Compassion In Practice – An Interview with Sarah Cox of L.L.Bean – Part 1

L.L. Bean is an organization with a commitment to its employees and compassion is embedded in its distinctive workplace culture. We recently spoke with Sarah Cox, who has been at L.L. Bean for over 15 years and is currently the HR Director of Talent. With a passion and commitment to both L.L. Bean’s heritage and the growth and development of its employees, not surprisingly Sarah began our thought-provoking conversation about compassion with a quote from Leon Gorman, the much respected, beloved former CEO and Chairman of L.L. Bean:

“Customer service is just a day-in, day-out, ongoing, never-ending, unremitting, persevering, compassionate type of activity.”

How do you define compassion?

Operating in a way that actively invites us to imagine what it is like to be another person with whom we are working, relating, talking, impacting, leading and therefore acting with greater kindness, empathy and support. It is a pragmatic source of energy to me – not simply a heartfelt expression and definitely not patronizing, as it can be interpreted by some.

Although the words “pity” and “sympathy” show up in many definitions of compassion, those words do not capture the way I think about it. I think of it more as a way to be fully connected to others – perhaps especially to those who are most vulnerable. And also to those who demonstrate behaviors that we don’t particularly like, people who are different from us, or make us angry or afraid. To me, compassion mobilizes action and outcomes. It is not stagnant state of being. It’s a very active way of relating.

What is the value of compassion within the organization?

If we really are concerned about all of our stakeholders in a compassionate way, we will, over time, serve the greater good in a way that could never be served without compassion.

How and where do you see compassion applied in the organization?

It is everywhere. It’s the glue or connective tissue of the organization. I like to remind myself  that nothing in an organization actually exists except for the people, the buildings, equipment, and the product (if it is a physical product). All the rest of it – the organization structure, the culture, the promise of the future – all of it exists in our imaginations. Therefore the way we think about each other, the way we build relationships and actively use them to shape our organizations, is the most powerful force of all in creating thriving workplaces.
Time and again I have seen leadership choices that mobilize compassion well beyond what might be expected. In a core sense, as an HR function, we want to build structures and programs that help people see around corners that they themselves might not be able to see in the here and now – this is a collective compassionate action. We need to provide people with time to take care of themselves or loved ones if they are ill, to inform young people about how to anticipate retirement and plan for it – because they might otherwise NOT think about it. We want to invite people to consider  ongoing education and enable it through experiences and funding. Just because people might not be thinking about these things does not mean we shouldn’t be thinking about them – we should. We ought to have a vision and help prepare people for each life stage and have the nimbleness and expansiveness to respond ethically and compassionately to these life events. That’s our responsibility as leaders, as corporate citizens and as policy makers. That is our responsibility as a compassionate organization. Otherwise we don’t really have an organization – at least not a sustainable one.

Are there risks or liabilities to compassion in the workplace?

Compassion without direction, goals, learning, and results would be short-lived. It could collapse in on itself and become too much of a reinforcing mechanism to the status quo. It could even reinforce an orientation that someone is a victim of their circumstances or foster complacency… And yet, as we discuss this and play that out as a potential liability, I realize that’s not really compassion, is it? That way of being actually hurts the system and hurts the individual as opposed to providing mechanisms for support. So that quickly flies in the face of being compassionate – it’s something else: it’s collusion, compassion’s evil twin. It’s just a way for me to pity you so I feel more powerful and better than you, which is very unhelpful. I would argue that’s not compassion at all.

Do you think L.L. Bean is unique in its commitment to compassion?
While I consider myself very fortunate, I don’t think we inhabit a wholly unique place – we are among friends with other organizations. Most of them are values-driven companies that have a commitment to something greater than themselves that manifests itself in many ways. These organizations are pretty clear about themselves as stakeholder- driven organizations and can usually articulate what they stand for as a culture, as a brand, and as a business enterprise. I also know there are many workplaces that do not actively tend to compassion, but I am certain there is much compassion present there nonetheless.  In those organizations it’s not that people lack compassion but that the organizing principles of the business or enterprise have not been designed to capitalize on the compassion that exists within the people employed there.  As a result, there is human and organizational capacity left on the cutting-room floor, because compassion is not actively tended. But it is always present if we look carefully.

How can organizations foster cultures where compassion can thrive?

We can foster cultures of compassion by choosing leaders who value compassion and know how to demonstrate it, by inviting people to learn from one another, and by raising up mistakes as opportunities for learning versus something to fear.

Respect is a core value at L.L. Bean.  Sometimes we call compassion “respect,” and respect “compassion,” because they both are ways to express concern for another person. Ours is a polite, courteous and kind environment.  People who have operated in very different work environments that are not respectful, courteous or kind, come into L.L. Bean and we often laugh with them about the fact that it usually takes them about a year to realize that it’s real, that the other shoe is not going to drop, that someone isn’t going to try to stab them in the back. That polite respectfulness, treating others with courtesy, is the preamble to true compassion being able to thrive. Once someone gets enculturated into the organization, treating people respectfully and politely translates into kindness which translates into compassion – and fosters that cultural norm.

The other piece that I would be remiss not to mention is L.L. Bean’s passion toward service. It’s why Leon Gorman talked about compassion in the context of customer service… customer service is that sort of day in and day out compassionate kind of activity because it’s about helping other people. I want to help you, I want to help you and your family get outdoors, I want to help you take your first hike, whatever it is for you. That service orientation translates naturally into the workplace as well. There’s a real sense of mutuality we’re building upon that is part of our expression of value to the customer and we use it as an expression of value to one another as colleagues. If people want to build a strong culture in their business, a good place to start is by strengthening a service orientation with their customers. I believe service within the organization and customer service can naturally rise together. There’s probably a baseline level of service that you can offer customers while still being chewed up back in the office, but I don’t think you can take that very far for very long.

How do wisdom and courage influence compassion?

Compassion without wisdom and courage risks becoming too sympathetic. It could foster relationships and a workplace that does not invite people to strive for something more or different – when in fact more or different are often exactly what’s required. Wisdom provides objectivity and a strategic point of view, and courage provides the fuel and allows for a tough compassion (tough love) when it is needed. Indeed, taking a tough stand with someone is often the most compassionate thing we can do as leaders – it creates a clarity and forcefulness that invites people to mobilize to become their best selves. Compassion with wisdom and courage becomes a very powerful mobilizing force for good. I feel like any one of them is weaker without the others, but with the three, the potential is limitless.

Part 2 of this interview with Sarah Cox from L.L. Bean will be published in late January. If you’d like to be notified when the post is available, as well as other future posts, please subscribe to the WCC Project using the form below.

About the author

As president of MRG, Tricia uses her penchant for bursting into song and bringing out the best in people in approximately equal measure.

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mary saxon
mary saxon
8 years ago

what a compelling article!~ As a person who works with the Bean organization, I know, first hand, that compassion is an integral part of the Bean culture. It’s a critical element of what bonds me to the organization and the people at Bean. It’s a lesson that I am reminded of in every interaction with Sarah as we work together to place people in the organization and support their success. It’s one of the reasons why I consider my relationship with Bean (and Sarah) one of the special gifts I have in my professional life.


[…] the first part of our interview with Sarah Cox, the HR Director of Talent at L.L. Bean, Sarah shared her thoughts on compassion […]