Michelle Schafer on Empathy and Connection as Business Tools
Michelle Schafer is the Owner and Career Coach of Michelle Schafer Coaching
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 love learning about the career stories of my clients, and how I got into coaching is a story on its own. I've been restructured twice and reinvented myself twice in my career – first from financial services to not-for-profit, then not-for-profit to small business ownership (just over 8 years ago!) as a coach and the owner of Michelle Schafer Coaching. I joke that at age 46, I finally knew what I wanted to do when I grew up. A good coaching friend planted the seed over a decade ago, as I had always coached as part of my job - then, when my position was eliminated a second time, I started networking with coaches to learn more and find out about their coaching specialization and what coaching school they went to. I realized after taking my first level coaching certification that this was something I wanted to do as a career (not just off the side of my desk), so I established my own practice and, because of my own transition experience, chose to focus my coaching in the career space. I love Simon Sinek’s “The Power of Why”. I believe that everyone deserves to find a career that allows them to do work that gives them energy, for a company that believes what they believe in. That’s my “why”, and it applies whether you are a leader or whether you are exploring a new career path. This purpose is the same today as it was 8 years ago when I started my business. Leadership is more than leading teams - it's also about leading through influence with peers, clients and partners. As a sole proprietor, I don't have anyone reporting to me, so my leadership comes through when I work with clients, engage with partners, and interact with peer coach colleagues. Three words that I live my life by are "simplicity, authenticity, and intent", and I bring these into my leadership every day. Simplicity - focusing on the core issue, moving around drama/politics, and addressing issues early before they become big problems. Authenticity - bringing all of "me" and my true self to my leadership - my own style, not someone else's. Intent - to be intentional in all my words and actions, and to set my intent before meetings on how I want to "be" in that conversation so I can line up my actions to this intent.
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?
I learned a lot about the importance of human leadership from my clients. Leaders need to bring a human element to their leadership today – it’s more than meeting strategic objectives or communicating a vision. And in the career transition work I do, I see that people leave leaders – not jobs. Leaders today need be emotionally intelligent – to be able to understand the experience of the other person, and all the emotions that go with it. In “coach-speak”, I like to say this is “seeing as” (borrowed from my Integral coach training) – being able to see the world from the perspective of the other person, as best as you can. Leaders also need to demonstrate curiosity – to ask questions, and listen intently – and both of these show a leader’s ability to be fully present and ready to support team members. Building trust and psychological safety have become even more important now – it's the foundation for a positive working relationship, and coaching can’t happen without it. Leaders can demonstrate their vulnerability – and when leaders share that they make mistakes and learn from them, it makes it easier for others to do so. Clients and those who are close to me describe me as warm, honest, empathetic, and a good listener. I am genuinely interested in people and am inspired by their progress. I create a safe and comfortable environment that helps people relax and talk openly, and ask thought-provoking questions to encourage curiosity. I bring all of this to my leadership, and it shows up in my client work, as well as conversations with peers and partners.
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?
I’ve participated in leadership development programs, and work extensively with leaders to explore their challenges in both 1:1 coaching sessions and in groups. But if I don’t bring this to my interactions and conversations, I’m not a leader. Leading by example is key, and modelling leadership behaviours to others. When I work with my leadership clients, or facilitate leadership development workshops, I model active listening, empathy, asking powerful questions and feedback delivery. This way people can experience leadership in action – what it looks like, and what it feels like. As a coach and business owner, if I'm not connecting with others, I'm not supporting my clients in the best way, I'm not attracting prospective clients to want to work with me and I'm not going to get former clients to refer me to others. I have the first opportunity to build connection when I'm meeting with prospective clients - people who are interested in working with a career coach, and they are deciding whether that coach will be me. I ask questions to gain a better understanding of their challenges and what support they need, and listen closely to what they share. I'll frame what they are sharing, will check out what I'm hearing to ensure I have the correct understanding, and will help them articulate the emotion underneath their challenge. Since I've experienced career transition twice in my life, I bring empathy into the conversation, as I remember all too well what it was like to experience job loss and needing to find something new, not being sure what steps to take.
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?
Leaders can intentionally dial into the experience of the other person.For example, if a team member shows frustration, ask yourself “what’s most important to this team member, in this moment”.This shift in perspective also creates awareness, and can help leaders better understand the responses and reactions of team members.The magic is in the communication – talking to the team member after to explore how they are, can demonstrate a leader’s ability to be fully present for their team and their commitment to support.
When leaders approach conversations with a spirit of curiosity, they can demonstrate their empathy in an authentic way.Questions like "help me better understand...." allows you to gather more information to deepen your understanding of that person's experience or issues they are struggling with.When you say "I imagine that might be frustrating for you", you are not directly sharing their experience, but rather articulating that you are trying to understand it from their perspective.
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?
For me, well-being and boundaries go hand in hand. If I'm saying yes to everything (and everyone) else, then I'm likely saying no to myself a lot. As much as I enjoy meeting people and building positive and productive relationships with them, there are times I realize I need to take a step back and take a break from these interactions. Making myself a priority is important - I'll consistently take Friday afternoons off for me to do something that feeds my soul, like a bike ride, forest hike or swim. Last week, I took two days off from client work in order to prepare and recover from a standard medical procedure. Having this time away from 1:1 time with clients allowed me to focus on my business and get caught up on rest. Focusing on myself allowed me to come back to my clients feeling relaxed and organized.
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?
In our rushed world, it can be hard to slow down. And yet slowing down is the best thing a leader can do to enhance their emotional intelligence. Pause, observe what’s happening, and reflect. What was your contribution in that situation -and what’s one thing you could build on/do differently next time? Reflection heightens awareness, and awareness is the precursor to development and change. And even as my business has grown over the years, I've maintained the same commitment to bringing my humanity into my leadership as I did on day one. If I'm not able to bring this everyday to my clients, partners and peers, then it's a sign to me that I need to slow down, reflect on what's happening and determine what new decisions I need to make. If I'm not bringing my authenticity to my work, then I need to figure out why.
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?
The top qualities I’ll encourage my clients to bring to their leadership are: empathy, collaboration, curiosity, support, humanity and encouragement. To operationalize these, I like to give my clients the language to help them integrate and demonstrate. Leaders can say “how can I help?”, “what challenges are you facing?”, “how are YOU?” (and not meaning how is the individual in the context of their work), “if you say yes to X, what are you saying no to?” or “what ideas do you have/how would you solve this problem?”. Creating psychological safety is important to buliding connection and belonging – in order to create a high-performing team, leaders need to create an environment where team members feel comfortable to raise challenges or make mistakes. And the foundation of this environment is trust – engaging in activities and behaviours that enhance trust, and avoid behaviours that erode trust. Simply asking “what am I missing?”, “let’s hear some dissent”, “this is new so we will make mistakes” or “I need help” can go a long way in creating that safety. To add to the leader toolbox, I highly recommend “The Psychological Safety Playbook: Lead More Powerfully By Being More Human” by Karolin Helbig and Minette Norman – the 25 “plays” outlined in the book are easy to implement ways to enhance safety in teams, and specific ways to build connections with team members.
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?
Clients have shared that they feel seen, heard and understood with me. They appreciate my ability to reflect their situation back to them, and help them develop a plan to take concrete steps forward to meet their goal. And because clients appreciate this, they tell others, which results in new business. My leadership principles come through in my introductory conversation with prospective clients, and continues throughout the coaching engagement, right to the very end. My clients continue to experience my leadership even after they finish working with me - it's not uncommon for me to keep in touch with clients after to see how things are going and if there is anything I can do to help. In fact, just last week I heard from a client I worked with 5 years ago. She's now looking for a new job and was setting up a networking conversation. She shared "As I was reaching out to this person and setting up the meeting, it made me think about you and everything you taught me. You have made a lasting impact on my life and career. I just want to say thank you."