Why IWG’s Lars Wittig Relies on Empathy for Success, Especially in a Pandemic

From pineapples and cigarettes to the most recognised logo in the world of business real estate, learn how empathy helped drive Lars Witting to the top if his game.

After more than three decades of building successful operations for leading brands in Asia’s diverse markets, Lars Wittig is something of a management savant. He has an uncanny ability to get to the core of business challenges and find sustainable, revenue-generating solutions that seem like a no-brainer in hindsight. His unconventional approach belies a keen appreciation for what customers want and how to deliver on a plan successfully. Following stints at the East Asiatic Company, Coca Cola Asia, and Dole Packaged Foods, Wittig has made a home with global co-working space provider IWG Philippines for the last eight years.

What all of these multinational organisations had in common during his tenures was, what hamstrings executive teams everywhere, disruption. Not just the general challenge of keeping up with new industry trends, but sweeping shifts in how consumers and businesses operate. The thread that connected Wittig’s success with these organisations was empathy, a leadership quality that has witnessed a resurgence in business circles. COVID-19 has only fuelled belief in the power of empathic leadership as companies find the best ways to engage with employees and customers amid unprecedented circumstances.

“Only by living the customer’s experience, can you truly understand the value of your product.”

At IWG, his instinct to connect and empathise with customers has led him to reach out and find innovative, mutually beneficial solutions. Wittig says the crucial thing is to hold on to existing customers and stop the bleeding. “Then I can start selling,” he explains. “Occupancy is steadied and goes back up eventually. You need to show value to customers, then the revenues will improve, and eventually, I’ll get back to my regular pricing.” The result of this approach, when others are floundering, has been some of his best sales months ever.

Confidence came easily for Wittig. As a 12 year old Danish farm boy, he took the train to Copenhagen to tell The East Asiatic Company – then Denmark’s largest firm – that he wanted to work for them when he grew up. This precocious childhood stunt paid off when the firm sent him to Asia. His career took off, as he worked first in Japan and then in the Philippines. It was during this time that Wittig began to hone his unconventional, innovative approach guided by empathy. While launching the Filmora cigarette brand in Borneo, which was already popular in Malaysia, he spent weeks chatting up locals living in the most remote parts of the island; often over a drink and a smoke.

“The post-pandemic new normal will be very different – it will define a new order, distinguishing the winners from the also-rans.”

He transferred this ability to identify with the needs, desires, and habits of consumers to the Philippines. This time he personally mapped every retail outlet across socio-economic areas to create focused marketing plans and sustained sales success. He explained that this is essential for achieving growth, saying that, “Only by living the customer’s experience, can you truly understand the value of your product.”

At Dole he insisted on visiting the plantation, working 16-hour shifts to learn about the planting, harvesting and canning processes. To understand the shipping process, Wittig sailed in an old container ship to Japan in a cabin with eight locks on the door and armed with a baseball bat as protection from the livestock running around the ship.

Wittig believes that this intense motivation to get a hands-on understanding of every aspect of a business, especially the customer, is a prerequisite for any successful leader. “With this attitude, it is possible to overcome any obstacle, even the disruption caused by COVID-19,” he said. “The post-pandemic new normal will be very different – it will define a new order, distinguishing the winners from the also-rans.”

Among the far-reaching effects of this pandemic, Wittig believes will be a harsher spotlight on working teams’ attributes and attitudes, in essence, the company’s ability to adapt for success. He emphasised that building high-performance teams is about people – and empathy is mission-critical. With working from home as the current norm, the opportunities for in-person interactions have all but vanished.

“Remote working has proved functionally efficient, but it is crucial to remember the human element,” says Wittig. “Call me a Boomer if you like but when you’re meeting online, turn on the camera! I want to see my colleagues! That way, I get to know them and learn about them better.”

Results suggest that somehow, this unconventional business maverick’s ideas make sense.

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