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Jennifer Maxson on Empathy and Connection as Business Tools

Jennifer Maxson is the President of Jennifer Maxson & Associates 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?

For the last 27 years, I have been in the space of Leadership Development. During this time I have been in roles such as marketing, communications, business development, training, coaching, operations, and leadership. I had spent 14 years running a business unit for a larger organization, but in 2017 I was ready to leap into entrepreneurship.

The mission of Jennifer Maxson & Associates is to Enhance the Credibility of Leaders. Our purpose is to support leaders at all levels in an organization to Lead to the Max! We do this by partnering with our clients to deliver programs and coaching services in the areas of communication, presentation, leading change, and leadership. What sets us apart is that we are focused on real-world scenarios with participants in our services. Those who go through our programs and coaching sessions leave with tools and strategies that can be implemented immediately in their job.

My leadership style is servant leadership. I am focused on how I can help my team and the organization achieve its purpose and mission. It is a leader’s responsibility to think about tomorrow while supporting the team that is taking care of today.

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?

Over the years, I have observed organizations that have not been focused on human connection. Individuals were expected to create a certain output for their role, no matter the circumstances. These organizations also lacked empathy, offering no flexibility or support to help employees balance their personal and professional lives. The frustration, burnout, and exiting of key talent were just expected.

One of my core values is building meaningful relationships. When I started Jennifer Maxson & Associates, my desire was to create a culture focused on human connection. I wanted an organization that supports each team member as a whole person. We all have a life that happens outside of the business. By combining connection with empathy, my goal is to support team members so that they can be present in their personal lives and help the organization grow. I have found this combination brings fulfillment to the team, allows the organization to grow, and allows us to show up as our best selves to our clients.

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?

Every year as a team we dedicate time to revisit and revise our business roadmap. This involves asking ourselves about our dreams and wishes and what we aspire to be. We answer this question individually and share it with the team. We then look at the organization as a whole and ask, what does Jennifer Maxson & Associates aspire to be? The responses are inspiring. The practice allows everyone to hear and share what is most important to them. Doing this has strengthened connection, commitment, and accountability within the team. When something does not go as planned and a team member is disappointed, empathy helps us regroup and revise the plan. The challenge is allowing time for everyone to wonder and to listen for understanding. It is easy to start evaluating ideas before we have even committed to the idea. The outcome is that the roadmap is built by the team and is more inspiring than if I created it myself.

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?

For me, empathy means truly seeing and comprehending the entirety of a person, along with their unique circumstances and experiences. That includes seeing a situation from their perspective, without judgment. Recognizing the emotion helps me hold the space for the individual and myself. Authentic empathy is about finding a connection. We have all experienced a friend or family member who doesn’t understand our situation and judges our response. This becomes frustrating and can create negative thoughts and emotions that drive us away.

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?

It is easy to be so outwardly focused on others that you forget about yourself. As a certified professional coach and business owner, I spend my days focused on the business. Our team has designated time for being together and to meet individually, to build connections and drive the business forward.

What I have learned is that I also need my own coach. This allows me to refocus on what is most important without losing myself in the process. This year, I’ve implemented two strategies to help me do this. First, I’ve been investing in myself through professional development. I have found that participating in continuing coach education opportunities has provided time for personal well-being. I enjoy learning new concepts and making new friends. This time dedicated to learning and growth has provided me with new self-awareness and renewed energy to try different approaches. I also encourage my team to find professional development opportunities. The second strategy I’ve employed is blocking off time to allow myself space to think and explore new opportunities. It is easy to get lost in the day-to-day and client delivery of services. Blocking off time gives me space to get caught up on items that are taking up mental space, explore new opportunities, and even take a walk if needed.

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?

As I am looking at the scalability of the business, my focus is to identify what programs and services are most requested, what clients and industries are requesting these services, and who on the team is delivering the programs and services. Once I have this information, I can meet with my team members to have a conversation about their capacity and energy for these services.

The framework of Strategy - Structure - People helps me build my plan. When looking at Strategy it is important to map out key initiatives, tasks, and realistic timelines. This information is then used to determine what structure and systems need to be put into place for the strategy to be successful. I can then determine who is the best person on the team to help us move this strategy forward.Since I am focused on authentic connection, I can communicate clearly with the team during growth. Empathy comes into play as we celebrate the wins and honor the challenges along the way.

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?

Team health is important for everyone on the team. Empathy and connection are linked to trust. When we trust each other, we can share what is working and the challenges without fear of finger-pointing. This means that we need to get to know each other as fellow humans.

To build empathy, connection, and trust, we suggest using Everything DiSC Workplace assessments. As a Wiley-authorized partner, we can offer our clients this tool, which provides insights into your style and the style of others. What I love is the self-awareness this tool brings. For example, it helps people understand their priorities. My priorities are Enthusiasm, Collaboration, and Support. Another person’s priorities could be Challenge, Results, and Action. This helps us understand each other and why we may respond differently to the same situation.

We also suggest finding time for one-on-one meetings with others on your team. Ask open-ended questions to learn more about what motivates them, what they are most proud of, their stressors and challenges, and how you can support them. The key is to listen for understanding, not to respond to every comment.

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?

One way we build connections in our programs and services is by starting new client engagement with a customization meeting. We want to understand the client’s mission, vision, values, and key strategic initiatives. By understanding the big picture for the organization with real-world examples, we can make a connection with participants in our programs and services. Our coaches and facilitators demonstrate empathy when individuals are struggling to make decisions or create their plans to move forward. Some of the best compliments we hear from clients are that this program or service was tailored to their specific needs, that it helped them determine the best plan forward, and that it helped them to see another perspective.

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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