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Jay Zigmont on Empathy and Connection as Business Tools

Jay Zigmont, PhD, MBA, CFP® is the founder of Childfree Wealth and understands the importance of empathy in the workplace. They took some time out to share their insights on this topic with The Industry Leaders.

Can you start by telling us about your entrepreneurial journey? What led you to your current business, and what is it that sets your leadership style apart from others?

I have always been an entrepreneur in one way or another. My first business was as a kid selling pine cones. I started Childfree Wealth to provide life and financial planning to Childfree and Permanently Childless people. As far as I know it is the only financial planning firm dedicated to serving the nearly 25% of the US population who don't have kids and aren't planning on having kids.

My PhD is in Adult Learning and that informs my leadership style. As a leader my focus is on building a team and helping them learn. Each of my staff members gets regular feedback and support to ensure they are always learning. It is common for my staff to learn that they achieve more than they ever thought as long as they are in a supportive environment.

You've been recognized for your focus on empathy and human connection within your organization. How did you come to realize the importance of these values in leadership, and how have they shaped the way you run your business?

Our business centers around building strong relationships both with customers and among staff. To build relationships and create an environment of growth, you need to focus on empathy and human connection. We are helping our clients through some of the toughest times in their lives, and that takes its toll on us.

For example, if you are helping a client with how to care for an aging parent, it is natural to think about your own life and caring for your parents. I've been caring for my mother in one way or another most of my life, and caregiver fatigue is real. It is the same in many ways for my staff. We actively debrief calls and events to support each other, and it is not odd to have tears rolling down both with clients and amongst us. Building good connections and support are central to our success.

Can you share an example of a situation where employing empathy and connection as business tools made a significant positive difference in your organization? What were the challenges and outcomes?

Since we serve Childfree people, we regularly get judged and hateful social media posts. When Roe was overturned, the judgment towards Childfree people seemed to multiply. Our realization was that while we are getting judged, so are many of our clients. We have built a series of support networks both within and outside our company to provide empathy and connection when the hate comes. We have learned that the hate is not truly directed at us, but is misplaced and we can all support each other. The comment section on one press article got particularly heated. One of my dear friends stepped in and took on the trolls, which was what I needed for support. Without her empathy and our connection, I'm not sure I'd be as strong now.

Empathy can often be misunderstood or oversimplified in a business context. How do you define it in your leadership practice, and how do you ensure that it's applied authentically?

Empathy is part of the human nature that allows us to share feelings and be there for each other. We all need support at different times, and empathy is at the core of that support. Life and business are not truly separated and to be our best we need support in both. Support can be as simple as being a good listener, or as complex as working through tough emotions and life. We need to practice empathy for ourselves, our staff, and our clients. We also need to understand that there are limits and some days you can 'run out' of empathy and that is normal.

Connection is not just about understanding others but also connecting with oneself. How do you maintain a balance between personal well-being and fostering connections with your team?

I'm working on my own personal well being. I focus much more on my team's well being than my own, and I know that is not right. I lead with a servant's heart, and that often means sacrificing myself. It is an area I'm working on as I have to find a balance and be a role model. I'm thankful to members of my team who help check me and call me out on it.

In terms of scalability, how do you maintain these human-centered values as your business grows? What strategies or tools have you found most effective?

Scaling an empathetic company with a great learning environment is my biggest professional challenge. My hope is to build these concepts into the culture of the company and to be sure to hire right to keep that culture healthy. We recently hired on a new staff member and added a question "Why do you want to serve Childfree people?" to the initial screening. It was enlightening to see people's answers and where their heart is. Hiring the right people who want to serve and support others is going to be key, and may slow down our growth. I'm ok with slowing down growth if it results in the right environment as we scale.

For those who are new to leadership or are struggling to build empathy and connection within their teams, what practical advice can you offer? Are there any exercises or habits that can be cultivated?

If you are struggling, it is time to hire a coach to help you. Having a coach or mentor who can speak into your practice or life is key. I remember one particular executive coach having a huge impact on shifting my mindset. Our interaction went this way: He asked - How are your results (1-10)? I said, about a 10. He then asked - How are your relationships? (1-10). I said, about a 6. His answer - that's a problem. It took me years to understand that conversation, but the reflection helped me to understand my growth area. You need someone who can call you out on your empathy and connection, even if your results are amazing.

You've shared some truly insightful thoughts on leadership. How have these principles been reflected in your products or services, and what has been the response from your customers?

We embrace the same learning principles with our clients as with our team. It has resulted in great growth that beats any industry benchmark, but it has also resulted in some great relationships. Our customers are just as engaged in our growth as we are. They are our biggest cheerleaders, as we are theirs.

Finally, for our readers who are interested in learning more about your leadership philosophy or your business, where can they find more information or connect with you directly?


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