Dutch MacDonald | Crain's

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Dutch MacDonald

About the company:  

MAYA Design is a design consultancy and innovation lab focused on working with Fortune 1000 companies and turning complex, tech-related business problems and products into human-centered designs and solutions. Based in downtown Pittsburgh, the firm employs 50.

The Mistake:

One of my early mistakes was with my first company – in not understanding the importance of both empathy and candor in growing a business. I was being empathetic but not candid. I was not speaking what I thought to be true because I was trying very hard to be empathetic to someone else. I was 26 years old at the time and working with my first company, an architectural firm that I co-founded. My partner was older and more experienced than I was and I allowed him to make decisions without speaking my own truth. In trying to have empathy for him and his experience, I often deferred my opinion on business decisions.

For example, when we started gaining notoriety from the media, the press reached out to us. It was the late 1990s and we were on the forefront of the movement in urban redevelopment. We were reclaiming old buildings as loft condos and living spaces. The media wanted to put a face with this story. Many times they expressed interest in humanizing a piece by focusing on one of the architects or people in our firm who had worked on a project. 

My partner thought the best approach would be to focus the story on the company and not around any one individual. In my heart, I didn’t believe that. If I had spoken out, I would have said that this was our collection of people and we should let each of them shine. I thought that I was being empathetic, at the time, when actually I was listening and not expressing my opinion.

 If you’re being candid with somebody, it tends to be disarming in some way – and you often find that you get a surprising amount of candor back.

The Lesson:

Expressing both empathy and candor together is important. By definition, empathy involves understanding another person’s perspective. Candor is speaking the truth in what you believe. If you’re being candid with somebody, it tends to be disarming in some way – and you often find that you get a surprising amount of candor back. At MAYA, I encourage everyone to have a voice by being both candid and empathetic and to let their expertise shine. Powerful individuals show strength. 

Our clients buy into the relationships we have with them and our people. When I find that someone [at MAYA] is pushing back, that tells me that they have a differing opinion that they need to express. It doesn’t necessarily mean I will change my opinion, but I try and let each person know that they have been heard and are a valuable part of the conversation.

When it comes to collaborative creativity, it’s important to encourage all the voices at the table. If we’re working with an organization or client, we want to make sure that those with insights are being heard. Being able to throw things out in the open is an important part of the creative process. It helps us achieve business goals.

Sometimes we have to tell clients that we’ve discovered something through this process – and it might be something that they may not want to hear. Maybe they aren’t going in the right direction and are heading down a different path. We’re all about making our customers awesome. If we can find something that can shift their thinking 10 degrees to make a better product or service, we will do that.

Follow Dutch MacDonald on Twitter at @dutchmacdonald.

Do you have a good story you’d like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email nryan@crain.com.

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