Nikki Butler on Empathy and Connection as Business Tools
Nikki Butler is the Founder of The Autistic Joyologist and Nikki Butler Skin Clinic 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 started my entrepreneurial journey over a decade ago, after experiencing corporate, autistic, and ADHD, following a decade-plus-long legal management career. I knew the moment I resigned that I was never going to return to that world, although I didn’t know at that stage what I was going to do. After a year of recovering from burnout, I slowly started to piece my life back together. As my confidence grew post-burnout, I set up a business in 2016 that has evolved and transformed into what today is known as The Nikki Butler Skin Clinic, a niche award-winning skin & scar clinic, where I specialise in advanced skin rejuvenation and treating self-injury scars. After being diagnosed autistic and ADHD in my mid-forties, I went on a deep journey of self-understanding and acceptance and transformed my life. My late diagnosis of autism and ADHD experience ignited a passion in me to support other women like me, female entrepreneurs, and leaders, to realign their lives and I am on a mission to ensure future generations of autistic and ADHD females do not re-relive the experiences that I, and many women like me, have had. My leadership style is born from a lifetime of never feeling as though I belong or fit in, and struggling to be seen and heard in a world that isn’t designed for me. I experienced some excruciatingly painful leadership styles during my 13 years in the corporate world and the effect of weak leadership can be devastating for individuals on the receiving end and organisations alike. My approach has always been to create space for every individual, where they feel safe to express themselves. I believe being a good leader is to treat everyone as a valued individual, to listen to their wants, their needs, and their goals, and then offer the support that is right for them. When you build a relationship based on trust, you are creating the best environment for others to flourish, and for them to feel fulfilled and appreciated. Seeing others fly and progress has always been the greatest feeling, knowing that my hand on their back, with a little guidance and support has helped them in some way is invaluable.
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 realised the importance of empathy and human connection as a result of not experiencing them during my own life. Living life as an undiagnosed autistic and ADHD woman for over four decades created immeasurable challenges within working environments for me. I struggled in many ways and invested an incredible amount of energy into covering up my challenges and the things I believed to be my failings. The leadership styles I experienced were cold and distant and the leadership teams in organisations were often feared and few were trusted. There was such a disconnect between the leaders and those in the core of the business, that there was no connection or trust. When I became a leader and started managing big teams, I knew instinctively that I wanted to create a different environment. I wanted my teams and peers to trust me, and to feel that I valued them as individuals. I fostered highly successful teams that delivered because they knew I had their backs when things didn’t go to plan. As I progressed through my leadership career, managing larger and more complex teams, I realised the power of my approach and the loyalty I received from my team. I also saw some of my team members leap ahead of me in their careers and become leaders themselves. I felt proud when I saw that they too were emulating some of the leadership qualities and skills that I had shared with them, and following in my footsteps. In my opinion, human connection and empathy are crucial in leadership. When you have these components at the core of your leadership style, then you will build teams that feel valued, safe, and motivated. As a result, the culture in an organisation becomes one of trust, compassion, and human focus, which is where the magic happens in terms of performance.
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?
At my skin & scar clinic, I specialise in treating self-injury scars. I don’t have self-injury scars myself so there isn’t a natural connection or understanding there. Those who come to me for this treatment are incredibly brave, as often I am the first person they have opened up to and in many circumstances the only person that has seen their scars in many years. I wouldn’t be able to do what I do, without deep empathy and connection. The way that I have become an expert in this field is to build trust through sharing videos and content that give them a little insight into me. I’ve shared my own stories of different trauma scars and I have created an entirely non-judgemental space where they feel they can be vulnerable. I take time to understand each client and I care deeply about their experience through their treatment program. As a result, I’ve won multiple awards for customer service, which is down to having empathy and connection as a core business component. With The Autistic Joyologist, empathy and connection are the magic ingredients. I can deeply empathise and connect with my clients and audience because I am her. The path to achieving this is through being vulnerable and sharing my own experiences, which creates a ripple effect and lets others know they are not alone, it gives them an instant feeling of connection and belonging and they know that I understand their experiences. Leadership extends beyond my daily practices, as I believe that when you’re a leader, an expert in your industry, you set the standards for others. I extend my leadership style to all interactions both in and outside of my organisation.
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?
I perhaps have a slightly different take on empathy than some. I believe that empathy is about listening to another person’s experiences and feelings, and believing that they are true and real, even if I can’t directly relate to them. I don’t try and force myself to fully understand what they are telling me, because my own experiences will be very different. I create a space where they feel safe and able to talk openly with me, knowing that they will be met with compassion, understanding, and support. I won’t assume to know exactly how they feel and I won’t assume that I have the answers for them. I listen, in an open and nonjudgmental way, and I ask them what they need to feel supported in that moment. I might share my own experiences if relevant, but with an appreciation that I don’t know exactly what they are going through, even if the circumstances seem similar. When I think about empathy and particularly applying it in a business context, it’s about creating that connection and trust, where someone knows that they can come to you and safely share their experiences or ask for help. I feel that my approach is authentic because I am always focused on the individual and never make assumptions. I can have empathy from a place of truly listening and believing what I am being told. This is something I value greatly myself, and as it’s not been a part of my life, I know the difference this approach can make. A common misconception about being autistic is a lack of empathy, I would say the opposite is true in many circumstances, especially when it comes to authentic leadership. I believe that autistic and ADHD female leaders are extraordinary and have deep compassion on many levels. Spending our lives desperately seeking connection, belonging, and understanding, we have this innate desire to create this for others, qualities that I believe make for wonderful leaders.
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 couldn’t agree more! After my autism and ADHD diagnosis, I spent a lot of time getting to know myself as the neurodiverse woman I am. I revisited the personal development tools I’d used over the last decade and I spent time to deeply understand myself. As a result, I created my working model, RADIATE and this was where The Autistic Joyologist was born! It was through deeply understanding myself and fostering self-compassion and kindness, that I was able to transform my life. I use my RADIATE model to stay connected to my values daily and to make sure that the decisions I am making in all areas of my life are aligned with the values I hold. My values are my guiding compass, and they help me to ensure that I am looking after myself, as well as my business and team. I feel that being honest and open with those that I work with and collaborate with, has been the key to creating meaningful connections and building strong relationships. I know in myself when I need to step back a little, and I have a great team around me that understands why and supports me. I lead by example, and when I demonstrate that I am looking after myself it gives others the green light to do the same, which means they are comfortable with coming to me when they need something. When I was in corporate the culture was to keep on pushing, to do more, and to be more. My life was not my own. These experiences ensured that the way I manage my businesses is the polar opposite of this. Of course, in the early days when it was just me, I was working far more than was healthy for me, but I had come from a culture where the message was that nothing was ever enough, and it took time to distance myself from those behaviours, without feeling guilty. Fortunately, I now have a very balanced approach which allows me to look after my own needs, whilst running businesses that are thriving and bring me great joy.
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?
Here are the key 5 ways that I ensure these values remain at the core of my business.
1. Lead by example. I think this is key as a leader. Others will look to me to see how they are ‘supposed’ to act. I need to be visibly demonstrating and living by these values, daily.
2. Have clear guidance and training on the values that are so important within my business. Making sure that not only the team, but others that I collaborate with or that carry out work for me, understand my values and my approach so that we can be consistent. Having these values written down and regularly incorporated into training can help keep these at the core of the team's mind.
3. Bringing in the right team members who have the same core values, means carefully selecting who to work with, employ, or collaborate with. There needs to be connection and alignment.
4. Feedback and continual review are essential as the business grows. I can’t be everywhere all of the time, but by monitoring and encouraging feedback, I can see where something might need addressing, and take steps to do that.
5. Fostering engagement and connection across the business, so that there doesn’t feel like a segregation between different divisions, or a disconnect with management.
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?
My introduction to leadership was a baptism of fire! I went for a leadership position in an organisation I already worked in, thinking there was no chance I’d get it, but it would be a good interview experience. I got the job, and it was managing a team of twelve with two of the team having gone for the same job. They led me a merry dance for a few weeks until a situation arose that I swiftly stepped in a sorted out, much to everyone’s amazement. There it was, the first step in building their trust. With over two decades of leadership under my belt, here are my top 6 tips for building connection and empathy with your team. 1. Resist the urge to come in and make big changes straight away, or to ‘make your mark’ on a team. I’ve seen this so many times and it never ends well. It creates friction, mistrust, and disconnection. Take your time to build trust and connection first, you don’t need to prove yourself with radical change or a bold move immediately. 2. Remember you are not better than anyone else, just because you are a leader/manager. You all have different roles to play and add value in different ways. Having an inflated ego will alienate your team. 3. Treat every member of your team as a valuable and unique individual and take time to get to know them. Listen to them and build individual connections. Ask them what they would like from you, to feel supported. 4. Foster a culture of connections between your team members. They will likely have very different personalities, so once you have got to know each team member, ensure that they have a connection with other team members. Internal team friction often comes from a lack of understanding of each other. 5. Share your values and why these are important to you. Share your vision for the team and open up a conversation so that you can all become aligned. Listen to feedback and suggestions in a non-judgmental way and avoid rejecting suggestions openly, as this can prevent team members from sharing ideas in the future. 6. Always acknowledge and show appreciation for each person's contribution and team achievements. Never pass anyone’s ideas off as your own, this just causes resentment and mistrust and will prevent them from sharing in the future.
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?
My principles are at the core of everything that I do, including my products and services. Whenever I put together products and services, I don’t just think about the result that I want my clients to have, I think about their whole experience. The products and services alone are all deeply seated in ensuring that my clients feel a connection with me that I can empathise and understand the challenges, that I care about how they are feeling, and that I want them to achieve their desired outcome. But I have always gone beyond just thinking out the outcome. I have always considered the journey and experiences they will have along the way. I invest a lot of time fostering connections with my clients, whether that’s with my skin & scar work or through supporting other female autistic and ADHD entrepreneurs and leaders. I know that parts of their journey with me will feel uncomfortable and they will feel vulnerable. So, I have ensured that their time with me is filled with opportunities to be able to reach out to me, ask for my support, and have space to be honest and raw. As a result of my approach, I have won five awards for customer experience for my skin and scar clinic, and I have been nominated for Support Network Of The Year for The Great British Businesswoman Awards 2023 (UK) for my work as The Autistic Joyologist. And, as a result of my combined work with my two businesses, I have been listed on the SmallBiz100 list for Small Business Britain and I am a Finalist for The Great British Entrepreneur Awards 2023 (my third time being a finalist for GBEA). My clients often tell me in person how much they value the fact that I listen to them and hold space without judgment. I make them feel as though they are not alone, and that I understand them. Many clients have told me that they feel safe because they feel like I am there with them every step of the way, even though I am not there in person, I have created an environment that helps them to feel connected to me no matter where they are.