Michael Tennant should start a cult. I'd join. OK, maybe cult is the wrong word. (Who wants to lug around that religious baggage?) Then again, his approach borders on a new religion fueled by his passionate desire for a miraculous transformation in the way we approach marketing, management, and--hey, why not?--humanity itself.
But let's back up a bit.
The fourth son of Jamaican immigrants, Tennant grew up in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn. Suffice it to say that his transition to the prestigious boarding school the Hill, where he entered ninth grade at age 12, came with a healthy dose of culture shock. "I went from the violence in Bed-Stuy to passive racism--another type of violence," says Tennant. One might expect this to be a story of extremes: of anger or assimilation. Instead we meet a man forged by aggressions (macro and micro) into something else entirely: an ambassador of empathy.
With an impressive track record of award-winning work for MTV, VICE Media, P&G, and Coca-Cola, Tennant, the founder and CEO of the agency Curiosity Lab, recently joined advertising behemoth Arnold Worldwide/Havas Media as its first-ever entrepreneur in residence. While it's clear that advertising could use a brutally honest evaluation of its approach to inclusion and unity, that's not really what his job is about. Instead, he brings to bear his fundamental approach, rooted in curiosity and empathy, to address systemic issues that riddle the foundations of the communications industry.
Echoing the name of his agency, Tennant says that his goal is to "create a culture of the curious, because that is where you get the most innovation." The key, he says, is to find out what we don't know rather than set out to confirm what we think we know. "Bias. Judgement. We all have it. And it blinds us from the unknown that could be magical, that could be a differentiator--not the same stagnant stream everyone is swimming down right now."
Rather than create messages that sport the trappings of diversity, inclusion, allyship, and unity, he says we must "do the work of bringing empathy out to people and make the energetic investment it requires." This means employing "anti-racism and it's cousin, empathetic leadership. We need to learn how to show up with empathy in a world that is so divided."
On a somewhat more practical level (keeping in mind that Tennant has a degree in the unlikely combination of economics and philosophy), he encourages leaders of all kinds to create safe spaces where real work can be done, on a professional and deeply personal level. He defines these as environments in which people "feel there's trust to protect their boundaries, where they have an equal shot at letting their contributions shine." This allows more perspectives to emerge, but also builds highly resilient team members.
For leaders, creating these spaces entails the difficult task of acknowledging systemic racism and then honestly facing our own biases. We must also find--among our teams, our audiences, our communities--authentic intersections of our experiences and emotions that will allow us to connect in a truly empathetic way.
The benefits of embracing empathy and cultivating curiosity are more than just spiritual: Tennant notes it will give companies an edge in areas where there is steep competition for the best talent. It will reduce turnover costs and boost employee satisfaction. And, undoubtedly, it will reduce the risk of the dire consequences of toxic workplace culture.
Upon reflection, Tennant would be an unlikely cult leader despite his inspiring devotion to his mission precisely because it's not about him, it's about others.
Instead, he nods back at those "on the front lines of allyship, who incorporate social awareness into their way of being." For everyone who pushes back against tone-deaf messages, addresses the low-key sexism or classism of a job ad, invites and supports an uncomfortable revelation, or exposes a crumbling moral foundation: He sees you. And he's grateful for everything you are doing.