How My Disability Made Me a Better Leader

Last Updated Nov 7, 2010 8:16 AM EST

By Susan Stern, President, Stern + Associates
If you didn't know me, you probably would never guess I have a disability - especially when you learn that I'm the founder and president of a growing public relations and marketing agency currently celebrating its 25th anniversary. My progression toward profound deafness began in my twenties and gradually worsened into my adult years. As my disability intensified, so did the success of my business, prompting me to adapt a management style that played to my strengths. My disability ultimately sparked the development of important leadership skills that I believe are the core of my company's success.
Although I am able to carry on conversation in quiet venues and have unimpaired speech, I rely on state-of-the-art cochlear implant technology (surgically implanted electronic devices that stimulate the auditory nerve to provide sound) to give me the ability to hear and communicate. I don't require an interpreter nor do I know sign language; nonetheless, I'm still very limited by my hearing impairment. As my world began to get smaller due to my inability to interact in important business situations including phone calls, meetings and meals with clients, I became acutely aware of the need to adjust accordingly, to help my business prosper in light of my personal challenge.

Realizing a Need for Change
Shortly after I founded Stern + Associates in 1985 at the end of a dinner with a new client, the waiter asked if I wanted to "take my fish." Due to the noise factor in the restaurant I responded with "yes," thinking he had asked "are you finished?" How embarrassing it was when the fish arrived back at the table wrapped in foil and the client thought I was taking it back to my hotel room! It may seem a minor misstep that could happen to anyone but this miscommunication inspired me to proactively inform people of my disability and change with the way I managed client interactions.

Now, whenever possible, I take steps to ensure I am in the most opportune position. In all instances a staff member participates with me on client calls and meetings to ensure that no information is missed. Whether it's requesting a quiet corner table or sitting directly across from the client, I have organized my world so that my impairment doesn't impact the success of my business.

Sharing the Spotlight
Initially, I was hesitant to relinquish some of my responsibilities out of concern that my leadership role could be compromised. However, I found that gradually increasing the responsibilities of senior employees with the talent and potential to lead, and directing my focus toward their training, resulted in bringing fresh, new thinking to our clients and building an organization that wasn't solely dependent on just one key player. From a perspective different than many other business owners, I began to see the members of my management team, along with my staff, as necessary partners in my daily business routine. Originally incorporated under the name of Susan Stern Public Relations Inc., within three years of its founding I decided to operate the business as Stern + Associates. The "plus" communicated that the associates in my firm were and continue to be of equal importance to me.

The Importance of Active Listening and Observation
With the loss of my hearing I've learned the true significance of being an attentive listener. In fact, clients and staff alike comment on how intently I listen, responding only when I'm confident the speaker has completely finished sharing his thoughts. Of course, since I do rely to some degree on lip reading, my focusing on the speaker's face also conveys my interest in the person's ideas. Every business person would benefit from cultivating the following skills that have served me well:

  • Stay focused on what is being said
  • Remember that eye contact is key
  • Wait for speaker to finish
  • If you don't understand, ask
  • Contribute your thoughts on the topic
Additionally, I've learned to tune into visual cues that help me "read" people's reactions and feelings. For example, when people do not actively participate in a meeting it isn't always due to a lack of ideas. A puzzled look, a furrowed brow or leaning back in one's chair signal to me that the person is not in agreement.

While there is no way of knowing if I would have embraced the same management style if I had never lost my hearing, I strongly believe the lessons learned have shaped my leadership skills in a uniquely positive way. Importantly, my lessons are ones that would benefit any leader. From my loss, I learned the value of what I have ultimately gained: a strong foundation for a successful business.