Sorry, men. But it looks like we are going to have to work a lot harder if we want to be successful in this new age of entrepreneurship. As the voice of the customer speaks louder and louder in the marketplace, the sound of "male authority" in choosing and driving opportunities to market seems likely to give way to better observing and listening skills.
Case in point: I sit on the Conference Board of Canada's Council for Innovation and Commercialization. When we meet each quarter for two days of innovation talk and learning, we invite an entrepreneur into the room, to listen and learn alongside us, and also to share his or her inspiring story.
Just last month, when we were being hosted by 3M Co. at its Innovation Center in St. Paul, Minn., we were captivated by the passion and energy of Alicia Woods, chief executive officer and creator of Covergalls Inc., from Sudbury, Ont.
You may recognize Ms. Woods's name and story from Dragons' Den. Designing and selling coveralls that suit women's needs and physiques, Covergalls began by serving the mining industry. In no time, Ms. Woods's understanding that women had different needs – and tastes – from men led her into other products, from bibs and shirts to gloves and tuques. Now, her firm has also moved into forestry, energy, construction and manufacturing – and even ergonomic men's workwear.
The first time Ms. Woods appeared on Dragons' Den, in the fall of 2014, she slayed all five dragons – and secured a $75,000 deal from three of them (although two later dropped out during the due-diligence process). Two subsequent appearances on the show chronicled her company's continuing growth and probably made the reluctant dragons regret their failure to ante up.
Ms. Woods similarly won over the Conference Board's innovation experts. Picture the scenario: We were at 3M, one of the world's consistently most successful and innovative corporations. Its innovation centre offers high-tech interactive presentations that both demonstrate 3M's history of breakthrough products and promote the benefits of partnering with the company's scientists and innovators.
So why did we find Ms. Woods's presentation so compelling? She demonstrated the power of simple, observation-based innovation. You don't need technology and science to create breakthrough innovations – just the vision to see a gap in the marketplace and the determination to keep iterating until you find a winning solution.
In short, she demonstrated three of the most important qualities of the modern entrepreneur: insight, passion and empathy.
* Insight, the ability to clearly understand a situation or opportunity, is paramount. Every marketplace is crowded. A great entrepreneur looks for the cracks and crevices where opportunity is hiding, where the goliaths of industry either missed the signals or were too encumbered by process and bureaucracy to respond. The humiliation of having to wear men's coveralls in an underground mine – unsafe because of the lumpy fit, and poorly equipped for bathroom breaks – didn't just make Ms. Woods angry. It opened up a world of opportunity.
* Passion, of course, is the hallmark of every successful entrepreneur. It's why you so often hear investors, such as those on Dragons' Den, talk about investing in the person, not the company. If you are not totally engaged in your venture and ready to push through every obstacle, then the long, winding road to success will probably end in a massive sinkhole.
* Empathy is the ability to understand other people's feelings and needs. To me, the old cliché, "I feel your pain," is the X-factor for business success today. And as psychologist Dan Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, noted in a Psychology Today article, "Women tend to be better at emotional empathy than men."
Empathy is foundational to both innovation and entrepreneurship. To find opportunities, we have to be looking with our ears and listening with our hearts. I disagree with the critics who play down market research by saying customers don't know what they want until we give it to them. Clients may not know how to create the actual product or solution that will ease their pain points, but they are certainly the best equipped to articulate their challenges – for anyone who is willing to listen.
People who are highly attuned to the voice of customers, through emotional empathy, will feel their pain best and are most likely to solve their problem first.
Note to the guys: Instead of scoffing the next time you're told to get in touch with your "feminine side," it's time to take it to the bank. If, that is, you want to remain relevant in this age of empathetic opportunity and emotion-driven entrepreneurship.
Ken Tencer is chief executive officer of design-driven strategy firm Spyder Works Inc. and the co-author of two books on innovation, including the bestseller Cause a Disturbance. Follow him on Twitter at @90per centRule.