Experience

What defines the best leaders?

Jan Garrison
 

Hauser: empathy, compassion, warmth

 

February 3, 2022

What qualities do the best leaders have?

For Fran Hauser, it is empathy, compassion, and warmth.

Hauser, a noted author, speaker, and an angel investor targeting women-led startups, told Culver Academies students she has found that the top leaders at every point in her career have had these qualities. And those qualities lead to trust.

The Monday evening all-school presentation was moderated by Isabel Bernhard ’23 (San Pedro Sula, Honduras), who asked Hauser a series of questions about entrepreneurship, leadership, and her career. The event was sponsored by The Ron Rubin School for the Entrepreneur, which is hosting a special speaker series of women business leaders in recognition to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Culver Girls Academy.

“Building trust is really about showing empathy and showing that you care about what the other person thinks and what’s important to them,” Hauser said, adding it is universal at every level. She gave example of how people with these qualities have influenced her along the way. Even, today, she said, she makes investment decisions based on the startup founder’s leadership traits.

If they are not treating their team properly or suddenly stop sharing financial information, “that would be a reason for me to opt out, because the founder is everything at the end of the day,” Hauser explained. “That’s who you’re investing in because, even if the product doesn’t work out, you hope the founder will be smart enough to pivot and create a different product.”

Hauser said good leaders don’t have to choose “between being kind and strong.” Women are often told they must “toughen up or they’re not going to get to the corner office.” But that is never said to men because it is assumed they are already strong.

“I do think it’s really important to change the conversation,” she continued. “I always encourage young women, if someone says that to you, ask back: ‘How, specifically, is this hurting me?’ I know being nice is allowing me to build the most incredible relationships with people that were very useful for me in my career.”

For her book “The Myth of the Nice Girl: Achieving a Career You Love without Becoming a Person You Hate,“ Hauser talked with several negotiating experts “because I wanted to understand what were some of the things that made you a good negotiator.” She found one common thread – empathy. Asking the other person what they were looking for, what kind of value they wanted to create, “showed that you care about what’s important to them. That’s how you build trust.”

While she was president of the digital division at Time, Inc., she was responsible for all the products from websites, iPhone apps, and designing the digital magazines to fit on Apple’s new product, the iPad. “My success, and my team’s success, was very dependent on the technology department.”

She made it a point to show her gratitude to the head of the technology department whenever a member of his staff assisted her people – and she would include the CEO on the email. She would ask about his family and got to know him “as a human being, really developing a personal relationship with him. And, even though “everyone needs tech,” Hauser said, the department head Mitch went out of his way to work with her staff. “And it was because I took the time to be grateful instead of complaining about what they weren’t doing for us.”

Included in that process was the launching of People.com, the website tied to People magazine. It quickly became one of the largest media-based websites in the world. “That helped me a lot in my career in so many different ways because I was able to get those resources.”

 

Fran Hauser (left) answers a question from the audience as Isabel Bernhard '23 listens.*

 

While People.com was a huge success, Hauser told the audience that the digital team’s launch of Style Find, a digital product tied to InStyle magazine, was a huge failure. It ended up “being a complete flop because consumers didn’t like it,” she said. “It was a really tough one for me. I took it very personally.”

But, instead of dwelling on that failure, Hauser decided to find “the biggest takeaway” from it. She realized that the biggest problem was her group (“and there was a large group of us that worked on that product”) never came up with a concise consumer value proposition.

“We couldn’t come up with a very concise way to explain why this is a great product,” she explained. “Because – for it to go viral – it has to be articulated in a really concise way so that each of you can tell your friends. We just never came up with that.”

Learning that, Hauser added, is still paying dividends in her role as a startup investor. It is something she asks about from all the entrepreneurs she is meeting with. She wants to know what consumer “pain point” the company will be solving and what the value proposition is. If they can’t do it or ramble for too long, she knows they are going have difficult time marketing the product, “especially from the word-of-mouth perspective.”

The trauma of that failure has made her “hyper-aware” of that problem and “I think I’ve made some really good investing decisions based on that.”

The biggest risk Hauser took was in her 20s, when she decided to leave the financial department at Coca-Cola and join the startup digital business Moviefone.com. It was the first time a company decided provide reviews and sell movie tickets online, she said. The draw was that she would have the opportunity to learn every angle of the business. If she stayed at Coke, she would have been tied strictly to the financial division.

It was tough call, but her desire to know all aspects of a business and the thrill of being involved with a startup in the early days of the commercial internet were too great. She was rewarded when Moviefone was purchased by AOL for $388 million and the owners took their profits and retired. She was then elevated to the general manager of Moviefone “and that’s how I got involved with AOL.”

Hauser did have advice for the CGA students:  have confidence in yourself, be willing to speak up and ask questions, and realize your potential. That lack of confidence can be damaging to your career. Even if you are not 100% qualified for a new position, still apply. Men often do this and are rewarded with the post.

And, don’t be afraid to speak up – especially in mixed groups. She has found that if she is having trouble “getting a word in edgewise” during a meeting she will stand up. That act naturally draws attention to her, even though she is just over 5-feet tall.

Both of these are tied to realizing your potential. You can learn what you don’t know after you receive your promotion and asking that question or voicing your opinion will be good for your personal brand and, maybe, the company’s, too.

Don't be afraid to ask for a raise, either, Hauser said. In her 20 years as a supervisor, she had only three women ask for a pay increase.

She told the CMA students to be allies of the girls – and all minorities, for that matter – encouraging them to use their voices and take those calculated risks. Personally, she would not have applied for one executive post if it had not been at the urging of a male co-worker who believed she as perfect for the job, which she did get.

Hauser also gave a bit of advice to all the students. Be careful when choosing your words. Naturally, you should apologize if you have done something wrong or hurt someone. But don’t apologize over “really trivial things.” Don’t say you are sorry because you can’t join a committee or participate in an event.

Instead of saying “I’m sorry, I’m not going to be able to do it,” start out with something more powerful – thank you. “Thank you for thinking of me, thank you for your patience, or thank you for inviting me” and then go into why you’re unable to participate. “Think about the words you use.”

And, when it comes to commitments, “be strategic about what you say ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ to,” she added. Don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and try something new. Trust your instincts. And, to do that, every person must be clear on what their priorities are and what is really important to them.

*photos by Camilo Morales

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