Karen Millsap, the CEO (Chief Empathy Officer) of Egency and Founder of The Groflo, began her career in human resources and talent acquisition where she led countless training, new process, and change initiatives. At a young age, she suddenly became a widow when her husband was tragically murdered which completely changed the trajectory of her life. After experiencing a domino effect of other losses, she became acutely aware of the overall lack of support in our society for grieving people. We are all connected through our struggles, from the death of loved ones, to life-altering illnesses, divorce, even job loss. This realization ignited Karen's desire to turn her pain into purpose and pay it forward to help others.
Egency is a leadership development and training firm that helps organizations create a human-centric culture with compassion and empathy. The Groflo is a community that shares mental + emotional growth tips and positive lifestyle inspiration.
Karen's client list includes NBC’s Golf Channel, Hubspot, Universal Studio Resorts, Sprint and many more! Her work has been featured in Forbes, SHRM Magazine, on Good Morning America, MSNBC, and many others! She's also a regular contributor to Arianna Huffington's THRIVE Global community. Karen is a TEDx keynote speaker who inspires audiences to embrace compassion and empathy to help alleviate other’s suffering by becoming advocates for their own adversaries.
She received her undergraduate degree in Communication from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. She is also a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist through the Grief Recovery Institute in Los Angeles, California.
Karen shared that unfortunately, this knowledge and this passion came from the tragedy when her husband Richard was killed and at the time she was working in Human Resources and recruiting for a national home building company. So, her background up to that point had been in HR but touched in different pieces of recruiting and training and leadership development and all of that good stuff. So, after her husband passed, when she transitioned back to the workplace, she found that there was just this huge disconnect between the expectations of corporate America and humans, what we are capable of doing and how we process in the midst of such a delicate time. And so, when she experienced this firsthand, her immediate response was, “How can I use this to help other people?”Now, part of it was helping individuals because we definitely need help in navigating grief. It's such a complex journey and it doesn't look the same for everybody, but we also need help interacting with people who are going through their own grief journey. And so, that's where her heart was initially led, although there were one off individuals, who she was helping along the way, she really honed in on creating workshops or training and leadership development tools that would help people to manage grief in the workplace. So, her company, they develop The Four Pillars of Practical Empathy and those are Awareness, Communication, Support, and Productivity. And so, as she started down that journey of talking about grief in the workplace, there was a lot of resistance as you can imagine. First of all, people don't want to admit that there's this elephant in the room, everybody is going through something, grief is a universal human experience. The biggest myth about grief is that we think it only occurs because of a death, but it actually comes from different losses or changes. It could be from becoming a caregiver to an elderly parent or finding out that somebody in your family or even yourself is diagnosed with a terminal illness, there's so many different things. But again, it comes because of a change or a loss when we expect things to be different or better or more and it just doesn't turn out that way. So, as she started to just kind of break down all of these barriers and these myths that are surrounded with grief, again, corporate America was not really receptive because by saying you want grief training would be admitting that you have a problem because brief is kind of looked at it as a problem. And so, she recognized this resistance and most of what she was teaching was really surrounded around compassion and empathy in the workplace. So, she decided to just adjust slightly and instead of leading with the problem, she led now with the solution which is compassion and empathy. And as she was pulling different resources and research articles and studies and all of this that just helps us to create a basic framework for human interaction in the workplace. As she was pulling that, she recognizes, well, it still touches on grief in the workplace because if we are operating with compassion and empathy on a day to day basis, that's mastery preparation for the time of crisis. We're already connecting in this space that's just really vulnerable, we've established trust and respect through kindness, so when somebody does hit a tough life situation, which inevitably happens to all of us, then at least your work family is prepared to walk through those tough times with you and handle that because you guys have already established this kind of workplace. So, it's been a journey to get to this point but she’s super grateful that she learned all that she did throughout this journey because it's helped her to serve her clients at a whole new level, not just the basic leadership development, it really is taking it up a notch.
Yanique shared, I like the fact that you've mentioned that you started to lead with the solution, and you focus on empathy and compassion. And one of the things that we have identified in the whole client or customer experiences, people are driven by how they feel, their emotions play an integral part. I think even more than the intellectual because the emotion drives how the intellectual will respond.
When asked about empathy, Karen shared yes and no to Yanique’s statement. Yes, it is something that can be learned, but no, it's not something that people are only inheriting that ability through a learned environment. That's not the case. People are born with empathy. There are people who are born with a lack of empathy. As a matter of fact, there's a chemical in the front part of our brain, in our amygdala that triggers our emotions and so you could live and be raised in a very compassionate home, but you were born kind of without feelings, you don't get too riled round up but that doesn't mean that you didn't have an environment that included feelings and emotions and conversations around that, it really is how we're born. But even if people are born without or with a lack of, maybe they don't have a lot of empathy, you still can adopt behaviors and skills and habits that bring empathy into conversations and interactions so that way the person who you are interacting with feels valued. And so, empathy is really being able to feel and understand another person's emotions and respond with care. So again, that feeling part may not be natural for some people, but you can try to understand where they're coming from and respond in an empathic way. So that's how it looks and so as it pertains to their customer experience, you may not be able to completely resonate with where this customer is coming from. And she gave you an example, it's a personal example. She bought a new car at the end of last year and the sales team, they weren't that great but she needed to get out of her car, it had 140,000 miles on it, it was just not safe anymore. Karen said she was kind of in a rush to get into the car and didn't do her due diligence on a few things that she noticed within 24 hours of driving off the lot. So, she immediately contacted the sales team, they were not very responsive. So, then she looked online for customer service team, they were not very responsive. So, being the person that she, she’s just saying, well this isn't okay. So, she’s going to do her due diligence. She contacted the corporate office to say, “Listen, there are a couple of defects and this is actually not safe. So, I just purchased this car and we need to figure out a resolution.”Now up the chain of command, the customer service sucked, it was terrible. And she was telling them like the rear-view camera is not working, that is a safety issue. If she runs over a kid, do you think they're going to say, “Oops, that's our bad, we should have responded quickly to that email.”No, she’s going to be the one who is dealing with the legal ramifications. So, she’s pushing forward and say, no, this is not okay. She felt like there was a disconnect between kind of the first level of customer service and then once you get to the executive office, once she got to the executive office and there was an individual who was assigned to work with her, he followed up, he was patient on the phone, he made sure that the service manager they got her in touch with was timely in his response. He kept Karen in the loop, even if there was going to be a waiting period, he communicated that to her and what he did that was different than the first level of customer service was he empathized with the fact that we have a single mom here who has made a very large investment and she’s not saying she got anything fancy, but when you purchase a car, lease a car, that's an investment, you are putting your credit on the line and all of that. So, it's not something to be taken lightly and so because of his understanding of where she was coming from and her position and her worry and concern, he made sure that he saw it all the way through. Where on the front end, that didn't happen. Now what did he do differently than the first people who may be answered a call or answered an email? He didn't do much in the practical sense, except for the fact that he took his time to patiently understand where she was coming from and communicate in a way that made her feel like she was being heard, that her purchase was valued, her position as a customer was valued and he wanted to make sure that we found a resolution, he responded with care. So, it didn't take him much, but just the way that he was on top of it made a world of difference because she was ready to just blast this company, don't ever buy from them and that's not her character. But she felt like they did not care that we had such a major issue and it was only because, and she told him on their last call, she said, “It is only because of you and how you resolved this, that I feel satisfied.”The first three months of this process, which she didn't mention, it took a long time to get to that point, but the first three months was treacherous and because of this one person who showed compassion, who interacted with empathy and who made sure that a resolution was done in a caring way, she felt like, “Okay, I'm okay. I could come back and buy another car from them.”She knows that sounds bad because it was such a crazy, but he did resolve it with empathy.
Yanique stated, so it's more about listening to what the person is saying to you, understanding where they're coming from and why this is a pain point for them. And as you said, responding in a way that, “Oh well, no big deal.”Instead in a way that, “I understand where you're coming from and what can we do to make it better?” Because it would seem from the first level of customer service that they were more concerned about making the sale and less about providing after sales support to you.
Karen agreed and stated that it doesn't take a lot of time, it doesn't even take a lot of effort, you are on the exact same call with the exact same person and literally your tone can change, and your active listening skills can change the trajectory of that outcome. You just have to decide while you were in the midst of that, “How am I going to show up for this person? Am I going to be caring or am I going to be short and curt? Am I going to listen or am I just thinking about the next thing that I need to get done? Or Am I be grudgingly going through the motions?”Either way you have a choice and the energy level is the same.
Yanique shared, so they've lost a family member and seeing that I experienced at similar situation last year, what I looked for in people who showed compassion were people who came, they were just there, they were there to support me, it’s simple things like just coming over and sitting and talking just to have the companionship at that point in time because you don't want it to be alone because it's an experience of trauma and being alone, your mind wanders all over the place and you feel more lonely. So, you kind of just want somebody to be there and you want them to know that you want them to be there without you having to tell them, I want you to be there.
Karen agreed and stated that she’s going to ask Yanique for another example but pausing there for a second. That is another example of how it does not take much for you to just show up for somebody, does it? She remembered at my husband's funeral, Karen looked, and she saw at least 20 people from her office who were there, and that just made her feel so supported because you're right. When we go through a major loss like that, somebody close to us, somebody within our inner family, our intermediate family, then we usually go to this place of isolation in our minds because you get on this emotional rollercoaster and there's so many complex feelings, it's hard to keep up with those thoughts. So, you really feel emotionally and mentally drained and so when you have people around you, as you mentioned, they help you to stay connected to life, so you're not just completely caught up in your head, you're not isolating yourself and end up on this negative thought cycle and start spiraling downward but you have somebody who's just present. And she had somebody, her name was Jamie, she actually mentioned her in her Ted Talk because she mean this, she would just show up and just lay on the floor with her or lay in her bed or they would like walk around Target, she is one of her closest friends and she told Karen later after hearing Karen’s Ted Talk, so this was four years after this happened, but she said, “I admitted to my husband almost every night when I came home. I don't know if I'm doing enough, I don't know what else I'm supposed to do.”So, for four years as she is relishing this friendship and it anchored in her mind is something to teach other people, just show up. She didn't even realize that it had made an impact on her healing journey, it made a huge impact. So, you're right, she always tells people, we all need a Jamie. So that's good. So, the first thing is show up, be present but what's something else that you can do for a colleague?
Yanique shared that when she lost her dad last year, it was also important, and I guess that would link back to being present. To assist me with anything, low hanging fruits that would distract me or make me feel not supported.
Karen shared that the difference there is, is that what they did was they stepped in to respond to your basic needs because it could have been like handling bills, it could have been like handling other logistics that when you're in that mental fog, you don't really have the capacity to do so. And so, if you have people who you trust, who are near you, this could be different for colleagues. For colleagues showing up and responding to basic needs is like making sure you have food. Creating a food calendar or just saying, “Hey, it's okay if you need to take longer than five days.”because usually that's the bereavement period, it’s like five days for somebody in your intermediate family but they can say, “You know what? I know you have this project going on, I'll help you with that. What's your client's name? Let me step in, just give me a couple of details and I'll go into the system and I'll figure out the rest. But you don't worry about it.”That's responding to a basic need that's helping them to keep their life afloat and that is putting compassion into action.
Yanique asked, what do you think about situations when someone shares with you for example, that they had a tragedy and they’re going through grief like a death for example. And the person responds and says, I know exactly what you're going through because I find that grief is different for everyone and you may lose someone, and you respond in a different way. It impacts you in a different way and I may lose someone, and it may not impact me in that way, or it might impact me worse or less. Do you think it's a safe to say, I know exactly what you're going through? How do you know?
Karen shared that she thinks that this is another uncomfortable yet common response because it's true, it's a common response only because people feel uncomfortable and they're just kind of like, “Ah, what do I say?”And it just comes out so naturally and that's not really what they mean. They're not saying, I know exactly what you're going through because somebody has said that to her and she’s like, “Oh, your husband's been murdered. I didn't know that that happened to you.” And not to even downplay it, because some people will compare losses, they'll say, “Oh, well I went through a divorce and so I know how that feels.”Again, no, you don't know how it feels, but their heart is in the right place. So, the first thing she would say is if you're on the receiving end of that comment is to give that person a little bit of grace because at least they're trying to be there. Do not take offense to that and kind of see through their words to see their heart and their intentions and their heart and their intentions is to comfort you in the moment. But Karen’s advice to the person who wants to say that and guess what? Karen has said that to people before in a different light. And before all of this happened, before she became more aware of some of the myths that we use to comfort people. But if you are about to say that, hold your tongue real quick and then just think about saying something along these lines.
Again, “I don't know what you're going through, but I went through a situation and I know that pain is real. I know that those hard times can come in waves. I know that sometimes it can just feel really consuming and so if you feel anything that is just so painful and it feels hard for you to manage, you can come talk to me. I don't know what you're going through, but I know what pain feels like and I'm willing to just be here for you.”
It's authentic in the sense that she can relate to your pain even though she hasn’t experienced the same loss. And here's the thing, two siblings could lose the same parent and feel completely different about it. So, imagine the differences of somebody who says, “Oh, I went through a divorce too.”or “Yeah, I also had a miscarriage.”or “Oh, when my mom was sick.”We compare them but there's so many different factors that make that situation so different and unique, but at least being able to relate through the pain, Karen thinks that's the authentic place to be.
“I can't imagine what you have gone through, but I see who you are today and I see that you are a fighter, I see that you are a survivor and even if those pains are still being held with you, which I'm sure that they are, I can only imagine that they are. There is something in you that is not giving up and I admire that in you.”
That is truth. That is absolute truth. It does not diminish the pain that they have experienced, but it is uplifting them to say, I have seen that you did not give up. And I applaud you for that. But it is okay if you're still feeling and battling all of the wounds, the emotional wounds and mental wounds that you carry with you, but it's still, it uplifts them and it builds them up and that's at the end of the day, what we should be doing for each other is to build one another up so we feel safe, so we feel protected.
An example of this is, uh, one of her clients from Sprint, this gentleman is the general manager of one of their four business units, and they have been the number one team for the last 15 years straight. Fifteen years they have consistently outperformed the rest of the company and when she met him, she asked him to come onto her podcast, Invest Humanand she said, we just need to talk about what this is and he said, one word, “Kindness.”It is all about how you treat your people. Now when she goes into organizations, she breaks this down through like communication, interactions, conflict resolution, like how do we bring it into that. But it really all has to do with kindness because when you treat people well, then employees become more enthusiastic about their work and if they are enthusiastic about their work, what happens to their performance, it improves. What happens to the customer experience because of the person that they're interacting with. It’s like again a no brainer, it should be a no brainer, but she thinks what the shift that's happening is that people just kind of need permission and they need that framework because for so long we've lived in this space of kind of being robotic at work and only expecting or evaluating someone's performance and not opening up the experience, the actual employee experience.
Yanique shared that the interpersonal skills, the soft skills, showing kindness and ensuring that you exercise empathy and compassion, those are definitely characteristics and traits that as a leader will take you much further than any technical competence.
Yanique then stated, that seems to be a popular app. I've actually downloaded it on my phone, but I haven't clicked on it because things have been so busy. But I had a guest that was on our podcast and maybe two, three weeks ago and that was one of his recommendations. I find it interesting that shortly after, I'm getting the same recommendation, so that app must be really good. So, I think today I'm going to make sure I click on the app since it's on the phone and I haven't actually used it yet to see what it's all about. I have no problems falling asleep though but sometimes I do get distracted, like I'm doing something, and I start thinking about something else and I jump from one thing to the next. So, if Headspace can help me to refocus at times, that would be wonderful.
Karen stated that she thinks that it definitely, what she liked about it most was in the free version, it teaches you where some people just embark on this meditation journey and you're like, “Ah, how do I do this? I'm falling asleep. No, wait, I can't stop these thoughts.”There are so many barriers and she liked how in the free version it actually teaches you some of the techniques that are helpful.