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Stepping Outside of Yourself

Harley’s imminent challenge is one that many organizations share. It isn’t always possible to be your customers (consider, for instance, a pharmaceutical company that makes drugs for terminally ill patients). In those cases, it’s necessary to do something more than reflect what you see. To continue to grow and prosper, you have to get outside of yourself and see the world through the eyes of other people.

Gina Beebe does that as much as anyone. She’s the head of design at American Girl, a doll maker and book publisher that’s beloved by young girls and parents alike. American Girl was founded by Pleasant Rowland, a uniquely imaginative leader who dedicated her life to creating dolls and stories that would help girls learn and grow. Each doll represents a different time and place in America, from Kaya, a Nez Perce Native American from 1764, to Julie, a girl with divorced parents living in 1974 San Francisco. American Girl does more than just make dolls—they make compelling stories that resonate deeply with how girls see the world. That’s hard to do year after year. I asked Gina how she does that, given that she herself isn’t an eight-year-old girl. She thought about it for a moment and then smiled, “You know...in a way, I kind of am.” Gina talked about the joy she gets from seeing little girls flock to the company’s newest dolls and books. And how she spends time reading the letters that young girls write to the company. And how the company posts those letters in the hallways for everyone to read and enjoy. Gina and the folks at American Girl are a wonderful example of how you can get yourself into someone else’s mindset—and how that person’s feelings can, in turn, get into you.

The ability to reach outside of yourself is even more important when you consider situations in which you need empathy for more than one type of person. Doctors, for example, can’t have empathy for only other patients their own age. Teachers can’t connect only with students who share their gender or ethnicity. For companies who seek to serve many different types of people, merely reflecting a single point of view isn’t enough. Indeed, the ability to empathize with multiple types of people can be the difference between success and failure over the long term.

The ability of Gina Beebe and her colleagues to step into the mind of an eight-year-old is the real secret behind American Girl’s success. It requires them to leave their own agendas behind, and actually care about how other people see the world. That’s a powerful concept, but not a particularly new one. In fact, it was Dale Carnegie who first articulated that dynamic nearly a century ago, in his book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Carnegie was one of the world’s first modern self-help gurus, and when you’re the first, you don’t need to be particularly surprising or counter-intuitive. In fact, his point was deceptively simple: If you want people to be interested in you, you should be genuinely interested in other people. That’s a pretty straightforward lesson with relatively major implications. It means that if you walk up to me at a party and ask me how I am, how my family is doing, what movies I’ve seen lately, and how things are going at work, you’re bound to get me engaged. In fact, by the time you walk away, I’ll be thinking, “Wow, I just met a really interesting person.” That’s because we talked about something I’m interested in—me! It’s just human nature to be interested in people who are interested in you. That little bit of advice can go a long way to making a person more likeable. It’s also a profound piece of advice for business. If you want to create products and services that other people care about, you should put aside your problems and start caring about other people’s lives.

Creating that sort of empathic connection to other people can have profound effects on a company, beyond increasing its growth rate. In many cases, it can give new meaning to the work that people do. And often in today’s world, it’s that sense of meaning that we lack most of all. Most companies can offer competitive salaries, vacation packages, health insurance, and retirement plans. But too few of them can demonstrate any sort of connection between the work that we do everyday and a positive impact on the wider world. Beyond mere survival and provision for our families, many of us don’t have a good reason to go to work in the morning. In addition to its economic impacts, increasing empathy for the people your company serves can help you see how much your job makes a difference in their lives. And that’s the greatest reward of all.

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