When Ron Cordes, along with a group of academics and philanthropists, walked into a school in a Kenyan village in 2007, he immediately came to his own conclusions about how to fix the facility.
Get rid of the dirt floors.
Put on a new roof.
Bring in a computer lab.
Outfit the building with solar energy.
“We identified for ourselves, over the course of about an hour, everything that was wrong with that school, and all the things that we could do to make those wrong things right,” Cordes told a group of Fordham University students gathered for a panel called “Leading with Impact: The Role of Empathy and Humility.”
But then the school’s principal gathered with Cordes — a former executive at AssetMark Investment Services, who sold the company he founded to start a nonprofit focused on global poverty — and his group.
She had different ideas.
Pulling out a chart that showed her students’ academic performance over the course of an average school day — declining from morning to afternoon — the principal outlined her school’s most serious issue.
“Our biggest problem is that our kids don’t eat breakfast in the morning, and if we can’t give them something for lunch, by noon it’s almost worthless to try to teach them, because they’re no longer capable of learning,” Cordes recalled the principal saying.
The group left the school with a new priority: building a program to feed the children.
That is what they ended up investing in, and Cordes said the program is active and working.
“I never felt so humbled,” Cordes said. “At nine in the morning, I walked into that school thinking that I knew all the answers, thinking that I knew more than they knew about what their problems were. And I walked out at 11 o’clock, thinking not only did I not know all the answers, but I wasn’t even sure I knew all the right questions.”
What Cordes experienced in that transaction were humility and empathy.
These are traits that historically have been undervalued in the business world. But that is changing, said Gabelli School of Business Dean Donna Rapaccioli, who spoke alongside Cordes at the Fordham panel.
Empathy, she said, is going to be the next key indicator in success. That is because if you make the people who work with you a priority, they will give you their best. Say “thank you,” ask how they are doing, treat them with humanity and caring, and good things can happen.
The panel, organized by Associate Professor Michael Pirson, sought to explore how empathy and humility among leaders can make a difference in business. From the smallest to the largest, companies that incorporate strong social values into their structure are helping lift up some of the world’s poorest.
Those efforts start with listening, Cordes and the other panelists said.
Put simply, Cordes stressed, the five most effective words to use in nearly any context are: “How can I help you?”
That question, which seeks to get to the heart of what people really need, led Cordes and his philanthropic efforts to social entrepreneurship, helping people in impoverished areas establish their own businesses to help lift themselves, their families and their communities out of poverty.
“I spent the first half of my … professional career, building what I hoped would be the best business in the world,” Cordes said, “and my objective now for my second half is to build the best businesses for the world.”