Christa Curtis Of Cook Medical: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Engagement. Empathetic leaders have a better understanding of what matters to and motivates their team members. This deep understanding makes it possible to connect team members to important concepts like strategy, mission, and vision, helping them to see their impact on the company.

Empathy, the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is increasingly recognized as a pivotal leadership trait. In an ever-evolving business landscape, leaders who exhibit genuine empathy are better equipped to connect, inspire, and drive their teams towards success. But how exactly does empathy shape leadership dynamics? How can it be harnessed to foster stronger relationships, improved decision-making, and a more inclusive work environment? As part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Christa Curtis.

Christa is Vice President, Global Marketing and Communications for Cook Medical, a privately held medical device company. Christa is an Indiana native and a graduate of Indiana University (Go Hoosiers!). For the past 30 years, she has worked in various Marketing and Communications roles across several industries, including media, tourism, wellness, and healthcare.

In her current role, Christa serves on the Cook Medical Executive team and leads the global marketing and communications function with more than 230 team members. This team has responsibility for brand strategy, customer experience, creative services, corporate communications, product marketing, events management, operations, customer relationship management and digital marketing.

She is also very active in her local community, serving as President of the Greater Ellettsville Chamber of Commerce and co-chairing the Envision Ellettsville Advisory board.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Before we dive into our discussion about empathy, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?

I went to college at Indiana University not quite knowing what I wanted to do. I landed in the telecommunications school, which is the media school now. I really enjoyed working around the creative people in the school and enjoyed my marketing classes the most. After school, I worked in both television and radio, but I didn’t enjoy being behind the scenes in technical roles. After working in sales for a little while, I took a communications role at the local convention and visitors bureau. Working in tourism taught me a lot about brand development and brand management, but during this time I also worked with a very talented pool of writers, designers, photographers, and web developers. From that point on, I was a marketer — it’s what I love to do.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

This is a difficult question! I’ve worked in several different sectors and different sizes and types of organizations. My most memorable stories are usually related to interacting with different types of people and through those interactions, learning about behavior, communication, and navigating difficult situations. One story that comes to mind is from an early time in my career during my time in tourism. When I joined the organization, I was asked to revamp the approach to their primary marketing channel — a printed Visitor’s Guide. Prior to my arrival, one creative individual led all aspects of that guide, including design, copy, photography, and branding. I realized much later that he was threatened by my arrival and was resistant to change. His reaction to me was very personal and I had a hard time understanding what I had done wrong (and I assumed it was me!) It was the first time in my career that I realized that not everyone was going to like me and that I didn’t need to own his reaction to the change. It certainly wasn’t the last time I was asked to walk into a situation and make change. I learned the importance of change management leadership from that situation and I continue to grow in this area.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Our company stands out because of our culture. An important factor in creating that culture is the fact that we’re privately owned. We are not beholden to shareholders; therefore, we get to write our own story and do things a little differently. The people who work at Cook are humble, passionate, caring, and approachable. Our leaders are very accessible — employees can email our President their feedback directly and they can see the owner, and say hi, in the cafeteria at lunchtime.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Relationship builder. I am curious about and can relate to many different types of people. I get to know people, what makes them tick, what they care about, what they are trying to accomplish. I think of these trusted relationships as money in the bank — sometimes I have to make a withdrawal. Maybe I make a mistake or need to ask for help; but, because there is a strong relationship, I can work through it.

Adaptability. I am very adaptable, and I can change to meet the conditions of my environment. My people skills also contribute to my adaptability by helping me understand my environment through people and their behavior. I have so many examples in my career of situations where I identified a gap and was able to adjust myself and use my skills to fill that gap. This in turn has led to opportunities to grow on my pathway.

Work Ethic. Through my younger school years, academics didn’t come easy to me. I wasn’t naturally good at any one subject. I had to work hard to earn good grades. I learned that I could accomplish just about anything I wanted if I worked hard. I come from a long line of hard-working women, and I truly believe my work ethic has been key to my success.

Leadership often entails making difficult decisions or hard choices between two apparently good paths. Can you share a story with us about a hard decision or choice you had to make as a leader? I’m curious to understand how these challenges have shaped your leadership.

I’ve had to make many difficult decisions, but the most difficult are the decisions that you know will have a big impact people’s lives. So many times, I’ve been in situations where it’s not working with a team member. The majority of the time, it’s because it isn’t the right fit — either the role isn’t right, the person is looking for something different, or the timing just isn’t right. I always think that it’s better to take those situations head on. Whether it’s through delivering difficult feedback or performance management, it’s better to address the issue. I’ve found that usually, people are appreciative — if not immediately, then eventually they realize that this situation was not going to get better. Sometimes the answer is moving into another role and sometimes it’s leaving the company entirely. I didn’t always do this well early in my career, but I’ve gotten better at difficult conversations. Today, I have a reputation for being empathetic, direct, and willing to face difficult conversations head-on.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Let’s begin with a basic definition so that all of us are on the same page. How do you define empathy in a leadership context, and why do you believe it’s a vital trait for leaders to possess in today’s work environment?

Yes, I believe that it is a vital trait for leaders to possess. Simply put, empathy is the ability to understand another person’s emotions, thoughts, and perspective; and it’s critical to building and leading successful teams.

As a marketer, I believe that empathy requires listening to the voice of the customer as a key to success. Deep listening leads to a better understanding and better outcomes. I think this is true across all aspects of business, including how you lead a team.

Can you share a personal experience where showing empathy as a leader significantly impacted a situation or relationship in your organization?

I remember one team meeting that occurred a few years back. The meeting was important to me, and I had news that I was excited to share with the team. I noticed one team member was not engaged and didn’t share the excitement coming from the rest of the team. I was frustrated because I thought she wasn’t paying attention.

I decided to find her after the meeting, and I was fully ready to express my disappointment. Even though I was frustrated and wanted to lecture her, I decided to start with a question. I asked — ‘Are you ok?’ That simple question opened a dialogue about her husband’s recent diagnosis of a serious health condition. This experience impacted my relationship with her, my perspective with other team members, and highlighted the importance of empathetic leadership.

How do empathetic leaders strike a balance between understanding their team’s feelings and making tough decisions that might not be universally popular?

I find that empathy better equips me to make tough decisions. I accept that some of my decisions will lead to negative feelings — I think it’s unavoidable. I’m not trying to avoid negative emotions; that’s not real. The ups and downs create the journey and frankly, we usually learn more from the negative situations. Early in my career, I was told that I was “too emotional’ by a male boss. And I almost changed who I was because of that. But, working under my mentor (a female) for 10 years taught me that being myself was not only acceptable, but critical to the team’s success. So, I don’t focus on whether I am too emotional, but accept that there will be emotions and think about the impact of my emotions on others. Never do I ever, lie about or hide my emotions; even though I may moderate my responses. This makes it ok for others to manage their emotions.

How would you differentiate between empathy and sympathy in leadership? Why is it important for leaders to distinguish between the two?

Sympathy is having pity for another person, but it doesn’t mean that you have done the work to understand another person’s situation. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is when you seek to experience the emotions, thoughts, and perspectives of that person. Sympathy is a temporary, fleeting gesture. Empathy demonstrates that you have done the work to create a deep connection with the other person. This leads to better solutions, better outcomes, and better relationships.

What are some practical strategies or exercises that leaders can employ to cultivate and enhance their empathetic skills?

I think the most practical way to develop empathetic skills is by employing curiosity. When you are curious and ask questions, people will open up and share. If you are curious to know more about people — what makes them tick? What does their journey look like? Where did they come from? — you learn things that create common connections and shared interests/goals. My best advice to every leader I’ve ever coached is to be curious and ask questions. It not only demonstrates engagement and empathy but gives you the time to ensure you aren’t reacting emotionally in situations. It can be as simple as turning a statement into a question.

How can empathy help leaders navigate the complexities of leading diverse teams and ensure inclusivity?

Empathy helps you to understand another person’s perspective and experience. This is critical to leading diverse teams and creating an inclusive work environment. Feeling seen and understood creates a sense of belonging. Managers who understand their individual team members are better equipped to help each person reach their full potential individually and as a team.

What’s your approach to ensuring that succession planning is a holistic process, and not just confined to the top layers of management? How do you communicate this philosophy through the organization?

Succession planning is new to our organization, so I am still learning. But, over the last 2–3 years we’ve spent a lot of time building career pathways for the different job families in our marketing and communications function. Identifying the skills and experience needed at each step along a pathway provides a better foundation for us to grow our talent. Before this level of definition, it was difficult to identify and grow our leaders. Now, we are having very different conversations as a leadership team about succession planning and career pathways, and we are having those same conversations with our team members. Because of this transparency, there is less mystery about how promotion decisions are made.

Based on your experience and research, can you please share “5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership”?

1 . Innovation. Demonstrating empathy shows that you care about people and creates a safe work environment. Teams who feel understood and listened to can truly tap into their strengths and talents, which leads to inventive thinking. Also, a safe environment encourages experimentation and failure, which leads to learning and more effective solutions.

2 . Change management. Empathy is critical to leading people through change. Each individual experiences and reacts to change differently — in their own way and in their own time. Using empathy helps leaders uncover the factors that may be behind change resistance and even help team members move past those obstacles.

3 . Inclusion. The ability to put yourself in another person’s shoes and to understand their perspective and their journey leads to a feeling of inclusion. Team members who feel they belong are more likely to realize the full potential of their talents.

4 . Managing conflict. Navigating difficult conversations is much easier when you employ empathy. Leaders who are empathetic are more likely to assume good intent and less likely to make assumptions. Empathy actually creates the confidence that you can work through conflict and establishes a positive starting place for difficult conversations.

5 . Engagement. Empathetic leaders have a better understanding of what matters to and motivates their team members. This deep understanding makes it possible to connect team members to important concepts like strategy, mission, and vision, helping them to see their impact on the company.

Are there potential pitfalls or challenges associated with being an empathetic leader? How can these be addressed?

Yes, absolutely. Sometimes, empathetic leaders can be viewed as soft and unwilling to hold team members accountable. This is especially true if you are a female leader. I think the two things are compatible, but I always have to be aware of how I communicate to strike a balance.

Off-topic, but I’m curious. As someone steering the ship, what thoughts or concerns often keep you awake at night? How do those thoughts influence your daily decision-making process?

I’m sure that I have the same concerns that every leader has when trying to sleep at night! I am thinking about whether I am leading the team in the right direction to achieve the company’s strategy and financial goals. I push myself to help our teams reach their full potential and deliver our full value to the company and our customers. Change management also keeps me up at night — have we done everything we can to equip our teams with the awareness, knowledge and tools they need to adapt to the constant change happening in our global business environment and within our company? I think these “worries” ensure that I am keeping our customers, our employees, and our company, at the center of my decision making every day.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 😊

I’m not sure I am a person of great influence, but I do strive to have a positive impact in my way — with my family, my team, and my community. I have a 12-year-old daughter and a 22-year-old son. The decisions they make, the ways in which they treat others, and how they use their talents and skills to solve the world’s complex challenges are critical to our future. I hear a lot of negative feedback and generalizations about younger generations that really bothers me. My kids think differently than I did at their age, but their experience is also different than mine was.

So, if I could start a movement, it would be to encourage younger generations to be empathetic leaders. Frankly, my 12-year-old daughter demonstrates empathetic leadership more frequently than some of the adults I have experienced in my career. Her school provides her with ample opportunity to lead teams and projects and it’s interesting to watch her sort through junior high drama, while at the same time, pulling together a team of people to accomplish a task. She is more accepting of differences than many of the leaders I see in the news or on social media. I am certain that if we cultivate and encourage young leaders like her, we could amplify empathy and create a better future for everyone.

How can our readers further follow you online?

You can find me on LinkedIn. I am very open to talking to anyone about empathetic leadership, change management, communication, and brand strategy.

Thank you for the time you spent sharing these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!

About the Interviewer: Cynthia Corsetti is an esteemed executive coach with over two decades in corporate leadership and 11 years in executive coaching. Author of the upcoming book, “Dark Drivers,” she guides high-performing professionals and Fortune 500 firms to recognize and manage underlying influences affecting their leadership. Beyond individual coaching, Cynthia offers a 6-month executive transition program and partners with organizations to nurture the next wave of leadership excellence.