Mike Gamson is one of LinkedIn's top executives.
As the SVP of Global Solutions, Gamson is in charge of the global talent, marketing, sales, and learning teams, making him responsible for about half of LinkedIn's roughly 10,000 employees. He works closely with CEO Jeff Weiner.
Gamson told Business Insider that he follows Weiner's philosophy of "compassionate leadership" very closely, but his first meeting with Weiner, he didn't know what to expect.
It was the end of 2008, and LinkedIn founder and chairman Reid Hoffman had replaced his chief executive Dan Nye with Weiner, who had been an EVP at Yahoo. Nye was a close friend, mentor, and former boss to Gamson, and had recruited him to the professional social network company a year earlier.
On top of that, Gamson was dealing with the stress of a new baby at home coupled with constant cross-country travel. "So when I flew in to meet Jeff, it was actually a pretty emotional time for me," Gamson told Business Insider.
When he walked into Weiner's office, he said, it still felt like it was Nye's. He didn't know how their conversation would play out.
After a warm greeting, Weiner asked him what type of leader he aspired to be.
"I said, 'An empathetic leader,'" Gamson said. "I'd been working on empathy. And he said, 'Why empathy and not compassion?'" Gamson admitted to Weiner he didn't know the nuances of the definitions enough to give an adequate answer.
That's when Weiner told a parable told by the Dalai Lama. While that may sound like a stereotypical Silicon Valley CEO move, the ensuing two-hour conversation fundamentally changed the way Gamson would go on to manage.
The parable: A man is lying on the side of a road, crushed by a boulder. An empathetic person passes by. This person feels the man's suffering so intimately they are shaken and unable to find a way to help. A compassionate person passes by. This person understands the man's pain and is driven to help, but is able to remain centered within themselves, allowing them to devise a plan to remove the boulder and get the man help.
The lesson: Empathy is feeling someone's state as if it were your own, manifested emotionally; compassion is understanding someone's state as if it were your own, but with a layer of detachment. It is better to go through the world as a compassionate person, able to confront the plights of others without being crippled by their weight. And it is better to lead with compassion, not empathy.
"If you can picture that in a very practical sense as a manager, there's constantly things that happen that are very emotionally charged," Gamson said. "Where someone can come to you not centered about whatever is going on in their life, an empathetic leader will resonate with that person and two emotionally charged people are less likely to resolve something than someone who can understand the context, ask the question, look at the world through their eyes, and then stay centered to be helpful."
And this isn't all about feelings, Gamson explained — it's also just good business. He said he saw Weiner's approach in action when they worked together on the biggest deal the company had seen to date, early in Weiner's tenure. The two executives met to discuss how they should negotiate the deal, and Gamson asked how they could get the most out of it.
"And when I was walking Jeff through the deal mechanics, he corrected me and he said, 'Well, let's put ourselves in their shoes, let's figure out the way we can make this the best deal for both of us,'" Gamson said. "Because there's going to be no long term health in a relationship unless value is distributed equally." His point was that long term value should not be sacrificed for short term gain, and that the way to long term value was through building a relationship with the client, and the way to that was through compassion, not empathy (or enmity, for that matter). Gamson would not reveal the client's name but noted the relationship is healthy and still exists.
That day he met Weiner — the day he initially approached uneasily — changed Gamson's career.
After he left the meeting, "I realized that I had gotten so lucky to find another person in my life from whom I could learn, because I want to be an apprentice forever," he said. "Most of my life is organized around trying to find people around whom I could learn new lessons. And I realized I just got really lucky because Jeff had a totally different set of lessons to teach."
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