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CEO of Delivering Happiness on How to Build a Culture-First Organization: CCW Nashville

Using science to build happier organizations

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Kindra Cooper

Delivering Happiness Jenn Lim

At the start of her keynote, Jenn Lim, CEO and co-founder of culture consultancy Delivering Happiness, wants to know what proportion of the audience believes they can predict their own “personal, meaningful, long-term happiness.”

Lim opens most of her speaking engagements with this question in order to read the room. Usually, just 1-5 percent of the audience raises their hand in agreement. And yet, this glum outlook isn’t simply pessimism: a Gallup poll on employee engagement shows a whopping 87 percent of employees worldwide are not engaged at work. Conversely, companies with highly engaged workforces outperform their peers by 147 percent in earnings per share.

“It really confounds me because here we are in this world where the pursuit of happiness and the inner declaration of independence are not new concepts by any means,” Lim mused.

Having consulted for over 350 organizations around the world, her firm’s methodology is rooted in science-based research for creating happiness, passion and purpose in your personal and professional life.

In fact, Delivering Happiness advocates that the “happiest” organizations are those that cultivate cultures where the work/life striation becomes irrelevant. Case in point: the four-part “Happiness Framework” for keeping workers content seems almost naively elemental. To feel fulfilled, employees need a sense of control, progress, connectedness and vision/meaning.

In other words, work should be one of many sources for seeking purpose, rather than the proverbial ball-and-chain that detracts from our natural, lifelong soul-search.  

“More importantly, you’re creating more meaningful lives,” said Lim. “What that means is not just meaningful lives for your customers but meaningful lives for yourselves and what it means to live purposefully.”

Like most proponents of finding passion and purpose in life, Lim experienced an existential turning point that eviscerated her notions of what happiness really was.

Growing up in an immigrant family from Hong Kong, by her college years she’d been taught to believe there were three keys to success in life: Get into a good school, become a doctor or lawyer and “learn a variety of musical instruments,” she says, half-joking.

After dropping pre-med at UC Berkeley against her parents' wishes to major in Asian-American studies, she struggled to land a job. She started cold calling companies in Silicon Valley and finally snagged a position as an internet consultant at KPMG during the dot com boom.

“Money, title and status fell into my lap pretty much overnight,” she recalled. When the dot com bubble burst in 2001 and e-commerce giants like Webvan and shut down and Qualcomm lost most of its market capitalization, Lim found herself jobless once again.

“I felt like a complete failure, and it wasn’t necessarily because I got laid off,” she recalled. “It was actually because I thought the things that meant everything to me - money, title and status - really didn’t mean that much at all.”

Beyond that, Lim realized that over the past few years she’d been deflecting a natural impulse to ask herself: “What would I actually do if I didn’t fear failure?”

It reads like a tidy soundbite from your average self-help tome, but moments after her epiphany, Lim decided she wanted to climb a mountain in the Tanzanian Serengeti. She called her long-time pal, Tony Hsieh, who’d just assumed the position of CEO at online shoe retailer Zappos, and asked him to join her.

“So there we were in our twenties climbing this mountain, and I had just lost my job and Tony had just sold his first company to Microsoft for $265 million,” Lim chuckled. “Clearly we were at opposite ends of the financial spectrum, but we were actually thinking the same question, which was, What would we do with our lives if money didn’t matter?

That simple experience of breaching her comfort zone shook her awake to the possibilities she’d missed out on. “We reached the summit and it felt like something straight out of a movie,” she recalled. “We were watching the sunrise on the edge of the Serengeti and we were thinking, Wow, this is crazy. Maybe anything is possible.”

After their trip, both of them resumed their respective lives. Hsieh had invested most of his personal net worth in Zappos and was on the brink of bankruptcy, while Lim lost her dad to colon cancer. Her father’s death forced Lim to face her greatest fear: that of “losing someone in my life that I couldn’t imagine a life without.” She was never the same again.

“I started looking at life like a green field,” Lim said. “I started doing things I was super passionate about. I started writing, I started making films. I started doing things that I thought were meaningful and of substance to myself.”

In 2005, she created the first Culture Book for Zappos, now in its 7th edition - and has produced them ever since. In each beautifully illustrated book, Lim asks employees to contribute their own personal take on “How do you define Zappos culture?”

Each employee’s input is published word for word, the good and bad. “It was really honest look at ourselves to say, hey, do we really want to live up to this idea of being supportive of our employees and culture? So we had a very transparent look at whether or not culture was actually improving over time.”

She says her personal growth was reflected in the company’s own maturation, going from a mission to “sell the most shoes in the world” to “being the best at customer service,” and finally, arriving where it is today: “being the best at company culture and delivering happiness to our employees.”

In a world where customers increasingly consider the values of a company in addition to their product or service, Lim believes companies that are both purporseful and profitable are more likely to come out on top. How do you make culture a priority? Base your hiring and firing practices on the company values you want to foster.

Zappos’ employee-first culture is so deeply ingrained that new hires are offered a $2,000 incentive to leave the company after completing four weeks of paid training, no questions asked.

Regardless of a new hire’s position on the organization’s totem pole - from software engineer to C-suite occupant - they’re required to spend their first four weeks manning the phones in the call center learning how to respond to customer needs and understanding the soul of the company. Those who aren’t onboard with the company culture know where to find the door.

If you haven’t become a Zappos brand advocate committed to the company goals and culture, Zappos prefers you leave, because disharmony rubs off on the other employees and can cascade to the rest of the organization.

“At the end of the day, is it really worth everyone else’s productivity and therefore happiness because of this one person that’s not a culture fit?” Lim asked rhetorically. Beyond the necessity of preserving culture, allowing employees to self-identify as a non-fit and voluntarily dismiss themselves saves the company money in the long-term.  

“If you think about it, every wrong hire you bring into the team actually costs the company 150-300 percent more for to replace that person,” Lim explained. “So in the end it saves Zappos money to be running this program.”