Gianluca Boncompagni Of Off Road Tents: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Empathy will soften and pave the road for the future of a team, family, or organization. The moment you start empathizing with those that are supposed to follow you, or those who surround you daily, your relationships will get stronger, based on trust and core values, which will make it easier to lead down the road.

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 Gianluca Boncompagni.

Gianluca Boncompagni is the co-founder of Off Road Tents, an innovative e-commerce retailer focused on selling off-road and overlanding accessories in USA, Costa Rica and Australia. Born in Costa Rica, Gianluca has always been passionate about nature and exploring the hidden gems this planet has to offer. For 7 years he has been successfully managing Off Road Tents alongside his business partner Karsten Koberg, leading a remote working team of over 10 people from different countries, cultures and backgrounds. Just like all experiences, it hasn’t been a smooth journey, but one filled with lessons, empathy, growth and success.

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?

It’s a funny story, I began my career as a journalist for a local Costa Rican newspaper. However, I didn’t feel that was my calling or passion. I quit and got a working holiday visa to go to Australia, where I worked in construction and in the banana plantations of north Queensland. After a few months of saving money, my best friend Karsten came to visit, we did a road trip through some parts of Australia and New Zealand, which changed our lives. During the road trip we learned about roof top tents and thought it was a niche market we could tap in. Ideally, be able to sell them to people as passionate about adventures and exploring as us.

Fast forward 8 years later, and we can proudly say we have helped thousands of people tap a bit more into their adventurous sides.

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

Unrelated to my current business, probably the biggest lesson of my life came from working in the banana plantations in Innisfail, Australia. We would get picked up at 4:30 am every day at our guest house, and at 6 am we’d start working. These were huge fields with thousands of banana plants distributed into sort of hallways with the plants on both sides.

We had a cutter and 3 of us humpers (that’s how they called us) helping him, or the other way around. One of us would get under the banana bunch, the cutter would cut it with a machete from the top of the stem, and it’d fall on our shoulders. Then, we’d carefully carry it for a few yards and place it carefully on a trailer.

On average we’d pick close to 80 bunches, each weighing around 130 lbs, per day, under the flaming hot sun and humid conditions. If you’d drop a bunch, they’d yell at you, you could get fired, it was rough. Toughest working conditions of my life. The interesting thing was, that I learnt what tough work really is. Now, I get to look back at such an experience being grateful of what I do, and understanding what true effort really is. Working with a team, or from your computer, that’s nothing, it really is nothing.

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

The camaraderie and enthusiasm. We are a close-knit team that really enjoys working together and that believes in the products and experiences we sell.

Every year we like to go to the Overland Expo, a huge event where all the big brands and overlanding enthusiasts go to, to learn about new products and possibilities. As a team, we fly into the state where the expo takes place, and we like to take 3 days off to literally go overlanding as a team. It’s a great moment for bonding, learning about new products and simply experiencing the lifestyle we like.

Perhaps one of the best experiences has been hiking Cathedral Rock in Sedona, AZ as a team. We hiked for hours and ended up just enjoying one of the most beautiful views you can get. It’s days like that one which help you truly make a difference both with your team and customers. Everyone values moments like that as a member for our company, and it helps everyone transmit that same excitement and enthusiasm to customers.

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? 

The first one is empathy. A team member of ours lost a close person once, quite suddenly. He had been working with us at the time for nearly 3 years and has been very valuable the whole time. This was quite a difficult situation to deal with for him, yet I was lucky he decided to open up, share his story and feelings at the time. 

The initial reaction was to try and help him somehow. I didn’t want to get too involved, as I wasn’t part of his personal life or inner circle, yet I understood he needed both support and understanding. As a company, we decided the best thing to do was offer to pay for therapy, alongside giving him a personal leave until he felt ready to come back. In the meantime, we’d take over his tasks so he wouldn’t feel any added stress.

He came back around 10 days later, very grateful, but most importantly motivated as he understood we were offering a safe space, not a burden.

The second trait would be patience. We have had quite a few employees through the years, but our goal is once we bring in someone, for them to eventually be a long-term member of our team as well as a making a great impact. That requires patience. We have what we think are great SOPs, we’ve taken the time to record plenty of videos and write excellent task descriptions so all the team members can use them to do their jobs. However, there are always ambiguous situations that are hard to teach in a video or instruction manual.

That’s where patience kicks in. We have one team member in charge of our search ads. His job isn’t the easiest one, as nailing the tone of voice for our audience can be tricky. We must have had 5 or 6 calls where we went over different ads, copy, options, and evaluation of previous ads. After a few weeks of working with him, we increased our ROAS by nearly 45%. Yes, 45% more than what I used to do all by myself, thanks to a person that’s motivated and was guided with patience into becoming a better advertiser than myself!

Finally, the third one would be encouragement. Often as business owners or leaders we forget the encouragement that our teams or employees need that aren’t work related. Encourage a passion and you will find a motivated individual. One of our team members loves mountain bike riding, competing semiprofessionally in races that are literally around 75 miles long. Preparation for these events is key.

As a company we’ve been able to support him through small sponsorships for better equipment that he has needed to compete at a higher level, as well as giving him a few free days every couple of months so he can prepare for the event and be in a better shape.

He has been one of our best salesmen throughout the years. He’s a balanced and happy individual, more motivated than many, as he feels both encouraged and appreciated. We believe that as a result he’s not only doing his job better, but even encouraging other colleagues from a mindset and mental point of view.

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.

Moving an employee from one department to another. It wasn’t easy, as this person is a very hard-working individual, but he wasn’t performing in sales. He couldn’t reach his goals, and at time even caused some friction with colleagues. However, we could see the value in him, he worked hard and was reliable, he just wasn’t a good salesman.

We moved him into the logistics department, where his meticulous character, attention to detail, and desire to work hard, made sure our packages shipped faster, there were less damages during shipping, and less issues with the carriers.

On the other hand, the sales department got a new team member, an actual saleswoman, that has been amazing at her job. A difficult choice of switching one person from one position to another, which we thought could have had a negative impact, had instead a really positive impact in two departments.

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?

Empathy in a leadership context means listening and understanding the struggles or obstacles that an individual with less experience or knowledge is having, so that we can find the right tools to motivate and guide them towards achieving their potential. It’s not just being a “tough” leader that pushes them hard, it’s about having patience, knowing what the right buttons are to push, which at times might just be words of encouragement or setting them for a steady success with tasks that get harder as they become more experienced.

I believe it’s vital for leaders in today’s work environment to have this trait, since nowadays workers can come from multiple backgrounds, cultures or even countries. Before, it was slightly more predictable to know where your employee came from, perhaps from your same town or a similar backgrounds. Nowadays you may have to work with team members from Europe, Asia or Africa all at the same time. All of them with different mindsets, cultures, even religion. You need to have an open mind, to be patient, to be empathetic and guide them. 

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

One of our team members is a mother of three kids. At the beginning it was hard for her since she started her shift, but her kids were still at home, which could be hard for her to cope with until they left for school.

Realizing that she was juggling with many things at the same time, we changed things and told her to begin her shift when her kids left for school as well as taking one hour in the afternoon to help them with homework or lunch. As a result, she was able to perform a lot better at her job, as well as feeling more motivated since she got to spend quality time with her kids during breakfast and when they got back from school.

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

I believe that it’s all about being assertive, communicative, and transparent. Hard and unpopular decisions need to be taken all the time, but if you open a space where you can be assertive and transparent as to the decision is being made, can help the people understand better. If you even open the space to have a dialogue, where they can express their concerns, and you listen to them, then it’s even better. Of course, you don’t need to do what they say, but listening goes a long way, as they might have some good insights, and you might end up even acting upon them.

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

Empathy is very different from sympathy. Honestly, empathy in leadership means wanting to help a person improve, reach their potential, feel motivated and guided towards success. Sympathy is a like putting band-aid over a huge wound. It can cover it, but it won’t heal it. A team member can appreciate the words of comfort, but that won’t make them improve, fix their mistakes, or feel motivated all of a sudden.

Leaders most distinguish amongst the two, as deeper problems, or harder tasks tend to require empathy. Smaller issues do require sympathy, but you must learn to know when to dig deeper.

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

First of all breathwork and meditation. It might sound silly, but it’s not. Breathwork and meditation have helped me enormously to keep my calm, be serene and keep a clear mind. Whenever a tense or stressful situation arises, I can use breathwork, or take a few minutes to meditate and clear my mind, before I make a decision or have a difficult conversation. I’ve noticed every time I engage on an issue after doing one of the two or both, I am a lot more empathetic than if I tackle it under stress.

The other one is doing all I can to keep an open mind, and to do so you need exposure. By exposure I mean listening. Get to know your team, listen to them, have conversations, engage. Don’t talk too much, listen. Understand who they are, where they come from, get to know their characters. Process that information, absorb it, and have an open mind. 

If you do so, it’ll be a lot easier to have empathy when talking not only to them, but anyone else. You will be a lot more prepared, with more tools to deal with all the different kinds of people in this world.

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

As mentioned before, empathy is a tool to better understand all the different mindsets, opinions, and types of people in the world. If you take the time to listen, you will develop and open mind, you will learn and gain experience.

It will help you understand that perhaps one culture is more direct, whilst another one feels a direct order, or a very direct type of feedback can be harsh or demoralizing. At times, somebody needs that order or feedback to be slightly more polite or said in a different tone. Language and the choice of words can go a long way.

That applies to inclusivity too. Language and the right choice of words is where it all begins. Encourage an inclusive language, be mindful of others, and you will be able to navigate all sorts of situations.


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

1 . Empathy will soften and pave the road for the future of a team, family, or organization. The moment you start empathizing with those that are supposed to follow you, or those who surround you daily, your relationships will get stronger, based on trust and core values, which will make it easier to lead down the road.

I’ve had a great relationship with my business partner for many years, one built on trust, transparency and empathy, the latter being a key factor. A few years ago, we both went through tough times at almost the same time. He was dealing with a huge change to his reality, I was dealing with a loss of close person. At the time, it was hard for both to focus on business, or even lead our team the right way.

Thankfully, our partnership has been based on a strong friendship, and we had the opportunity to have several very serious, emotional, and transparent conversations, where we both shared our feelings, thoughts, struggles and expectations. No one judged, we helped each other overcome the tough moment, with empathy. That lead our company to have a fantastic bounce back, but most importantly, it paved the way to a smoother ride, knowing how to act in the future, knowing how to lead even through tough times.

2 . Empathy requires energy, the type you must give to put yourself on someone else’s shoes, but also energy you need to use to step up. It’s not easy, it can be draining at times, and that’s a harsh truth, but one that shouldn’t stop you, since the energy you use should be seen as an investment for energy you won’t be using as much in the future.

We have had two team members go over different and complex situations. Our team works remotely, and one of our team members was going through a complex relationship that led them to move countries. The other team member was going through a small health issue that drained his energy.

For me as a team leader, it meant understanding things like this can suddenly happen to anyone, and the human side comes first. Support goes a long way. I was able to temporarily reduce their working hours so they could perform to their best at work and have time both to rest and fix their personal situations and come back stronger when they were ready.

Sure, it took an energy toll on myself and other team members, as it meant more tasks for some, but when they came back, collaboration was stronger than before with the entire team, and the harmony and relationships were better.

3 . Empathy shouldn’t confuse you to the point in which you waste time or struggle to lead. This doesn’t mean empathy is a bad thing, I believe it’s a fantastic way of leading, but one must find a balance. Letting empathy drain you from too much time or energy, or even cloud your judgement as a leader of a unit, can happen.

You can find yourself trying to fix someone’s life, forgetting about your main goal as a team, company, or unit. Personally, I once kept a person in our team for far too long, he wasn’t performing, we tried everything we could to assist, but it just wasn’t a right fit. This led other team members to feel upset, there was some friction, and even sloppy work. At the end of the day, we had always known that letting this person go was better for us as a company and them as individuals, but we put it off for a few months too long. After that, we learnt not to let empathy cloud our judgment.

4 . Using empathy as a leadership technique or skill will open your mind and make you a better person. Why? Well, you’ll be surprised at how far empathy can go into helping you learn or frankly discover how different people’s lives, mindsets and experiences are to yours. We tend to forget our life, our thoughts and how we react are very different to other people’s. Once we understand that, we grow as people, we open our minds, we become better leaders.

Personally, one of the biggest lessons in my life was understanding what it is for a person to be a single mother. I had the opportunity to work for two years with a single mother in my team. That meant for her to get her two children ready for school, cook breakfast, make lunch, and send them off to school. Her day began before sunrise, and then she had to welcome her kids back, at time pick them up or drive them to other activities after she finished her day of work.

The amount of energy, dedication, and time she had to sacrifice was tremendous. It’s not easy yet fueled by love and discipline in a way that Is admiring.

I couldn’t really ever put myself in her shoes, but I could see what she did, and that was first of all inspiring, but motivated me to find ways to not be an obstacle or put more in her plate, but rather find ways to use her energy and attention to detail so she could perform better at work and have more balance outside of it.

Needless to say, we found a beautiful collaboration for two years, full of lessons for myself, and a happy work life balance for her!

5 . Perhaps one of my favorites: empathy will improve your social skills, which in turn become networking skills and leading skills. By being an empath you tend to listen more, as well as being more careful and thoughtful with what you do, say and how you react. You are thinking not for yourself, but for the other person, how to aid, assist or support. Therefore, you think outside the box, become more creative, mindful and as a result just better at socializing during tense, anxious, stressful scenarios.

Plus, the number of stories and experience you get to learn, will help you for future social interactions, from networking to navigating difficult conversations with teams, family, or friends.

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

Yes, and perhaps the most dangerous one is getting too emotionally attached. Being a leader does require strong and difficult choices or decisions. Empathy is key to push your team towards success. However, getting too emotionally involved can lead to wrong or late decisions. At times, as leaders, we need to recognize when the time is to let go from an issue where we can’t do more because it’s hurting the rest of the team, or it means we don’t have enough time for others. It’s hard to maintain such a clarity of the mind, but we must.

To do so, it’s always a good idea to have a close confidant, person, or friend that understands us, the needs of our team and that can weigh in a valuable and objective opinion. Someone to keeps us balanced and in check.

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?

This might sound superficial, but the growth of our company does keep me up at night. We have monthly, quarterly, and yearly projections, and trying to reach these projections requires hard work, effort and creativity. That keeps me up at night.

If I’m tired, stressed, or anxious, I can get moody or even confused, I don’t think clearly. Therefore, that can impact my decision making for better or worse. Luckily, I have developed a good sleeping routine, get enough rest, and most importantly I have systems in place to work efficiently, plan ahead, and get that creativity flowing to achieve our goals.

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. 🙂

Education is the main thing I can think of. Perhaps the most important one. Coming from a developing country myself, which some can even consider third world, I can see how education has a huge impact on success, opportunities, and growth in people.

I wouldn’t just stop at saying I would love to be able to make an impact in providing better quality education for everyone in the world that might not be getting it, but I’d like to see more philosophical education for everyone. Provide more knowledge about our realities, culture, and existence in general. Get people thinking more about topics such a freedom, success, independence, and most importantly to think for themselves about what they are, want to be and what their existence means.

I believe when you can have as much freedom of thought as you can, that’s when you start leading your own life through the path you truly believe in, and until you’re not able to lead yourself, it’s hard to lead others.

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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.