Yan Liang on Empathy and Connection as Business Tools
Yan Liang is the founder of Hey Happiness and understands the importance of empathy in the workplace. She took some time out to share her insights on this topic with The Industry Leaders. 10 years ago, Yan traded in her corporate career to combine her business development experience with her passion for personal development. While building her own jewelry brand, Hey Happiness, she indulges her love of slow travel, which has taken her to more than 70 countries, and devours hundreds of books on personal growth.
Can you start by telling us about your entrepreneurial journey? What led you to your current business, and what is it that sets your leadership style apart from others?
From a young age, I always loved to read books, especially autobiography and personal growth books, because I was searching for meaning and purpose in life. There are two books that changed the trajectory of my life and helped me embark on the entrepreneurial journey. These two books are "Losing My Virginity" by Richard Branson and "The 4-Hour Work Week" by Tim Ferris. I would say my leadership style is based on clear and open communication and understanding my team's personal goals and what they want to achieve. It is not so much a case of here is what you need to do, but rather let me understand where you want to be and let us plan together and see what kind of challenges you are willing to take on and what will help you achieve your goals in life.
You've been recognized for your focus on empathy and human connection within your organization. How did you come to realize the importance of these values in leadership, and how have they shaped the way you run your business?
I've always been interested in psychology, philosophy and personal development, partly because I want to understand myself and what motivates me. After years of reading, I've come to realize that the foundation of business is human relationships. I believe that a relationship based on win-win for both parties is the only way to thrive in the long run. This has helped me to look at the human connection within my organization through the same lens. In my experience, the team member who is able to do an exceptionally good job is usually someone who enjoys the role/responsibility they have been given. I think a good fit means that not only is a person capable of delivering great results, but the job can provide the growth and challenge that person is looking for. So I make sure I spend time understanding the person, what drives them, what motivates them, what is important to them. This is where empathy and connection come in, because without knowing who they are as a person, I would not be able to make the right decision about putting them in the right role that would help them thrive.
Can you share an example of a situation where employing empathy and connection as business tools made a significant positive difference in your organization? What were the challenges and outcomes?
In 2019, we faced a big challenge that suddenly caused us to lose about 60% of our revenue due to our heavy reliance on a small number of sales channels at the time. Facing this big challenge, I was thinking about how to share this news with my team. I was torn between putting up a strong front or being vulnerable and sharing from my heart. I was afraid that if I showed my vulnerability, my team would think that I was weak and did not have what it took to get through the crisis. In the end, I decided to share from my heart with my team. I said this is going to be the toughest challenge I've ever faced since I started the company six years ago, it's not going to be easy, but I'm willing to do what it takes and I hope I have your support to turn it around. Some team members came up to me after the talk and told me they were touched by what I shared. It is this willingness to connect with my team on a human level that allowed us to really bond and work hard together in the same direction to pull ourselves up and achieve much more than we had before the crisis.
Empathy can often be misunderstood or oversimplified in a business context. How do you define it in your leadership practice, and how do you ensure that it's applied authentically?
I think empathy here means being able to see another person as a human being with their own needs and desires. I think people can be motivated either by fear or by love and hope, and sometimes certain leaders use fear to control people, but I think that usually doesn't work in the long run. Over time, people can feel resentment towards such leaders. Daniel Pink, in his book Drive, introduced autonomy, mastery, and purpose as motivators. I think the really powerful leader can tap into the potential of his or her team members and make the connection between the individual's aspirations and the appropriate responsibilities, so that the individual is in the right environment to thrive. We have a team culture of being kind to each other, and I think the best way to make sure that is authentically applied is to make sure that we as leaders have the right culture in place. It also means that as a leader, we have to lead by example, because my team would be watching how I treat other team members. I constantly ask myself if I am practicing what I preach.
Connection is not just about understanding others but also connecting with oneself. How do you maintain a balance between personal well-being and fostering connections with your team?
I agree 100% with the statement that connection is not only about understanding others, but also about connecting with oneself. I would even say that without connecting with ourselves first, connection with others cannot be fostered on a deeper level. It is really important for me to set aside regular time to reflect and journal, to talk to other entrepreneurs who may be facing similar challenges, or to mentors who have been through different stages of business growth. I think the analogy of the oxygen mask on an airplane could also be applied here. We need to put our own oxygen masks on before we can help others put theirs on in an emergency.
In terms of scalability, how do you maintain these human-centered values as your business grows? What strategies or tools have you found most effective?
I think building the right culture is essential to making sure we maintain the people-centric values as the company grows. I think 1 on 1 meetings are really important. We schedule regular 1 on 1 meetings with each team member, in the beginning of the meeting we always reserve time to share the updates on personal life to make sure the meeting starts on a positive note. I also check in frequently with the team member to see how they are doing, if they are enjoying what they are doing, if they have any feedback they would like to share.
For those who are new to leadership or are struggling to build empathy and connection within their teams, what practical advice can you offer? Are there any exercises or habits that can be cultivated?
I like the idea from the book Traction by Gino Wickman, he recommends going around and sharing a personal victory of each member at the beginning of each meeting. It gives the team a chance to get to know each other a bit and also sets a very positive tone for the meeting. I would also recommend scheduling 1 on 1s with each of your direct reports and, less frequently, 1 on 1s with team members who do not report directly to you.
You've shared some truly insightful thoughts on leadership. How have these principles been reflected in your products or services, and what has been the response from your customers?
Here are a few examples. High Customer Satisfaction Score - We give our customer care team full autonomy and each member has a budget that they can allocate to achieve maximum customer satisfaction. We encourage the team to be creative and empathetic in solving customer problems, as a result we have a very high satisfaction score from customer feedback and they value Hey Happiness customer service highly. Creative Idea Contribution from Everyone in the Team - Because we've built a good relationship with our team, everyone feels valued and safe to contribute their ideas to improve our products and services. We have a process to collect ideas and implement them, so we are able to benefit from the wisdom of the team.