Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

After a stroke, CEO leads through empathy, creativity.

Solving problems for clients, in this academic meets real world approach, requires a mission-driven leader focused on five essential steps. It’s not for knee jerks.

  • By Mark Gordon
  • | 5:00 a.m. July 1, 2021
  • | 2 Free Articles Remaining!
File. Doug Pace founded Tampa-based Stonehill Innovation in 2018.
File. Doug Pace founded Tampa-based Stonehill Innovation in 2018.
  • Leadership
  • Share

The third week of March 2016 was one of the ages for entrepreneur Doug Pace. One on side, he celebrated a major milestone, when he exited the digital marketing business he co-founded 12 years earlier, Bayshore Solutions. With some $10 million a year in revenue, 120 employees and offices in Miami and Denver, in addition to a Tampa headquarters, Bayshore was a career success for Pace, then 42 years old. Pace sold his ownership shares to his co-founder Kevin Hourigan.

Three days later, March 14, 2016, Pace experienced the other side: he had a massive stroke. “Basically,” Pace said in 2018, “every artery that brings blood to the brain just blew open.”

I recount Pace’s stroke not merely because his subsequent recovery led to a life epiphany. (It did, as to be expected, when he reset his life priorities.) The stroke, in terms of leadership, also led Pace to discover his passion: design thinking. An academic theory around the idea that problem solving requires both rethinking the issue and leaning on the innovation and creativity of groups, design thinking is a cornerstone of Pace’s post-stroke business venture. He was so jazzed about the concept that in 2018 Pace turned down an offer from a Fortune 100 company, something he called his dream job, to launch Stonehill Innovation.   

With design thinking at the forefront, Stonehill, says Pace, now 47, has grown to $3 million a year or so in revenue and 15 employees. Current and past clients include Red Bull, The Florida Aquarium and Valley Bank. “Design thinking is a framework, it’s a mindset more than a methodology,” Pace says. “I get asked about it often, and people always want to know more about it.”

Study hall

Companies and executives, in a variety of ways, have learned more about design thinking leadership — and embraced it over the past few years. Stanford, Harvard and MIT teach it, in a variety of educational disciplines, and Google, Apple and GE are among the business giants that utilize it. Stanford has an entire school, the D.School, that only teaches design thinking, for students and business executives.  

Pace uses a five-point framework for design thinking with clients, similar to at Stanford’s curriculum. The points include:

• Empathy: This could be found starting with your company’s net promoter score, a ranking of how much a customer or client would recommend the product or service to someone else. Pace says the goal is to try to understand someone’s motivations, and by doing so, you can design a product or service, or refine it, to meet those needs. “You want to study the empathy of your brand,” he says.

Within empathy, there are three key points: engage, observer and immerse. Engage is talking directly to customers through surveys, interviews and focus groups. Observe is what it sounds like — see how people use the type or kind of product or service you provide. And immerse is a call for the design team, your employees, to experience what the customer experiences.

Define: Sometimes defining the problem isn’t as simple as ‘sell more stuff,’ which is why, Pace says, empathy is step one. In defining the problem, Pace talks about a big leadership lesson — at least for me: never assume. “Don’t jump in with a solution,” he says. “Make sure you are empathetic and really understanding the problem.”

Pace cites a moving company he worked with as an example of digging deep to find the core issue. In this case, the CEO wanted to improve the company’s net promoter scores. But did the lag in customer service stem from the movers on the scene, or the process itself, from the call center to lifting the couch? After some research, Pace’s team found a few holes to fix across the company’s entire model — not just the mover that knocks on the door with a dolly.

• Ideation: After defining the problem, the next step is to begin to solve it. In this step, says Pace, the idea is to create multiple potential solutions — not judge and dismiss them. He says this is the time to go wide, not deep, and “get all the ideas out there.”

Stanford’s D.School curriculum, in ideation, suggests people use improvisational comedy techniques such as “Yes, And…” where one person accepts the other’s idea and expands on it.

‘The best leaders are the ones who say, ‘no we are not going to do it that way anymore.’” Doug Pace, Stonehill Innovation

Another key to the ideation phase? It shouldn’t be boss-driven. The ideas should come from creative collaboration among the team.  

Prototypes: After you settle on some ideas to solve the problem, next up is to execute on it. Pace suggests starting small. “It’s all about experimenting and making small bets,” he says. “By doing that you can almost make a culture of change within your company.”

Testing: This is the time to see if the solutions, the prototypes, work, to judge and evaluate. “If it works you can keep doing it,” says Pace. “If it’s not working you can change it or you can drop it.”

Ask me why

The five steps are a good start, but, like in any project, there has to be a leader, a champion to make it go. That doesn’t have to be the CEO — but someone, at a minimum, who believes in the organization’s mission and vision.

Mark Gordon
Mark Gordon

Pace says there are three characteristics that make for a good leader within design thinking.

One is, like in design thinking, to have empathy. Pace says when he looks for empathy in a leader, he’s looking for someone who doesn’t respond to problems with a knee-jerk, reactionary attitude. “A lot of times when something goes wrong at your company or somebody doesn’t do something right, (executives) will get mad,” he says, “They never stop and say ‘why did he or she do that? Why did that happen? That’s what’s missing. You have to have the empathy to stop and say ‘why did that happen?’ That’s a great leadership trait.”

The second trait for Pace is leaders have to be willing to challenge what’s normal. “It’s easy to say,” he says, “but the best leaders are the ones who say, ‘no we are not going to do it that way anymore.’”

The third trait Pace values in design thinking leadership is having a clear vision. Not a bumper sticker slogan, but something the company embodies. “Every employee,” Pace says, “wants to be able to go home to their wife or husband, their kids, and be able to say they are really proud of the company they work for.”




Latest News


Special Offer: $5 for 2 Months!

Your free article limit has been reached this month.
Subscribe now for unlimited digital access to our award-winning business news.
Join thousands of executives who rely on us for insights spanning Tampa Bay to Naples.