You wouldn’t think that a book about empathy in the workplace could possibly draw inspiration from someone whose home turf is the cutthroat New York marketing agency world that inspired Mad Men.

However, when Drew Neisser penned “How to Grow Marketing Innovation In-House” for the May 18, 2016 edition of Ad Age, I practically stood up and applauded as I read.

Drew is the CEO of Renegade, a New York-based marketing agency, as well as the author of “The CMO’s Periodic Table: A Renegade’s Guide to Marketing.” I’ve met Drew a couple of times and he has probably spoken to more CMOs than anyone. I love his message of being a marketing renegade (put customers first) to succeed. So he’s not really a NYC “ad man.” He’s a CMO whisperer. And a super smart leader in the marketing and business world.

But the fact that the traditional advertising industry media giant Ad Age would print Neisser’s interview with a CMO whose entire management style depends on empathy to drive the company’s revenue skyward caught my eye.

The CMO? Trish Mueller, Home Depot’s award-winning marketing guru.

Quick Takeaways:

If you don’t have time to read our article, at least look at how empathy has fostered the kind of innovation that put Home Depot at the top of its niche. Here are Mueller’s principles:

  • Listen to everyone, from interns to the C-suite.
  • Be approachable.
  • Encourage innovation and risk-taking.
  • Reward those employees who follow their heart to risk it all for your customers.

Here’s how Mueller leveraged empathy to create marketing magic for the home improvement giant.

Listen to Ideas from Everyone – at Every Level

Drew Neisser called it right. Even Home Depot’s innovative marketing strategy grows organically “at all levels of the company – a true DIY venture.” The company’s mission, it seems, extends into every aspect of how it does business.

A clue to Mueller’s internal motivation lies in her self-characterization as a “people person.” As such, she mines the collective brainpower of not only her colleagues in the marketing industry but also those inside the Home Depot marketing team – from the interns and junior copywriters to the departmental brass.

Her secret is her ability to listen to others, no matter what the title on the nameplate. Knowing from experience that in many companies, innovation dies at the hands of the bureaucratic mentality, Mueller goes out of her way to encourage everyone – even at the lowest levels of the company – to share their marketing ideas.

Be Approachable – Learn to Put Yourself in Others’ Shoes

Approachability isn’t a quality that most CMOs cultivate. As decision-makers, hirers, and firers, they tend to take a top-down approach.

Not Mueller. She works “very hard” to cultivate the kind of approachability that might lead an intern to volunteer her latest idea – a spark that might just ignite the next winning marketing campaign for the company.

She illustrates a central theme that runs throughout my book as well – empathy is a learned ability – one that one can develop through a listening ear, a profound awareness of others’ needs and desires, and a desire to grow one’s capacity for putting oneself in another’s shoes.

Encourage Innovation, Risks, and Customer-Centric Thinking

When you cultivate empathy, you open yourself up to innovation. As Mueller puts it, “[Y]ou’ll never hear about it [innovation] unless you dig in with the team.”

Not only does she listen, but when a team member comes up with a “big idea,” she gives them credit. Instead of tooting her own horn, Mueller puts her team on center stage. In the constantly changing, “unpredictable” world of today’s marketing, she uses those ideas as fuel to soar to the front of the digital frontier.

Empathy and profit often seem like polar opposites. But think about it. That’s the Scrooge mentality.

Scrooge isn’t about building profit, but rather about holding on to what he has. That’s the scarcity mentality.

Innovation, however, yields an abundance mentality. Innovative people see profit and potential in practically everything.

No one can innovate with a Scrooge-like boss hovering over them. No one can innovate when every idea meets with a “We’ve never done it that way before” or, worse, a put-down.

Home Depot, thanks to Mueller, is different. Its cauldron of innovation has brewed up a wealth of marketing breakthroughs that have put them atop their industry, outpacing strong brands like Lowe’s and Menards.

A mobile app that allows customers to navigate through their local store to find the products they came to buy saves time and earns praise from its grateful customers. Traditionally, many stores prefer to let customers wander the aisles, believing that impulse purchases will build profits.

Unfortunately, in today’s customer-centric world, service is what builds loyalty. And, loyalty is what builds long-term streams of revenue. Not only that, but loyal customers who can get in and out in minutes, not hours, will likely tell their neighbors and friends about how convenient it is to shop there.

Other employee-inspired ideas include their popular in-store DIY workshops. Not only do these workshops help homeowners save money, but they also position the store’s expertise and products as the solutions to their home improvement challenges. Building that kind of authority is marketing gold that goes well beyond a mere campaign to build customers for life.

And, it all starts with empathy. Mueller’s empathy with her team seems to be contagious. These innovative ideas are the fruits of empathy – empathy with Home Depot’s customers.

Those kinds of results didn’t happen overnight, Neisser points out. Mueller grew her innovation incubator through careful planning and a willingness to take risks. As she put it, she developed a “dynamic culture of curiosity and courage, and… a fast test-and-learn mentality across the entire team…”

The Agile manifesto, Mueller style. One that doesn’t depend only on new bureaucracies of scrum masters and product owners. In fact, the words “masters” and “owners” aren’t a part of the Home Depot vocabulary.

All the genius of the customer-oriented Agile breakthrough – with a few ghosts of failures past thrown in. All with a goal to encourage the empathy that is missing in many other workplaces, Agile or not.

Recruit Risk-Takers and Innovators

At Home Depot, empathy – and therefore, innovation – begins at recruitment. Instead of seeking out people with the “right” credentials, Mueller looks for “raw talent,” those applicants who have an empathetic, innovative mindset. For a “big-box store,” Mueller specifically looks for outside-the-box thinkers to create a long-term workforce that will maintain the focus on others, rather than the navel-gazing that so often characterizes large corporations.

Reward Employees Who Take Risks to Please Customers

Mueller also encourages those employees who take risks. No longer will an employee face the traditional chewing-out when an idea fails. Every quarter, she awards employees whose ideas have helped her department grow, no matter if the ideas worked or not.

That’s empathy at its finest.

Want to put that same power of empathy to work for your organization? Please consider picking up your copy of Mean People Suck today, and get the bonus visual companion guide as well. Or check out our services to help evolve your culture. And I would be thrilled to come present to your team on the power of empathy. Get in touch with me today!

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