Jenn Lim Says Authentic Leaders Will Deliver Far More Than Just Happiness to Their Workforce

Jenn Lim.

The CEO of Delivering Happiness says that leaders from startups to global organizations need to go beyond merely making employees and customers happy to be able to thrive in the post-pandemic world.

Why Happy Workers Are Not Enough

Jenn Lim is the CEO of Delivering Happiness, a business consultancy she co-founded with Zappos’ CEO, the late Tony Hsieh, after collaborating with him on his 2010 bestseller of the same name. As Lim worked with clients like Starbucks, McDonald’s, Sallie Mae, and the United Arab Emirates, she came to realize that the first book was a great example of how Zappos created a culture that connected worker happiness to profits. But there were core elements that needed to evolve and be built out from there.

She began addressing bigger issues of true personal fulfillment, values, and purpose — and how individuals and companies can have a positive impact far beyond their immediate ecosystem. This led her to write “Beyond Happiness: How Authentic Leaders Prioritize Purpose and People for Growth and Impact” (Grand Central Publishing).

“While on the book tour promoting Delivering Happiness, we began to recognize that there was a need for more emphasis on the individual’s authentic connection to a larger purpose at work and life,” Lim told Startup Savant. “Job satisfaction can be a building block for an enlightened business model, but in Beyond Happiness, I describe how companies and their teams can go to the next level, having an impact that will ripple out to all their stakeholders, communities, and even the planet.”

This perspective is especially important as we go through a reset after the pandemic, she adds.

“With the grief experienced from people or relationships we’ve lost, coupled with the transition of jobs and anxieties about rapid changes we can’t control, the level of fear and uncertainty has resulted in an increase in depression, addiction, and suicide,” Lim said. “It’s never been more important to double-down on the human traits that artificial intelligence doesn’t have so we can all move forward, like empathy, kindness, ethics, and the ability to solve problems from a more humanistic way.”

The Journey to the Top of Mount Kilimanjaro

Lim’s dad immigrated to America from Hong Kong at the age of 14. His first job was as a butcher at a grocery store, and he later joined the US Army and rose in rank quickly. After leaving the military, he became a restaurateur, a real estate developer, and an entrepreneur in the construction industry.

“My mom was a tiger mom 2.0. She made my brothers and me feel loved but also grounded me for a quarter when I got anything but straight A’s on a report card. She not only managed the household, she helped with my dad’s entrepreneurial endeavors too. So they taught me the values of hard work, success, and having a meaningful legacy.”

But Lim wanted to understand her heritage and shocked her parents when she dropped out of pre-med to major in Asian American studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

“It was a big risk from a practical standpoint, but it was the first time I had stood up to my parents,” she recalled.“It was the first time I felt passionate enough to say ‘no’ to my parents who worked so hard to give us what they didn’t have.”

After graduating in 1995, she landed her first “real” job and went to work for mega-consultancy KPMG. As it turned out, the frenzy of the first dot-com boom was the perfect preparation for the chaotic transformation driven by new technologies now and the beginning of realizing just how unpredictable our world can be.

“I was at KMPG for five years, which made me a dinosaur since so many people were leaving to join a new startup every few months,” Lim reflected. “But I’m glad I stayed because I worked with clients around the world on projects that helped define how the internet could be used to make our lives better. I learned so much about people, cultures, and industries from a global perspective.”

Lim met Hsieh in 1999, a year after he sold LinkExchange (an early Internet ad network) to Microsoft for $265 million. He and a business partner invested in a startup that sold shoes online, which Hsieh joined as CEO in 1999 and renamed Zappos (“zapatos” is Spanish for shoes). The following year, sales were just $1.6 million, but it would soon take off.

Hsieh helped pioneer ecommerce by making customers comfortable with shopping for shoes without trying them on, providing free return shipping for any they didn’t like, and prioritizing great customer service. Zappos eventually ranked as one of the best places to work in the U.S. and attracted so many applicants that it was able to fill positions in the fast-growing company by hiring just one percent of those.

Lim left KMPG in 2001 to work for the startup Liquid Thinking before the dot-com bust when she was laid off. Unemployed and unsure of what she wanted to do, she reflected on her life lessons thus far and took the leap to become an independent consultant. Hsieh hired her as an internal consultant to help Zappos develop a culture that would enable happy employees to help it grow fast.

After enduring the extremes of greed during the dot-com boom that made her feel empty, being laid off, the shock of 9/11, and hardest hit of all, her dad being diagnosed with stage III colon cancer, Lim needed a change. She wanted to do something completely different to get out of so much personal chaos. Recalling Ernest Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” sitting on her dad’s bookshelf, she thought maybe hiking up “Mount Kili” in Tanzania would be the answer, and Hsieh was excited to join her.

“I had been on hikes before, but I couldn’t imagine just how grueling and profound the experience would be, and I don’t think Tony did either,” she recalled. “Finally, at dawn on the sixth day, the sun gradually illuminated the peak. The air had become so thin at the very top, it seemed like it took everything in me just to take a step. When we finally summited, Tony and I had newfound perspectives, and as he wrote in his book, ‘Nothing is impossible.’”

Lim felt it was the most spiritual experience she had ever had, but it wasn’t just about reaching the top; it was also because they saw such a diverse range of fauna and flora. It was the humanity she felt from the strangers she met, most of whom had little or nothing in extrinsic wealth but “had a wealth of peace inside,” she said. Riding the roller coaster of recent years had led to her first awakening of growth for happiness and humanity, even in imperfect conditions.

Delivering Happiness Amidst Grief

After tremendous growth, Zappos was bought by Amazon for $1.2 billion in 2009. After such a successful launch of Delivering Happiness, which stayed on The New York Times Best Seller list for 27 weeks, and the realization that there was a demand for happier workplaces, Lim and Hsieh launched the company, Delivering Happiness (aka DH). It has served 400 clients, and Inc. magazine recognized it on its annual list of 5,000 fast-growing small businesses in 2020 after DH’s revenues had increased 120%.

“I focused on finishing the book in 2020 and into 2021 while the company was being run by our trusted leaders,” explained Lim. “With so much going on in the world, we weren’t focused on growth; we were ‘drinking our own champagne’ by looking for ways to adapt our own business. Traffic to our website increased dramatically, indicating that the search for happiness at work and in life had increased, and we were there to show the way.”

Lim’s expectation is that Beyond Happiness will carry the message of the first book forward while expanding on what that for even greater results and fulfillment. “It’s not enough to just practice surface-level happiness anymore. It’s time for people to embrace both highs and lows in work and life,” she explained.

The company’s services range from individual coaching to local workshops and “multi-month, multi-year projects for the whole organizational design roadmap,” said Lim. “Clients and partners in Mexico, Spain, Japan, and Egypt were so successful and inspired to expand their purpose that they became licensed to implement these programs regionally.” Globally, the DH team (including its partnerships) consists of 60 “coachsultants,” independent contractors who have all worked remotely from the company’s beginning.

But late last year, life and work changed once again for Lim. In August 2020, Hsieh retired from his role at Zappos at 46. Everyone was shocked when three months later, he died from injuries and smoke inhalation after being rescued from a house fire in New London, Connecticut. The call about his passing came when Lim was five weeks away from the deadline for Beyond Happiness.

“The world had lost a kindhearted imagineer, and I had lost one of my soulmates and partners in positivity,” she wrote. “The only salve that brought the occasional calm was the outpouring of love, support, and grief shared with so many others who had been affected and inspired by Tony’s life, too.”

A community rallied around Jenn to encourage, remember, reflect on the legacy Tony had lived, and call for everyone to be true to their authentic selves.

The Business of Going Beyond Happiness

If Mount Kili challenged her, she found writing Beyond Happiness much more difficult even before Hsieh’s death, she says. But she persevered, feeling it was more important than ever to complete, knowing the impact this message would have on the world and the way we all showed up in life, she says.

Lim says she was aware there were different types of “happiness,” the hedonic, which is focused on personal pleasure and positive emotions, and Aristotle’s eudaemonic, concerned with a feeling of purpose in life. The latter aligns with psychologist Abraham Maslow’s classic “hierarchy of human needs” theory, published in 1954, which starts with the physiological at the base of a pyramid and moves up through safety, belonging, self-esteem, and at the tip, “self-actualization.” This is a sense of fulfillment and authenticity that embraces both the highs and the lows of life with relative equanimity.

What few know, she wrote, is that in 1970 just before his death, Maslow added transcendence above self-actualization, where one’s values are not just for personal benefit, but motivated by experiences with nature, spirituality, and helping others to self-actualize, as well.

“Organizations can cultivate a ‘greenhouse culture’ that empowers workers with trust, sets achievable goals, and connects employees so they can have meaningful relationships, even while working remotely,” she said. “People work harder for their friends who are not just coworkers. People will invest more in you when you invest in them.”

Four conditions enable greenhouse cultures to thrive, she explains:

  • Alignment (having clear rules about how to work together and teams to coach each person on their strengths and weaknesses).
  • A sense of belonging (including recognition that diverse backgrounds and viewpoints benefit everyone and are essential for innovation).
  • Accountability for individuals and teams (not finger-pointing, but a shared sense of responsibility, with consequences).
  • Commitment to letting everyone make informed decisions (which may result in changing leadership for some tasks, regardless of organizational rank, and giving all voices a seat at the table).

The best companies recognize the importance of understanding each individual as a whole person so that “leaders can know how to optimally support each one through their integrated work/life journeys,” said Lim. This can include not just their economic concerns but their growth and learning, physical health, emotional and mental state, depth of relationships, relaxation and fun, and spirituality (or purpose) in life.

Studies have shown that such organizations are dramatically better at attracting and retaining top talent, which helps them gain a competitive edge and creates a better workplace for all. Among her clients around the world, Lim has seen spectacular results for people and profits as they implemented strategies derived from the science of happiness and the greenhouse elements for thriving detailed in Beyond Happiness.

Increasingly, businesses of all sizes are embracing a “more human form of capitalism,” she notes, with more companies are focused not simply on short-term profits but the long-term health and happiness of their entire ecosystem of stakeholders, from the local community to suppliers and their collective impact on the planet.

“We are helping individuals and organizations adapt to a world of constant change by going beyond happiness,” said Lim, “and it’s about starting with your true authentic self.”

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Scott S. Smith

Scott S. Smith has had over 2,000 articles and interviews published in nearly 200 media, including Los Angeles Magazine, American Airlines’ American Way, and Investor’s Business Daily. His interview subjects have included Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Meg Whitman, Reed Hastings, Howard Schultz, Larry Ellison, Kathy Ireland, and Quincy Jones.

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