Jenn Lim is the founder and bestselling author of Beyond Happiness: How Authentic Leaders Prioritize Purpose and People for Growth and Impact, and the CEO of Delivering Happiness (DH), a company built to create happier company cultures for a more profitable and sustainable approach to business–a company she and Tony Hsieh [the late CEO of Zappos.com] cofounded. Delivering Happiness started as a book (NYT and WSJ Bestseller, which sold one million copies worldwide) and evolved into a business consultancy and global movement that has impacted and inspired hundreds of companies and organizations worldwide.
Q: Why is the age we are in is so very different?
[Jenn Lim]: In the time that I wrote the book and what you are picking upon, which was in 2020 I call the adaptive age in the book, was something I had been really developing even before 2020 BC (before COVID!). I began to wonder and try to think of where we are as human beings; going through the trajectory where we were as an agrarian age; we had farmers living off the land and then we evolved to the industrial age and being more with capitalism, then transitioning through the technology period and the information age. We seem almost at the brink of another era and different people are calling it different things.
The World Economic Forum called it the fourth Industrial Revolution, which there are some elements to that may be true, but I want you to really see it from a humanistic perspective because that is where I came up with the adaptive age.
The rate of change has become exponential and us as human beings physiologically have not been able to adapt. We just cannot physiologically adapt that quickly – what does it mean for us? This is in some ways Darwinian because he said it wasn’t about the strongest that survives, it’s those that are most able to adapt. Of course, Darwin is talking the level of species from his perspective, and I felt like, doesn’t that apply to us too as being part of this ecosystem?
The adaptive age really came out of my thinking of: – if things are changing so quickly around us, how can we actually focus on what we can control, which is mostly within ourselves and adapt, if not embrace the things that we cannot control. Knowing that there would be coming in new forms as we’ve all experienced and witnessed in the last two and a half years. Very unpredictable; complexity and ambiguity but make it more digestible for us as human beings, knowing that we can control what’s within.
Q: Is that where your greenhouse model came from?
[Jenn Lim]: Yes. The greenhouse model came out during these last few years of what can we do and not necessarily focus on all this chaos that is seemingly growing every day but focus on what can be a part of this adaptation and is a part of growth. The greenhouse model applied to us as individuals, but also as organizations. I applied it to not just businesses, but our lives.
If you think about the what and the who as two parts of it… you picture a pyramid, on the top is having a higher purpose, on the bottom is having the values and behaviors to support that purpose. In the middle there are the greenhouse conditions.
An example, what we know, for us as human beings to be more sustainably productive and happy are levers of control- such as autonomy, having trust to do and make your own decisions, a lever of progress, feeling that we are growing and developing. A lever of connectedness, having meaningful relationships, not just about happy hour drinks or what you’re bingeing on Netflix – these are the kind of conditional levers that we use for the what side of the pyramid.
If you have that coupled with the who, if you imagine now concentric circles. Me in the middle, we, and then community- community could be your customers, your partner, the vendors, everyone in your ecosystem. If one is a visual person, it can be seen in this book, that you can build a matrix of how every one of these elements of purpose values and behaviour levers can apply to them.
I really wanted to connect the me/we community aspects of showing that they can co-exist. I think in the past, it was more of a zero sum game, and now I think we can play in a positive sum game, which really plays into the whole greenhouse concept, because we can all actually grow together and not feel like we are needing to take in order to achieve.
From me to we, I always say start with the me, because that is what we can control from within and then for me to the we transition is essentially asking the very simple question what’s in it for me and what’s in it for all? As long as you can answer both of those questions in any scenario, ok whether in business or in life, then you know that you are positively thinking about the greater community – from knowing your audience, from a lot more philosophical, psychological point of view, this really points back to Maslow’s hierarchy…all these needs that need to be met to get to this top of this pyramid of self awakening. Actualisation is what he calls it, but what was interesting and not as published, is that before he passed away, another layer was added on top of actualisation, and that was called transcendence. It really blows my mind how it wasn’t spoken about. Transcendence is actualising others at the same time, so taking that into our everyday society, that’s how we can start rethinking and reframing what community means and how it interacts together.
Q: Do you think that this shift to a much more hybrid world is accelerating the impact of that in our lives? How is that shift impacting us?
[Jenn Lim]: Yes. It’s accelerated it. It’s catalysed it. The future of work is here because we thought it was kind of down the horizon, far away. I think because of all the shifts in the last two and a half years, it’s obvious that we’re living in it. The hybrid model has lifted the covers of what was already existing. We already knew there was a growing blend of work life. It wasn’t even balance anymore. It had to be a sense of integration. Zoom of course forced that into us but we were already experiencing that before.
Hybrid gives us a chance to be really honest about our time and it has had the forcing function of wait, am I really spending the minutes of my day most meaningfully? This reset of basically of who we are as human beings, why we live, what’s our purpose, how can we prioritise better, was really catalysed in the last two and a half year (due to covid).
It gives us more choice and flexibility and that is why people are wanting it more. The pros of it is like being able to express what that sense of control could be for you and there’s also the cons of not being able to be in-person anymore. The hybrid model is probably the best way that we can move forward and there is no going back from it.
Q: What does it mean to find purpose in our work, and how can we find purposeful work?
[Jenn Lim]: It is a word that is being thrown around so much these days, which is great to see because when we started using that at Zappos 10/15 years ago, it was nice to have but now it is almost a need to have for companies and we see it in terms of retention rates and great places to work.
The elements of a great place to work is when people say, Oh, I have a sense of purpose here. This is more than a pay cheque. This is more than a job. So going back to philosophically and the concept of why purpose matters, all the way back from the days of Aristotle, Socrates, fast forward all the way down to positive psychology, Marty Seligman…we now know the most sustainable form of meaningful happiness comes to purpose.
The definition of ‘purpose’ can be questioning, ‘What am I doing that’s greater than myself? What am I a part of that’s bigger than just me?’ Basically, gaining back its importance back from the days of Aristotle, because people are really being existential about their time and existence, therefore for those companies that comprehend this such as the super successful Airbnb, Patagonia, Tom’s Shoes and so many more now, they are clearly seeing the benefits of what it means to provide this, ‘We are not here to make money, our profits are going for a purpose. And this is how. for Airbnb as an example, we belong, we accept.
For the people that view it like that, like a person that might have wanted to go to McKinsey before, but they say, oh, this company is up for something more than just making more money and henceforth then they are attracting the right people that they want to be a part of that- to me is such a major needed shift.
It is crystal clear that people want to be aligned with what they do in life and if you have that higher purpose as an organisation that people can align themselves to, that’s when really the biggest impact and what I call the ripple of impact occurs.
Q: For the other businesses that have been around for a long time, they’re having to adapt to a new world. They’re having to adapt their culture, and change. How can businesses shift their culture to a way that allows them to communicate and be more purposeful?
[Jenn Lim]: I like the word shift because it doesn’t have to be this huge transformation, because then it becomes too daunting and then people just don’t want to do it. They perceive it as too challenging. We’ve got other things to worry about.
The shift happens in a way that it doesn’t have to be overblown. Like even if a CEO doesn’t see the value of having a purpose, we are leaders at every level of organisation and let’s just say I’m in a team or maybe I lead the team. I can develop a sense of purpose within that team by saying hey, we are in this not just for our goals and objectives, but we are in this for a higher reason. Let’s co-develop. Let’s create a purpose together. And ideally, of course, it’s at the CEO level, because if you have that person say, hey, this is our priority and this is a commitment, not just strategy and not just brand, but this is part of what we do, then that’s the most effective change and impactful change.
I just want to remind people that purpose can be created within anything that you do, and if it’s not at the executive level, you can start right within your teams and create that together, align your own personal purpose, create that team purpose, and you’ll see that there’s a different sense of results and productivity and engagement.
Q: How do you persuade those leaders that they have to think about purpose as being their primary thing?
[Jenn Lim]: Well, I think it comes down to, and it’s not just CEOs, CFOs, God bless them. I’m probably one of the biggest naysayers of this, but I just bring it back to the data, just bring it back to the numbers. One thing that really makes people at CEO levels rethink how they look at people when they think it’s an expense is that in the end, if you reinvest in your people, they reinvest in you and how we look at that, how do we know? As an example, for those companies that are the best places to work, Fortune’s best place to work list, Glassdoor’s top employers, actually those companies that essentially double down on their people outperform the S&P 500 and this has been happening for over 15 years. The data is there, that if you prioritise for your people and reinvest in them in a way that is meaningful to not just the company but to also themselves, financially speaking it’s very evident the question then becomes how?. But first you must believe and let that data saturate your system to understand it’s an asset. People are assets – not expenses.
Q: I wonder whether you’ve been able to see or distil what it really takes to become a great leader. So, some of the greatest leaders you’ve worked with, what is it that characterised them as being so much more capable than, I guess the rest of us mere civilians?
[Jenn Lim]: I never really think mere citizens exist. I think we all have that capability of being the exceptional leader in your own world however I do think there is some common threads that I’ve seen, and I think a big one is curiosity and not fearing failure.
Also those that are most, I think leaders of all kinds are odd in their own way and they are really willing to share that – by being authentic to their weird selves essentially.
The most noticeable quality that differentiates from a good leader to a great one is when they think about all that they are doing through the lens of humanity. We see a lot of good leaders out there that are creating companies, making a lot of money and say, oh, I wish I could have come up with that kind of thing but then what we see and how they do it, that’s what distinguishes a more evolved leader of what they are actually doing beyond just trying to espouse these amazing ideas…but how does it really impact the world that we live in?
Q: What was that kind of spark of inspiration that made you want to write this book? And what do you hope the reader takes away as the kind of legacy of this book?
[Jenn Lim]: The original spark was ten years into the company delivering happiness and it was like, wow, we have a lot to share here, this is not just a phenomenon that happened at Zappos and that could never happen anywhere else.I would say that really fired me up when people said that back in 2010.
Profitability, productivity, happy people…and being able to share all those stats and stories since 2010 was the primary sort of spark we need to get another book out there.
Then I signed the contract, 2020 in January, and then of course we all got 2020.
I had to write this book.
I know everyone went through so much -bereavement and loss, trauma and personally, I lost my co-founder at the end of 2020 and it was four or five weeks before the book was due. You can imagine how the why behind the book changed after every headline that came through from pandemic to social unrest to climate change and then losing one of my best buds and that to me changed the spark, the why.
I really wanted to express it in a way of really touching upon these questions that you are asking, in sense of purpose and sense of our why from a human level.
This happens to be a workplace book and culture and community book but I really wanted to frame it in a way that it’s not just about how we live our lives or when we pass away. It’s about thinking about how do we live it in a way that, as I call it, you’re living in it, you’re loving legacy now- before it’s gone.
We never know when that’s going to be the case.
I feel like this is such an exceptional time that our ancestors, even our parents, our grandparents had to think about how to put food on the table on a daily basis and they have succeeded. They have given us the luxury of being able to think and reflect and be intentional and be conscious about our decisions and our lives – so why not live up to what they fought so hard for in ourselves and what we represent, and how we want to impact the world.