For a child who grew up abused and neglected in Hong Kong, Marilyn Tam has overcome steep odds to succeed. As a second daughter, Tam was labeled worthless by her mother and bounced around until she moved to America on her own as a teenager.
Tam applied herself—and then some. She became chief executive of Aveda Corp. after serving as president of Reebok Apparel and Retail Group and a vice president at Nike.
Today, she’s a speaker and consultant. She specializes in helping people achieve what she calls “dynamic balance” to attain happiness and find meaning in life and work.
EL: What’s the best way for leaders to motivate people?
Tam: You have to make everybody aware of both their individual purpose and the organization’s purpose. You need to connect the two so that people get personal meaning from their work.
EL: But how can they find meaning in a dull job?
Tam: You have to tie the job, whatever it is, to something larger. Like if the employee works with numbers all day, you need to relate the numbers to someone’s life. It also helps if you let people control their environment. They’re more likely to feel a sense of purpose if they exert more control.
EL: You write about happiness as a goal. Some CEOs scoff at such a warm and fuzzy goal.
Tam: In 2012, Gallup did research [through its “Well-Being Index”] that shows in the United States we lost up to $550 billion in productivity because of lack of well-being in the workplace. When people aren’t happy with their job or their employer, they’re less productive.
EL: When you were a senior executive, how did you enhance employees’ well-being?
Tam: We were in 120 countries, so I couldn’t possibly know everybody when I visited someplace. We set up “Breakfast With Marilyn.” I’d ask local managers to get 12 to 15 people from a particular division—all of them at least two levels down from senior—to join me for breakfast. There were no direct reports in the room.
EL: What was the agenda?
Tam: I’d share the big picture—what was happening in my world. Then I asked each person to discuss one thing they like about their job and one thing they’d change in the company.
EL: Did they gripe or give constructive suggestions?
Tam: One person from a call center suggested we change the way we handled returns. We did; it made a big difference. Another person came up with an idea to change our packaging, which turned out great.
EL: When you consult with an organization, how can you tell if employees are happy?
Tam: What do their faces look like? Do they smile as you walk by? There’s a humming you can feel. People are excited to be there.