Jonathan Chu: Kindness makes you feel happier

Jonathan Chu is a Director at 95% The Culture Consultants, a consultancy company aiming to turn workplaces to joyplaces. He believes that a workplace can genuinely be a joy place when people are not only results-oriented but people-conscious. He has consulted, facilitated, and managed culture transformation programs for clients such as Cyberview Sdn Bhd, Affin Hwang Capital, MNRB Group, Vivaki Sdn Bhd, and Naga DDB. Also, Jonathan is the Coordinating Ambassador of One Young World for the Asia 3 region. Passionate about youth empowerment, entrepreneurship, and education, he took on this role to support the quest to help more leaders to achieve the sustainable development goals for which they are passionate.

[Below is the transcript of interview which is edited for clarity.]

Sotheary (0:10): Today, we have Jonathan from Malaysia with us. Jonathan is the director at 95%, the culture consultant firm that aims to turn back places to dry places. He is currently a coordinating ambassador of one jungle Asia’s religions. He is passionate about youth empowerment, entrepreneurship, and education.

Hi, Jonathan, and welcome to Next Women Generation!  You have an awe-inspiring career path within your company. You started with the company as a part-time blogger in 2011, and now you are the director of the company. I want to learn how do you progress your career from a blogger to be a director.

Jonathan (1:06): when I started in this company, I experienced this campaign event. I attended the event and spent one day with amazing strategists and creative directors; we were we did we said we were trying to solve a problem on the National Blood Bank in Malaysia. One whole day was just so amazing because I felt that one day and I feel I’ve learned more and on my diploma time in school. So in that sense, I was just overjoyed. And I decided to blog about it. The CEO was going to the internet, and she stumbled upon it. She was like, ‘Oh my goodness.’ She decided to write me an email. She wrote we would love for you to come and work with us. That was how I started working in the company; there was no interview; I submitted my resume. I started working, and I worked my way up from an intern to becoming a marketing executive.

In 2014, 2015, the market was horrible. We felt that it’s time for us to relook at our strategy. That was when the top management is sided to this change and pivot the business completely. In the span of like two weeks, the company shrank to four people. It was quite tough at the time. I was part of those four people. We started building the company up. So that’s why it feels like I am the company owner because I saw how drastic things were and how difficult things are. We had to build everything from scratch operations products, do the processes even to like client base. It’s almost like a really new company. I remember looking to like late through the night, or days and weeks just trying to win over clients.

The core of the work we were doing was that we wanted to turn workplaces into joy places. As grownups and adults, we felt that we spent more than one-third of our lives in the workplace. It becomes so stressful sometimes that people bring this stress back to our homes. Our kids are being affected because they are just agitated, and they’re not happy. They share that with that they affect our kids in that sense. It’s so essential for kids who grew up with loving families and workplaces putting on too much stress on their parents, or even you know, their family members. We thought about how we can make this world a better place. And we thought if we were to if we are able to turn workplaces into joy places, and that would be our contribution to make this world a better place. A lot of people are asking, you know, what on earth is a joy place. This fluffy thing is that all just joy and what needs to get done? So how do you reconcile that? That’s what that was when you started the game.

Okay, a company can only become a joy place when two things happen. When the business is winning, and number two, when people are growing, they are also winning, and they’re thriving. Both must win because if you have the business profiting and growing, the people are not happy at all. They’re not growing, they’re not winning, they’re not thriving, and it feels like a very toxic place. If the business is not doing well and is not growing and sorry if the business is not doing well, the people are happy. It’s like a nonprofit organization, which is not every business setup to do. When he taught me to be indeed a job based on me, the business must do well; the people must do well. So that was how we started. And what goes on different sorts of business, and slowly expanded to a Thailand expanded to even Indonesia, we ran like a two-day conference in Indonesia.

Photo provided by Jonathna Chu

Sotheary (5:48): That is interesting. How do you, how does your company transform a place to be a joyful place?

Jonathan (6:00): To do this too, obviously, okay, so the two elements that make joy place is; first, the business is unique. So, of course, the leaders need to have the relevant skills to build a business; they need to continually look at what’s happening in the market and then respond accordingly. The people are concerned about getting them to start meeting. I think there are two key things. The first is no; let me explain that in a bit. There are four key things. 

The first is leadership. We need strong and good leaders who have a vision of where they’re going and how they would like their work environment. Many leaders feel that I’ve spoken to, and they don’t have a clear idea of how they want their company to function internally. They have a nice idea. To make that happen, it’s quite challenging. That’s why the second point comes into work on the environment. That’s the way these happened within the organization. That includes all the systems that process like know, how do you hire people? How do you fire them? If you need to? How do you grow them? How do you develop your people to be better managers? Because I think that a lot of people leave the company, not because of the company itself, but because of their direct supervisors, the direct managers, so there is a lot of pressure that is on the managers to be better at managing your people, as well as bringing the best out of people.

And not necessarily, many agents can do that. As the company’s leaders, it’s crucial to invest in young people to enable these skills to thrive within the company. That’s the second part.

The third part is to get buy-in because where the work is not going to get more comfortable, the market is becoming more and more fragmented and more and more competitive. To survive, businesses do need to up their game all the time. That would also mean that people need to up their game. How do we think about it? How do we go about it? Can we get our people to constantly outcome games, and that’s where they feel our people’s buy-in is so crucial? I’m not too sure about other countries in Malaysia, but I’m obvious with Malaysia. There is this mindset of, ‘Hey, I’m paying you your salary; so, I don’t need to get your buy-in; I say whatever that I say you should do anyway.’ The younger generation doesn’t function that way; the younger generation wants autonomy; they want to have a say, and ownership doesn’t just come easily. That also requires leaders to change their way of working with your people and to involve their people. They get more in the decision-making process than previously, you know, many leaders decide. Then it’s kind of like a Command and Conquer command and control panel approach is that I say you do, but this generation will not take any of that. You just need to be aware of that. Getting buying is the third one.

And lastly, giving the team the right tools and skills because I have met many Southern leaders who are great visionaries. They have great dreams, and they tell their company; we want to be the best in the world. We have this dream and that dream. When the staff look at them, their skill sets and tools, and they may wonder, ‘I don’t think we can get there because I don’t think we have the right skills or the right tools.’ We just don’t know how to get there. And it’s just so much expectation that we can’t fulfill. In that sense, it is awesome if leaders can provide your team with the right tools and the right skills. These are the four key things, leadership, environment, buy-in, and tools and skills so that your company can be a joyful place and that they can activate.

Sotheary (10:20): You mentioned earlier that your company experienced structural change, and there were only four people left at a time. So how did your team transform the company?

Jonathan (10:34): Okay, some of the best things that are relevant about the best stories that I’ve read about is that when a team goes through difficult times, the team will bond together would come together strong. And that was what happened in my key when we saw the numbers doing both. And, you know, to start a business from scratch is not at all the easiest. That was when somehow these four people just came together and, you know, did whatever it took to make things happen. There were also many difficult conversations that we’re having each other about challenging kinds of claims and the understanding that we have about what a drug case means because the joint definition of drugs didn’t just appear easy. We had to like, discuss it, again and again, challenge each other. It’s almost like no, I’m questioning your beliefs and challenging your values, challenging your faith, or some people about what you believe in. And that process was humbling. It was challenging, as well. There were days where you’re wondering to ourselves, hmm, can this work? Are we just dreaming? Are we, you know, doing something to feel good about ourselves? So well, and that’s our country and the businesses that work with us to be neat. Maybe look at some companies that have been around for way longer than our existence and doing well. So are we needed? So it was that process of self-discovery and self-certainty to the extent where we had to be more particular about the mission and the vision that we are headed towards? Yeah, so that’s, uh, that’s essentially it. And somehow, you know, as we work through it, we started getting validation, our customer base, slowly, very slowly changed, and seals that are coming in. And they started telling us, damn, you guys did a good job, do outstanding work.

Thank you so much for helping me to this present, because I did not realize, you know, that I had all these blind spots; I just saw that the way I work, the way I lead my team previously was fine. But you know, by working with you, I’m able to see so many blind spots that I was not aware of. And that has changed the way I view leadership; it has changed the way I do business; it has changed the way I interact with my people as a manager. And that brings us a lot of joy. And with that kind of validation. It’s shown Shawn it was demonstrated through our work, it was also displayed draw confidence, and esteem started growing. And I think to date, we have about like about 80 people in the team, just focusing on turning old places into dry places.

Sotheary (13:35): Do you remember how it was like when you build your company from scratch at a time?

Jonathan (13:42): Imagine this for an extended period; we had an average of four to five hours of sleep every day. The daytime would be filled with different prospects because we were, I mean, for the system to survive, we need sales. We’re just out having meetings, trying to listen to the clients’ needs or the prospects that we’re meeting. We have to come back at about 5 pm or 6 pm. This was tiring because of so much interaction with people, and then the planning begins, and the strategizing begins.

We will have our internal meetings to see how we could address our clients’ needs. And then I would start building a sales tax proposal, and he would go to the wee hours in the night, and they would go through it again and again. And that would happen. That consistently happened for many days. And then for all the small clients you know, they believed in us, and they said, Okay, I’ll do one small project with you. Then we had to use the daytime to deliver the project. And then after that evening, you’re allowed to divide and conquer and run to other meetings, and then come back again at night, and then prepare proposals also. It was a tough grind in the world. I think what was most difficult for me.

I remember that I went to one company this time, and the person I was speaking to was very skeptical about the work we were doing. And she asked tough questions like, why should I believe what you say? Why should I, or what statistics show, that the workplace’s meaning into a job is essential to boost productivity? And when we did, because there’s not enough research on this kind of work being done in Malaysia, we had to use the six from other countries, and then turn around and say, Yeah, that’s true for other countries. But Malaysia is unique. The kind of people, the mindset, the culture, and the business we have are very different. I can’t believe and can’t trust the type of statistics you’re giving me based in other countries, especially those from the United States, because they have a different culture altogether. And on the one hand, I understood where he was coming from.

But on the other hand, it was very tough, because it was something that was very, very new in Malaysia, a member out of 10 CEOs, and that we will meet probably one or two will, with no, we believe in the importance of culture because a lot of still very focused on just taking the profits. They thought that having a churn and employee retention is normal because it has happened for days or 34 years. We came in with a viewpoint that no, you don’t need to make that happen. Because believe it or not, when you have employee churn, that’s when it becomes more taxing for the business because you end up spending more to attract new talents to train them. And then to see them leave and do the whole cycle all over again. It’s just not sustainable. That was the perspective that we presented. And it was very tough because we kept getting no, no, no, I’m not ready for this, it’s just too much investment of time and finance for us to justify the kind of returns. And here’s the thing, when we’re talking about money, or workplaces or joint case, it’s not with 100% that you can promise the CEO that things will turn for the better because we need to give people a choice. And sometimes, to be better, we need to let go of the people that are currently in the organization. Because they may not, they may not be in alignment with where you want to go. For example, let’s say if you’re going to make this world a better place by being more aggressive with the work you’re doing, let’s say you’re going to a pharmaceutical company, right? And we’re telling them that the CEO feels that, okay, for us to be to serve the community and the nation a bit more, we need to work harder in finding a vaccine for COVID-19, for example, but what if the people were there and in that company, and they’re like, No, I don’t want to do that. Because it would require me to work like, you know, 18 hours a day, I would rather be a little bit more complacent. So you have a clash of expectation and mindset, right? So to get the buy-in, then we’ll be tough. And leaders will then need to be ready to say, all right, if that’s what you feel, then maybe you’re not, we, it’s not good for us to work together. But you need to look for a company that gives you the kind of leeway, that kind of stability. So that’s when that’s the kind of struggle that we had back then working and explaining to companies about our standpoint, but somehow as, as time went, somehow CEO started believing more and more in company culture. And they started understanding this, and they are more receptive. And that was when the world became better. But the early days of tough just it was just like a constant slam on a base, you know, rejection after rejection after rejection? Yeah, and that was why we had difficult conversations to get him as well. Like, hey, are we just chasing a dream that is not realistic? Is it even possible? No, that kind of self-doubt that came from the pictures is really strong.

Photo provided by Jonathan Chu

Sotheary (19:36): You have gone through many challenges. So how did you keep yourself motivated?

Jonathan (19:45): The CEO that I was working with believe very strongly in this. She is just saying, let’s keep going. Let’s just keep going. And for me, it was just; I was not satisfied at all, you know? Is the kind of whatever work that we have achieved so far, because I’m the sort that wants to, it’s embedded in me that wants to do better. And it was just so frustrating to hear you know that leaders say, No, I think that I want to focus on the money. And if the employee churn is there, it’s fine. So, I had many challenging discussions with the team and just kept holding on to, let’s make this happen. Then, somehow, we have one person who says, Oh, this makes so much sense, this is something that I’ve been looking for all my professional life. And to hear that this company is doing this, it’s such a dream come true. When we received our first validation, then that was just like the field, you know, to look for the next company that sees the value in work. And it just kept going. In this sense, the external validation we got from our clients just saved my team and me going. And somehow, and somehow, you know, it went from getting one validation across a few weeks to one every week to, you know, then after that one every day, and became quite cool. I would say no, and that just kept us going.

Sotheary (21:26): Okay, so what strategy do you use to build trust among those CEOs because it sounds challenging to transform the culture of a workplace that interlinked with society’s culture as a whole?

Jonathan (21:43): Yeah, I think that’s a good question. Because you know, culture is such a; it’s a very sensitive thing. It’s a very sensitive topic; it’s almost like telling parents how to run your family. For somebody external, without trust, it’s very, very, very difficult, it’s impossible actually, to be able to do the kind of work that we do without trust. So, after many challenges that we face, we are right to a point where we felt that the best way forward is to juice more like a call strategy instead of a push strategy. Push strategy means you know, you knock on doors, and you’re like, Hey, this is what I do, do you have some time? I would love to present it to you and share it with you. And I feel that that kind of acceptance rate that we get the conversion is too shallow. But it’s easier to serve the people who want to be served. Right. So without going out to do a little bit more talks, share about the kind of work that we do, at the same time document the kind of results that we were getting, because what I realized is that a lot of the leaders who come and work with us on the stairs, some patterns, and we begin to see first is that in terms of business, they are doing relatively well. So they don’t need to struggle too hard to keep the company afloat to survive. And because of that, they have time to then focus on other things. It’s almost like, you know, have you heard of the five Hierarchy of Needs by Abraham Maslow, were the base of it all is about, you know, survival. And just from the company’s perspective, it’s the same as well, if a company is just struggling to survive, and no time to think about making things better, and the team that works with them needs to just, you know, go for it. So as that as that becomes better than the sun moving up the stage, they start to focus a bit more on having a purpose, having better relationships, and making the environment in the company sense. And we realize that as long as the company is doing relatively well, and as long as the leader’s mindset is, is in that space, right? They want to work to make our workplace better and more efficient, and more productive. And more. Shuman, that’s when those are the kind of clients that is easier to build trust. And of course, hearing the type of experience challenges that we had, that’s when there will also be more inclined to work with us simply because they will ask us about the process. And then they will, you know, share some of their company challenges, and we will work through it together. I think that’s when trust is being built the most. So first is so if I were to like recap versus use the pooling strategy, so that the people who want to believe in this topic would come and when they go, share, experience, share, And welcome, we are done. And the last step, which is the most important, is to know that what do you need? What’s your company’s situation like? And how can we be of service to you and then work through the situation together with them? And that’s how they feel up your cut for the job. So this is how much I’m willing to spend. Let’s see what we can do about it.

Sotheary (25:21): I’d like to ask you about your current role as the coordinating Ambassador of wonderworld. Asia’s region. So I am a One Young Ambassador. So I want to learn, why do you decide to take extra volunteer work?

Jonathan (25:40): I want to be able to offer services to the people around me; I want to be able to lift people through the work that I do. And that was why I applied to do the coordinating Ambassador on one young world as well. Because I feel that my skill here is to support people and cheer people on what they do, as everybody needs a fan right to keep them. Go forward in that job. Yeah, personality can get so lonely. It feels so good. When somebody comes to you and says, Hey, I see you, I see the work you’re doing. And it is good to work. So keep it going, you know, keep it up, because I want to support you. And I felt that there aren’t enough people doing this. I want to be one of them, you know, to support this them or even whoever they’re doing any projects, to make this world a better place in the capacity that they are passionate in, in the capacity that they are confident in.

Sotheary (26:51): So, throughout your professional careers and personal experience, do you need directions that you want to share with other young people?

Jonathan (27:02): Oh. The first thing that comes to mind is that number one, spend your time and energy in building a few things—first, Bill, your skills, Bill, your talent. I know a lot of young people love partying, love hanging up, that’s great. But the talent needs to be built; you need to hone the skill. And people will listen to people who are doing good work. So first, hone your skill, hone your talent. Next would be to build your community build your support system because these are the people you need when the tough gets going, you know, or sorry, when the going gets tough. You need these people to cheer you on; you need these people to remind you why you started doing what you started. You need people to be your cheerleaders, also to be your critics. At some time, you love critics.

I think that the two must come together loving critics because they love you, but they also are willing to say what’s difficult, about the things that they don’t quite understand and challenge you to be a better version of yourself; you need that. And lastly, to keep going and continuously build yourselves, again and again. And again. Even if you fall, you know, build yourselves, keep coming, stepping up, coming up, and keep going strong. Because it’s this kind of resilience and this kind of grit, this is the thing that will enable you to go the distance, or young people who are trying to do work that is against the norm, or you know, trying to change people’s mindset. That’s the most challenging stuff to do in this society because people don’t like to be told they need to change. So I would say, take it one step at a time. Just keep going. And eventually, there will be people who would see the value in the work you’re doing. And when that happens, don’t forget those people tell you because and serve them well, because that’s how you create a dent in this universe.

Sotheary (29:23): Okay, Jonathan, thank you so much for joining me today.

Jonathan (29:27): You’re most welcome.

Sotheary (29:30): Thank you very much for listening to Next Women Generation. If you like this conversation, please subscribe, leave us a review and stay tuned to our next speaker.