of my paycheck? How does that look? And so as a result, to remove those obstacles for team members, we provide healthcare and dental and vision insurance. That's one less thing that team members have to think about.
Similar sort of thing goes with technology stipends, right? A person might think, oh, I have to buy a computer and have to be concerned about, like, what does it look like? How much am I going to spend? Is it coming out of my paycheck? What does that look like? We provide a technology stipend, enough that you can recycle and get a new computer every couple of years.
When you show empathy towards employees and you essentially unblock them from having to think about the things that they would otherwise worry, that gives them more capacity and more time every week to think about the work that they're doing and how they can be more impactful in their everyday work.
I think that it's not just about what you provide to team members that shows that you're empathetic. It's the kind of culture that you try to generate. Right. You have to have an open, honest, communicative culture that is able to be vulnerable. If you aren't able to be vulnerable and if you aren't able to sort of bring your humanity, then you're going to be working in an environment that doesn't trust, that doesn't function at the highest level as possible. And that won't result in people that are happy doing what they're doing, and it won't result in a great product either.
So one of the things we try to do at TEN7 is to use some research, some data science that allows us to sort of quantify the interactions and how we might be better at being empathetic towards the people that we work with. So we do a DiSC analysis, and that's based on the five behaviors of a successful team. There's a ton of research and data around it.
There's so many other things that you could use to sort of help you understand what your personality could be like, is like and how you interact with other people. There's StrengthsFinder, there's Myers Briggs, there's all of these– we've settled on DiSC. And what it allows us to do is to first look at ourselves to see how we might quantify some of our behaviors, some of our characteristics, knowing that we're not a dot on a disk, but a distribution, knowing that it is science, but it's not exact like it's going to triangulate exactly who you are because we're human and we're blobs, we're not data points.
And once we know ourselves and how we interact and what we're like, we can see what those relationships are like with other people in our organization. And when you think about how to react and how to talk with other people that might be in other parts of this disk, you are showing empathy. And you're showing empathy not just to team members as management or leadership, but you're showing empathy as a person, as a human, irrespective of what our organizational roles are. And so I'm not sure if I actually answered your question, but I think I might have. I think we were talking about empathy in the workplace, and I think I got to what I wanted to say. So if I missed something, please tell me.
Tim Butara: No, I think you did an excellent job of answering my question. I was just thinking that I've never heard of DiSC analysis before. I should probably read up on that little bit more. So if you have a great resource for me that I could also share with our listeners who maybe haven't yet heard of it, feel free to send me that and I'll include it in the episode.
I just wanted to get back to the first part of your answer. I love that you use the word environment. They kind of thrive in a positive business environment. Because I was thinking of the analogy of– a business is essentially a kind of organism. Right. And the employees are the cells of the organism, and the cells are responsible for the kind of balanced and adequate and optimal functioning of this organism. And the cells are hugely– the functioning of the cells is hugely, hugely dependent on the environment in which the cells currently are. So you can't expect the cells and consequently the organism to function optimally if the environment that you're providing to them is negative and not an empathetic one in our specific example. So I think that we're really on the same page here, Ivan.
Ivan Stegic: I think you're right. I'd actually never thought of that as an analogy. And actually the analogy goes further as well. What happens if one of those cells gets a virus and gets sick in some way? It can potentially infect the other cells around it. And as a result, the whole community of cells in this organism could become infected. And you could see that sort of in what happens when an organization has some sort of dysfunction. It could happen, start with one person and maybe go to something that is culturally significant and in the company as a whole. So your analogy is wonderful. I'm definitely going to use that in the future. It's great.
Tim Butara: Awesome. It's an honor that you'll use it. And I love your add on because it actually got me thinking, right. in the context of what we were talking about, basically about how a good employee experience will contribute to a better product, a better customer, user experience. Right. So if you're an organism whose cells aren't functioning properly, then consequently you're not functioning properly, then obviously your interpersonal relationships, so your output for other people. So in this case, these are your external stakeholders or customers, will be suboptimal. You won't be able to have as much quality relationships, quality interactions if you're yourself not feeling your best.
Ivan Stegic: Absolutely. And I will build further on top of that. So you talked about organisms and relationships between organisms. So each of those organisms has their own internal functioning, cells and environments. It's not just that this organism is behaving in a certain way, and is maybe in a good place or a bad place – it's the other organisms do as well.
And in a larger scope, the environment that those organisms are functioning in may be in a state of upheaval. There may be external threats, it may be copacetic. It might be just fine. And we can extrapolate that to pandemic, to war, to like everything else that's going on around us. So I think this is a great analogy that goes even bigger than we've thought about. So, excellent start.
Tim Butara: Wow. This is totally blowing my mind. Awesome. *laughing* This is such a great conversation, Ivan. I love it. And I think that we've almost brought it home. We've almost kind of gone full circle. So I just want to ask you one final, most practical oriented question. So do you maybe have any top tips for managers, for leaders, for such roles, or for just people in general, on how to truly lead with empathy, be more empathetic, not just in theory, not just on paper or on a website, but actually in practice.
Ivan Stegic: I think that the only thing I can do is talk about the experience I've had and how it's affected me. And then people can take from that what they– take the best and leave the rest, sort of, so to speak. So I think the first thing to be able to lead with empathy or to even have empathy towards other humans, not even thinking about business at all or teams, is to be able to understand yourself.
And to be able to know what you stand for and be solid in those things and to use rational, critical thinking, to be able to not fool yourself into thinking things that might not be true. So being able to understand yourself and how you want to react to the world and how you want to present yourself to the world is the first step to being empathetic.
So if we think about it in terms of organizations, best things that I've ever done to think about the health of TEN7 as a company and the health of our team as a company, is to hire experts, experts that are focused in these areas. So we hired a conflict resolution specialist and an HR specialist, numerous years ago when we had some sort of weird dynamic internally at the company and at the same time had a problem client.
We hired those experts. They're the best thing we ever did. That's when we discovered about the DiSC analysis, that's when we all did those profiles, that's when we were able to honestly talk about how we interact with each other. So hiring experts to solve problems that you actually have, I think, is an important thing.
If you can, as a leader, if you can hire a mentor, if you can hire a business coach, someone that you can talk to that can give you external opinion, someone that's not enmeshed in the company culture as well, that is an amazing step to thinking about others empathetically, to thinking about leadership in a pathetic way.
If you are leadership and you have a leadership team or a team of employees, one thing you can think about is how you can provide them with additional education and coaching and whether that's a stipend or a budget for a coach themselves, whether it's a budget or a stipend for professional development, anything that you can do to enable people to think more about themselves first and then about others, that will be, I think, successful. I think we've been successful in doing that.
I think it's okay to be vulnerable. I think it's okay to say you don't know. In fact, I think it's paramount to say that you don't know. If you don't know the answer to something, just be vulnerable and say it. It's cool. We all don't know things. There's no reason not to. And then I think it's okay to receive support as well. One of the things we put in all of our job descriptions as a requirement– a requirement is a bad word. It's a bullet on the job description that says how we like to think and how we like to operate.
And it's in your role, you're going to have to do these things. Bullet, bullet, bullet. One of them is: provide support to others. That's always the second last thing that you're going to be required to do, and that means you're going to have to help someone who's asking for help. So provide support in, I don't know, the best way to implement a hook in Drupal or what was your experience in JIRA using this particular Scrum board.
But the last bullet is: be able to accept support yourself as well. It's no good just giving support. You have to be able to accept support as well. And I think if you're able to do those things and if you're able to take these sort of things that I've mentioned, I think you're well on your way to leading an empathetic business into thinking about others before you actually start on a project or try to implement a solution for a client.
Tim Butara: I think those were excellent tips. And I'm glad that you spoke from experience because they will resonate, I think, with our listeners even more. And just for me, I think there were some very invaluable tips. And my key takeaway from this is basically, if you're not true to yourself, how can you even be or ever be true to others? Right.
And you mentioned vulnerability as kind of the basis for empathy. And vulnerability is being able to admit when you got something wrong. And that just means honesty. Right. Honesty is also honest for vulnerability. So it kind of all revolves around these– because what we're talking about are just essential kind of supposedly really good human traits, right, honesty, empathy, care for another. It's just if we can kind of take one key takeaway from all this is that even in business, it pays to be a good person, it pays to do good.
Ivan Stegic: I like that – even in business, it pays to be a good person. Yes, for sure.
Tim Butara: I think that's actually the perfect note to finish off the episode just before we wrap up the call, Ivan, if our listeners want to reach out to you or learn more about ten seven, where would you point them to?
Ivan Stegic: Well, we have a website. People are welcome to check us out at ten7.com. That's ten, then the number seven dot com. If you're interested in our mission and our values, that's at ten7.com/mission. Our mission is to make things that matter. We believe that we want to make the world a better place by building things that matter in the world and by spending time with those things and lifting everyone up.
So one of the goals for ten seven is to try to scale our mission over the next few years. We're also on Twitter, T-E-N 7. You can reach us at that handle. And if anybody wants to reach out to me, feel free to either go to the website and use the contact form on there. You can also reach me on twitter.com/ivanstegic. And I'm sure that'll be in the show notes. And then if you wanted to send me an email, you can do that as well. It's just my first name, Ivan, @ten7com.
Tim Butara: Awesome. Ivan, thanks so much. I absolutely loved this conversation. Thanks so much again, Ivan. And take care.
Ivan Stegic: Thank you. You, too.
Tim Butara: And to our listeners. That's all for this episode. Have a great day, everyone, and stay safe.
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