How CMOs Cultivate Empathy

In recent weeks, I’ve hosted dozens of CMOs and marketing leaders on virtual panels discussing leadership in the presence of COVID-19. Here’s a link to the June 16 Marketing Society panel on Managing Global Team’s Virtually.

As I listened to those leaders, an overarching theme emerged. An abstract term that’s been overused but little understood. But in my conversations, it became very tangible. And that’s the theme of empathy. To me, empathy looks at reality to understand others’ feelings, and acts to connect with them. 

COVID-19 represents a reality characterized by myriad unknowns; how we deal with it is a choice characterized by immense opportunity. Many of the marketing leaders and the organizations they represent are exhibiting tremendous empathy in the decisions they are making today, and the commitments they are forging for the future. In my analysis, three beliefs stand out in how leading CMOs are cultivating empathy.

Marketing leadership is a contact sport
There is no empathy without proximity. The leaders gain empathy through direct experience. Anchored in a clear sense of brand purpose and buoyed by curiosity and a high degree of humility, the leaders seek out diverse views, foster openness, listen deeply (to their teams and all stakeholders) and integrate the learning across their organizations and the community. In so doing, they are leading with relevance and impact. 

Agility is powered by flexibility
Empathy is not a goal; it’s a mechanism to help leaders accomplish goals. The leaders illuminate the power of empathy in action. They continually refresh their perspectives, disengage from marketing goals and old paradigms that are no longer meaningful to focus on what really matters in the current context. In so doing, they are inspiring high levels of employee engagement and unleashing dramatic creativity, remarkable innovation and undaunting resolve.

Empathy at scale is an operating principle
The leaders appreciate that empathy is most potent when it is an organizational capability practiced habitually and not merely a quality of select individuals deployed in a crisis. They recognize that you can’t mandate empathy. By demonstrating solidarity, challenging old assumptions and encouraging collective resilience, the marketing leaders are creating the conditions that generate the kind of culture where curiosity, inclusion and compassion are valued and expected, and in so doing, they are nurturing empathetic organizations.

As I write this piece, racial inequality is at the forefront of all our hearts and minds, both compounding and displacing the concerns surrounding COVID-19 and the pandemic’s economic impact. While the path to solutions to these issues is paved with complexity, one thing is certain—cultivating empathy is an essential part of the answer.

Margaret Molloy, Chair of The Marketing Society New York Hub and Global CMO of global brand experience firm, Siegel+Gale.



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