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Reflect What You See

The simplest way to have empathy for other people is to be just like them. Studies show that girls have an easier time understanding other girls and boys find it easier to understand other boys. People with common political leanings demonstrate a similar ability to connect. For companies, it’s not surprising, then, that the quickest way to gain empathy is to hire your customers. Harley-Davidson is a great example of a company that has generated a widespread sense of empathy based on their employees’ own experiences as riders. And that empathy starts in the parking lot.

A parking lot says a lot about a company. It can reflect an organization’s hierarchy, its values, and how it sees the world. Some companies reserve the first row of parking for their customers. Others designate the best spots for senior management. At Harley-Davidson’s headquarters, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a posted metal sign clearly states the company’s priorities: “No cages. Motorcycle parking only.” The second sentence is a translation for guests who don’t speak motorcycle slang. Cages are what riders call automobiles, vehicles that lock people away from the wide, open world. You just drove over in a Ford Taurus that you rented at the airport? Welcome to Harley-Davidson. Parking is in the back.

Visitors to the company’s headquarters soon discover that the parking lot rule is a sign of things to come. Harley-Davidson’s office is a shrine to the motorcycle culture that the company has helped to create. Walking down an aisle of otherwise ordinary office cubicles, you’re confronted by an endless display of photos, signs, and exquisitely painted motorcycle gas tanks. On one wall, snapshots capture scenes from one employee’s recent bike ride down the Gulf Coast of Florida. Other walls proudly display banners from rallies and other events, including the pilgrimage that hundreds of thousands of riders make every year to Sturgis, South Dakota. Each floor of the building is named for a different Harley engine, from the V-Twin to the Evolution. Tables in the conference rooms are constructed from sheets of glass balanced on top of engine blocks. In some parts of the building, the air itself smells like leather.

Interesting and eclectic, the motorcycle memorabilia at Harley-Davidson isn’t just for show. Every picture is a trophy, a placeholder for the larger story that Harley-Davidson’s riders write together, customers and employees alike. People walking through the office invariably sport T-shirts and vests emblazoned with logos and place names, their clothing helping to paint a picture of the Harley lifestyle.

What’s striking about Harley-Davidson is how people throughout the company, from the engineers in manufacturing to the accountants in finance, have an intuitive understanding of the riders who buy their products. The company cherishes this relationship and goes so far as to mandate that leaders throughout the organization spend measurable amounts of time out with motorcycle riders. It’s important to point out that riding a motorcycle isn’t a prerequisite to work at Harley-Davidson. Many people at the company don’t. Nevertheless, the company is able to instill its values in employees who’ve never ridden a bike. It’s not enough for Harley to simply hire its customers. Riders must have empathy with nonriders and vice versa. Cages are as unwelcome in Harley-Davidson’s business philosophy as they are in its parking lot.

Harley’s greatest period of success so far occurred between 1986 and 2006. While American car companies lost billions of dollars and laid off employees in ever-greater numbers, Harley enjoyed uninterrupted double-digit growth. Conventional wisdom dictated that U.S. companies entrenched in manufacturing were burdened with high labor costs and excessive benefits packages, but Harley continued to make its motorcycles where it always has, in Wisconsin, while paying top dollar to its unionized workforce. Harley motorcycles commanded a premium over competitors from Japan and Europe, and people snapped up every single unit that the company could produce. A Harley-Davidson motorcycle came to stand in a class by itself, revered for the distinctive growl of its engine and the out-of-bounds lifestyle it evoked. The timeframe of Harley’s sustained boom is no coincidence; that’s when Harley made widespread empathy a key element of corporate strategy.

Before that, the company was on the verge of bankruptcy as strong Japanese competitors eroded market share and introduced cheaper, lighter models that undercut all of Harley’s product line. In response, Harley refocused its attention away from itself and onto the people who rode its motorcycles. They energized the Harley Owners Group into an army of evangelists. Harley transformed itself into an icon of American freedom. The widespread empathy that Harley employees had for riders helped them make a thousand better decisions every day. Harley-Davidson commercialized new opportunities faster than its competitors, entered new businesses before success was certain, and enjoyed customer loyalty that was the envy of every other organization in the world.

When organizations like Harley are able to create that widespread sense of empathy, something interesting starts to happen. Over time, that implicit connection to the outside world helps blur the line between producers and consumers. Between inside the building and out. Between us and them. Harley likes to call the folks who buy its motorcycles riders, not customers, if only because so many Harley employees are riders themselves. As Lara Lee, Harley-Davidson’s former head of services so aptly put it, “We don’t spend a lot of time talking about ‘what consumers want.’ So far as we’re concerned, we are them and they are us.”

Harley’s connection to riders is so strong that it raises an interesting long-term challenge for the company, whose decades of earnings growth began to slow in 2007. How will Harley-Davidson connect to a new generation of young people who don’t want to ride what their parents did?

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