Lauren Pufpaf Of Feed Media Group: 5 Ways Empathy Will Affect Your Leadership

An Interview With Cynthia Corsetti

Conflict is inevitable, but it doesn’t need to be feared. When issues arise, empathy can be a very effective tool for getting to the other side. If you understand where there is resistance and what each party’s true interests/motivations are, you can address the deeper issues at play. Providing a space where people are comfortable and authentic will lead to more productive outcomes and faster time to resolution.

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 Lauren Pufpaf.

Lauren Pufpaf is Co-founder and President/COO of Feed Media Group (FMG). She’s been building businesses in the Bay Area for 20 years, and launched FMG to the world 8 years ago. Lauren focuses on people growth alongside revenue growth and has a lifelong passion for music. Whether she’s DJing a party or helping a business with their music strategy, she believes intensely in the power of music to motivate and heal.

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 am a person that likes to grow things. Plants, relationships, businesses — they have more in common that you’d think! I started my career in advertising and was a media buyer focused on digital ads when that was still a very new tactic. I learned quickly that analytics and performance marketing were changing the ad landscape and really focused in on leveraging search, display, email, etc. to build awareness and drive commerce. I harnessed those skills to build a wide variety of businesses from media companies to beauty marketplaces. Throughout this journey I was DJing in San Francisco and have always pursued music as a primary passion in my life. When I met my cofounders and we banded together to build a music tech company, I got the rare opportunity to combine my professional skills with my personal passions. Building our company has been an incredible journey in leadership and personal growth. What the company needs from you as a founder changes constantly and the opportunities to level up never cease.

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

That’s a tough one to narrow down! It’s been full of highs (winning awards on stages, securing funding, building teams) and lows (losing customers, making bets that don’t work, economic downturns). That said, one story does stand out to me. As a freshly minted media buyer back in 2000, I was amazed at all the perks we got from publishers — limousines to Warriors games, concerts, meals at Michelin Star restaurants. But the dotcom crash was coming fast and just as soon as I got used to the lavish treatment, suddenly our customers were closing doors and the money stopped flowing. For me, it was a crash course in resilience and thriving in the face of massive change. That is a lesson that has stuck with me throughout my career — focus on what you can control and find ways to create wind in your sails.

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

We are solving a truly unique problem for businesses — making it easy to license and stream music in their apps.

Studies have shown time and time again that music has a major impact on our experiences. Imagine your favorite boutique studio HIIT workout without the heart-pumping soundtrack. In fact, 93% of people say that music makes or breaks their class experience.

Or, just think about a powerful drama playing out on the big screen without a sweeping score. Music shapes the emotional arc of a story by impacting the subconscious while our conscious mind interprets what is on screen.

Music is so powerful because it impacts BOTH behavior and physiology. It can be a motivator and mood lifter, triggering dopamine production. It can even have a long-term physiological effect, rewiring our brains in a process called neuroplasticity.

Brands know music is a powerful tool, but as much as they’d like to deliver incredible, music-driven experiences, it’s a tool that’s out of reach for all but the most deep-pocketed brands. Licensing music requires negotiating complex contracts with multiple rights holders. Major label and indie music both require deals with both labels and publishers. It’s a complex maze and the path to success is very opaque.

That’s why we’ve built a turnkey way for brands to integrate emotion-triggering music from top artists into their digital experiences.

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?

Adaptability: My career trajectory has not been linear and it’s been really important for me to stay flexible and adaptable. Sometimes life throws things your way that are unexpected but if you stay curious and resourceful, you often see the wisdom of the move in hindsight. When I was considering joining my co-founders to start Feed Media Group, many friends and advisors cautioned me against leaving my track to CMO of consumer businesses. Obviously, startups are risky and you have to be a generalist to be a founder. But, this has been the most rewarding, challenging, and evolutionary experience of my career.

Growth Mindset: When you believe that your talents and skills can be developed through input from others and good strategies, you have a growth mindset. The longer you are in business, the clearer it is that the only constant is change. If you can see each new challenge as an opportunity to level up, growth is inevitable. I like John C. Maxwell’s “Law of the Lid” theory. The leader can be seen as a lid on the organization, so you must work to up level your skills and being the organization along with you.

Integrity: Integrity in the workplace is about honesty, ownership, and having strong principles. We don’t always make the best decisions as leaders, but if you are acting from a place of integrity and making educated guesses, you leave space for mistakes to happen that also bring about learning. One of our core values at Feed Media Group is “Own It” — which means that your team can trust you to do what you say you will and act with the best possible intentions.

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.

How you deploy your resources and team’s energy is often the hardest decision making a leader has to do. A particular scenario comes to mind that illustrates the learning that can come from choosing a path that turned out to be a dead end. The team was debating building a very different product and business line and we had outside investors who were huge proponents of launching the product as quickly as possible. We decided to move ahead despite warning signs popping up very early that indicated the market needs were not aligned with the pricing we were bound to. In this instance I did not listen to my intuition and also fell prey to sunk cost bias. We continued pouring time, energy and money into the project for several months, but ultimately had to walk away from it. For me, one of the biggest learnings was to listen to my gut and fight for a different outcome when I see the writing on the wall.

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 leadership is all about identifying with others, understanding their point of view and thoughtfully responding to their needs. Empathy is crucial in building meaningful connections and developing deep trust. A leader’s actions and words lay the foundation for a culture that is built on respect. If you talk about trust and empathy, but don’t behave with those traits, it will never be a lasting part of the team’s experience.

Empathy is vital to the work environment and has been shown to have truly constructive effects. For example, a study of almost 900 employees by Catalyst showed a measurable impact on innovation and engagement when leaders were empathetic.

  • When people reported their leaders were empathetic, they were more likely to report they were able to be innovative — 61% of employees compared to only 13% of employees with less empathetic leaders
  • 76% of people who experienced empathy from their leaders reported they were engaged compared with only 32% who experienced less empathy.

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

Honestly, I think it impacts relationships on a daily/weekly basis. I’ve had employees go through really challenging experiences — we all do. One specific example involves an incredible member of the creative team who had to undergo chemotherapy. She wanted to continue working and we found a way to keep her engaged and informed, but maximized flexibility while she focused on healing. She came back more excited and engaged in her work than ever and had a deep bond with the team that supported her through it.

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

You bring up an interesting point — there is a potential downside to empathy as well. Empathetic leaders can find it difficult to deal with confrontation or provide negative feedback. Empathy can also take a toll on you if you absorb too much of another’s emotions. It’s important to have boundaries around empathy, and most importantly, to never let it get in the way of accountability. It takes a lot of strength and experience to know how to incorporate different perspectives while still maintaining your own and standing firm as needed.

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

Empathy generally connotes a deeper connection, as you are seeking to understand the feelings of others. Sympathy is more about expressing care and concern for another’s feelings, but not necessarily sharing them yourself. Both can be important in the workplace, but knowing the difference and knowing when to get beyond a surface level understanding of a situation will help you strike the balance. If you are simply responding to a team member with an acknowledgement of their situation vs. connecting, it can actually degrade a relationship. I love this quote from Brené Brown: “Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”

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

Active listening is very important as you seek to strengthen your empathetic muscles. Too often, leaders are thinking about what their response should be instead of listening deeply and looking for non-verbal cues. I also think it can be helpful to ask questions to help get to the core of what someone really wants or needs. Rather than jumping to conclusions or immediately trying to fix, people often just want to be heard.

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

It’s more important than ever to build diverse teams and find ways to drive cohesion among them. Getting to know an individual’s life and work experience can really help you identify their unique perspective and how they can best contribute to the business goals overall. There’s also a component of empathy that involves understanding each person’s unique work and communication styles. If you create an environment where you model true curiosity and interest in each individual and how they can best succeed, the impact will be better engagement and deeper trust.

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 such an obvious bastion of bias and cronyism. It tends to rely on the people we like the most and often those who have been around the longest. A better way is to include it in ongoing career development plans and have open conversations with everyone involved to determine who is best suited AND most interested in moving into a particular role over time. If you bring your philosophy into the overall performance management strategy, it’s baked in operationally and creates more opportunities for frank dialogue.

Lauren Pufpaf

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

1 . You Will Prioritize Emotional Intelligence for Yourself and Your Team

Old leadership paradigms are quickly falling by the wayside and the future of leadership is about understanding when empathy is needed and how to create healthy interpersonal dynamics. If you want to lead with empathy, you have to be tuned into your emotional state as well as that of your team.

In my opinion, there is no room for the “brilliant jerk” at the table moving forward. Leaders have to be cognizant of EQ (emotional intelligence) right alongside smart ideas and high performance.

2 . Your Team Relationships Will Be Stronger

Although it takes time and a significant amount of work, building trust and rapport always creates a more positive work environment. When we lead with empathy, we recognize that our effectiveness as leaders comes from the relationships that we build with our team.

3 . You Will Be Better at Resolving Conflict

Conflict is inevitable, but it doesn’t need to be feared. When issues arise, empathy can be a very effective tool for getting to the other side. If you understand where there is resistance and what each party’s true interests/motivations are, you can address the deeper issues at play. Providing a space where people are comfortable and authentic will lead to more productive outcomes and faster time to resolution.

. It Will Help You Slow Down and Be More Present

Developing the empathy toolkit is helpful in driving presence in multiple ways. You have to make time to connect and have 1:1s in order to get to know people better. AND, you have to slow down, listen actively, and stop multitasking if you want to truly listen to verbal and non-verbal cues.

5 . It Will Enhance Communication.

While it does take time to develop trust and establish connection, it also can often speed things up in the long run. You can develop a shorthand with your team members which can be really effective in getting to the deeper “whys” that drive hard decisions. Additionally, your ability to show that you are listening and ask for clarification (vs make assumptions), will always lead to better conversations.

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

Empathy can potentially lead to a decision that is not ultimately right for the greater good because it is based purely on emotion. It’s hard to truly empathize with more than one or two people at the same time, so if you are weighing decisions that impact many groups, empathy cab be an inhibitor. I think the solution is accompanying empathy with a process to resolve problems that includes analysis and a focus on tangible outcomes for all involved. The balance between the two helps a leader incorporate empathy and also make smart long-term decisions.

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 question isn’t just a figure of speech unfortunately. I’m often awake at night thinking about how we can run faster on an ever-changing playing field. What should we be doing more of? Less of? How can I make sure employees are engaged and performing at their very best?

Running a business means you are on the hook for everything and that can feel heavy. That said, I have a lot of tools in my toolkit including meditation, journaling, and talking things out with my coach. I actually really work hard to make sure those late night thoughts DON’T influence my daily decisions too much, as I always want to be making decisions from a place of creation, not of fear.

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 believe in the power of mindfulness to take us out of reactive mode and help us make better decisions. When a conflict arises, mindfulness invites us to approach it non-judgmentally. Reactivity and ego drive so much conflict in the world. If we could all detach from our own stories for even a few moments, it would bring about so much change. I think the term mindfulness gets a lot of flak as it feels vague to many people. It needn’t be about a grand spiritual practice, but rather can be a simple set of tools to help you rest your mind, recognize when you are caught in thought loops, and return to a place of non judgement.

How can our readers further follow you online?

LinkedIn is a great place to find me talking about leadership and entrepreneurship.

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.