No Empathy, No Innovation

Growing up with a brother with special needs and in an abusive home has shaped my entire world view. I always wanted people to see my brother for who he was, and for people to help me get out of my abusive home situation. As a result of my life experiences, I have a deep sense of empathy for, and a desire to help, disadvantaged people. It has become my life’s mission to help people care and connect with themselves, and others.


When the CEO of SolanaDoug Nafziger, and I magically and serendipitously ran into one another on the street one day, I guess I wasn’t too surprised. Solana is a software company whose focus is to give caretakers more time to care for the IDD (intellectual and/or developmental disability) community.


Doug shouted at me across the street, “Hey, were you ears burning? I was just talking to my team about who could help us with leadership development training, and you came to mind.”


I laughed because, well, always in the back of my mind, I’m thinking about working with companies and schools who want to help disadvantaged people live better lives. And since I’m a firm believer that God directs the universe to connect people to what they subconsciously desire most, I just looked up at the heavens, after exchanging a date to connect with Doug, and said, “Thank you!”


Doug asked me to deliver monthly leadership development trainings to a few new up-and-coming leaders at Solana in the area of purpose, understanding your why, diversity and inclusion, and empathy. Of course, I was overjoyed as these are topics I frequently speak about, and consult with companies and schools on. I submitted a proposal to Solana and they agreed to hire me. I was thrilled.



After three months of training, further review of the employee survey results, and submitting a written summary of findings, I suggested to Solana that we do a deeper dive with all of the employees in the areas of emotional intelligence and empathy. We both agreed that if Solana employees increased their emotional intelligence and empathy aptitude, innovation would increase.


Doug met with his leadership team and he set out to redefine innovation and what that means at Solana, creating Solana’s very own “innovation ecosystem,” and wrote a plan to enhance innovation. And I’m grateful that their professional development plans included me.


As it turns out, Doug is not alone. He is right in step with some of the most insightful CEOs in the tech industry, according to the 2016 Empathy Index, namely, Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft. As you may know, Microsoft’s stock was in the tank for several years, and only in recent years has its stock prices increased, and most recently, gone through the roof. If you ask Satya, he’d say the reason is because of empathy. Yes, that’s right, empathy.


In Satya’s book, Hit Refresh, The Quest to Rediscover Microsoft’s Soul and Imagine a Better Future for Everyone, he gets very personal and writes about the impact that the birth of his son, Zain, had upon him. His son was born with cerebral palsy. Satya was devastated. Satya’s wife, Anu, taught him a valuable lesson weeks after Zain’s birth, and this lesson transformed Satya’s world view, and his view of Microsoft, and that was they needed to have “deep empathy for Zain’s pain and his circumstances, while accepting their responsibility as his parents.” That was it.


From there, Satya gained a “deeper understanding of people of all abilities and of what love and human ingenuity can accomplish.” You’ll hear Satya frequently say, “Empathy makes you a better innovator. If I look at the most successful products we [at Microsoft] have created, it comes from one’s ability to meet the unmet, unarticulated needs of customers.”


Empathy is the key to innovation.


If this innovation mindset, of zeroing in on empathy, can transform tech companies, like Solana and Microsoft, it can transform a school, an organization, heck, even a family. After all, empathy is about understanding how our emotions impact others, and making change as a result.


Ask yourself, do you practice empathy on a daily basis? Is empathy a key strategy for you at your school, or at your organization? If not, I suggest you get busy making empathy come alive.


Contact me if you are interested in learning more about how I structured my proposal to Solana, what books I referenced in my trainings, or if you are interested in having me speak or consult with your school or organization.
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© 2019 by Diana Patton