Mai Ton More than Work Empathy

Mai Ton: We Are More Than Our Work

For many years, the workforce has been very stoic. Although the pandemic has brought devastation for many, it has also flung open new doors within the world of work. It has allowed HR to reinvent itself and even more significantly, has taught us the utmost importance of empathy and vulnerability.

In the 51st episode of the Talent Experience Podcast, our host John Hollon sat down with Mai Ton, Chief People Officer of Fabric. Together they chat about the disruption brought on by COVID-19, why it is critical to understand that people are much more than their job titles, the transformation of the HR community, and the power in overcoming hardship.

Tune in to Mai’s episode below, at tlntx.co/e51 or wherever you like to podcast!

Here’s how the conversation went… This interview has been edited and condensed.

Mai Ton: Hi, John. Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here, and Isn’t life hectic for everybody nowadays?

John Hollon: Well, it’s certainly chaotic. That’s how I defined the last two years. So, you know, yes. Very much so!

Mai Ton: Here and healthy!

 John Hollon: Okay, let’s get started. We met when I heard you speak at HR Transform in Las Vegas back in March, and your presentation on evolving workplace norms was really interesting. I thought I was particularly intrigued by your discussion on the next normal and creating new norms. Can maybe you talk a little bit about that and why it’s so important to how we work right now?

Mai Ton: Oh, gosh, okay, so I just have so many thoughts. So first of all, I will say that COVID was a huge disruption for the entire world, amidst the social and political unrest that’s still happening. So, as we come out of COVID, I have been fortunate enough to be on the inside of companies working to figure out like, is this the world of work forever? Is this how we’re going to do it, Zoom meetings, or team meetings, or Google meets? And are we going to see each other? How is it going to work? And so, I love my job, because I get to be one of the ones that tries to think of a new way of working. I have been on the inside of companies, so I’ve seen burnout, I’ve seen sickness, I’ve seen death, I’ve seen a lot of things. I’ve also seen marriages, births and wonderful weddings and things like that. But I get exposed to a lot of the stories of what makes life so hard as a working adult. And so, I don’t know, I want to disrupt things. And I think this is an opportunity to do so and reset the way we think about work. And one of my grounding principles has always been that we are more than our work, we, you know, I’m looking and thinking about, you know, your daughter and your sister and your mother and I am an aunt, and you know, an author, and all of these things outside of work. I just happen to have a job, right. And I, I love what I do. But I’m also trying to think about like, how do we not play into the hustle culture? How do we not try to pull an all nighter? Because we feel like that’s the thing to do to get ahead at work? So, I don’t know. I have lots of sentiments. John, I could go anywhere you want me to go!

John Hollon: So do you think that maybe one of the silver linings of the last two years is that people are understanding more clearly, they’re more than their job. They’re more than their work, because you know, how many people tie what they are into what their job and their job title is? You know, that’s the first thing, oh, I’m Joe Blow, I work at IBM, I’m a vice president, I’m the director, I am something. And you know, it seems to me the underlying premise of what you are talking about is that we’re much more than that. That’s one thing and it’s an important thing, but it’s not the only thing. And so, did this last period, do you think is it helping us to get past that?

Mai Ton: I believe so. I think we’re seeing it, John, right? The Great Resignation is not about anything other than people finally having a chance to reflect and asking themselves, why am I doing this? Why am I working so hard? Where am I going? Do I really like what I’m doing? And what happened to my dream of going to culinary school. And so, I do think that it is a tectonic reset for the world. And I will say that companies have gone global very quickly, right? Because talent was leaving and moving and missed the pandemic. And so, what my new reality is, is that it’s a very American thing to introduce yourself to say, “Hello, my name is Mai Ton, I’m the Chief People Officer at Fabric.” But in Europe, I understand that if you do that, you’re considered arrogant. Usually, their introductions are more like, “Hi, I’m Mai Ton, I’m a proud mother or a 13-year-old daughter, I live in New York. And you know what my hobbies are such and such.” And I think that’s a much healthier approach to just a simple casual introduction. And so, I think I try not to call it a silver lining just because it’s so hard what we’ve all been through. But I will say it’s an opportunity to really examine the way we work and the way we’re doing things. Because just because we’re doing them, and we’ve done them that way, for so long, doesn’t make them the right way. So, I can be disruptive, I can be almost sometimes perhaps a little too reckless. But I believe in experimenting and, and kind of destroying some mindsets that somehow got embedded in the way we work.

John Hollon: Did you find during the last two years when you know, things were crazy everywhere I think, you had more conversations with employees about getting through it, about what’s going on in their lives. And how the workplaces, did you find that? (Inaudible) got a person who they, you know, my feelings about HR people go back a number of years when they were always a shoulder to cry on. And there was a period when that changed for a bit when they became more management’s representatives. And I kind of feel we’re getting back to the old way again, which is they’re walking that line between yes, I am management, but also, I’m there to help employees get through things. Have you found more of those conversations in the last two years?

Mai Ton: For sure, I think there’s two dimensions to your question. One is about sort of HR and the profession itself, and the other is more about what’s happening to employees and the sense that people feel comfortable opening up like never before. So, I’ll tackle this second one first, because it’s probably easier. But the new skill that I think is the buzzword, and you’ve seen it in HBR articles and McKinsey studies is empathy. All of a sudden, we have a window into each other’s homes, we’re seeing pets and babies and parents like never before. And I think that’s opened up the conversation to be a little bit more vulnerable. And to say, yeah, you know what, I’m struggling, I’m burnt out. I’m on Zoom meetings all day long, trying to manage my two-year-old right. And I think that’s done wonders to us being a little bit more personable, relatable and connected. So, for sure, I’ve had more of those conversations than ever before at all levels. And I think leaders are opening up and really listening finally. The second piece is yes, the HR community has been transformed. For a number of years, the question was like, why do we need HR? We don’t need HR, why are they here? And there was always the dreaded like being called into the principal’s office at school. And now with the shifting tide of you know, HR people being somewhat care, stewards of culture and logistics, and you know, how do we work through a pandemic and being involved in knowing the latest government mandated policies, we’ve been thrust into the limelight again, and in a much more powerful way. So that the new question is, where is HR? Why isn’t HR in the room? And so, I think there’s definitely been a shift and it’s an opportunity to rebrand ourselves. I’d like to pride myself on knowing that I want to be part of the new pioneering spirit of people, leaders who are more than just compliance. And here’s your harassment training each year. And please make sure you fill out proper tax forms. No, I think my whole reality has changed. And that’s why I feel very fortunate to be involved in discussions about the future, because that’s really where I thrive. I want to not think about the present. I actually think we would do much better if we’ve carved out time to think about the future. 

John Hollon: Well, I really liked that you mentioned empathy. It’s interesting when I came back from HR Transform. I found it all through my notes, and I kept a really good notes of all the speakers. And I certainly didn’t hear everyone, but boy, I heard that word a lot. Everybody was talking about it. I wrote something for Fuel50 on that, and it’s been really well read, which says to me, aha, my newspaper editor skills are still alive. It’s a trend, jumping on out. But one of the things that made me pause on it for a moment is that in my career, and I worked a lot of different places. Probably a few more than you, but you are approaching me, I would think because you’ve worked a lot of a lot of startups. But top leaders, senior leadership, I’ve always found it rare to find people in those roles who were really empathetic, who really had a good dose of like empathy. And HR people always had that, mostly. But a lot of leaders, CEO, Senior Vice Presidents and such just didn’t have that. It seems to me, it’s really critical. And the way you look talked about it says to me that you think it is true.

Mai Ton: I actually think that everybody has it, right? And I don’t call it a soft skill. But everybody has this ability to put themselves in other people’s shoes, I think gets beat out of us, especially sometimes as you’re moving upward in your career. It’s almost like you have to be perfect, you have to be stoic, you have to be emotionless, you have to be all of these things which the world again, realize that’s none of that is true. You can be a human, we all have. And we’re all connected because of the emotional bonds that we share. And so, I make it a point to make sure that I want to be the most approachable person in the room. Because when I open up about my daughter, Emma, or my crazy life of, you know, eight startups, I’m actually sharing my wisdom in a way that allows m’ to learn more about you. And John, it’s funny, I remember taking some questions after my HR Transform session. And you had posted a question in the chat that was like, will you be on my Fuel50 podcast? And it was a question that was blasted out on the screens, and I read it out loud. And it was funny, because I said, yes, John, of course I will! And then I moved on to the next question. But that is a little tiny moment of how I now feel connected to you. And now we’re having this podcast together. Because as you share and write about your stories, I can do the same. And I think this is how the world operates. We share wisdom, and we share learning because we’re all students of life.

John Hollon: Well on this on this empathetic theme. And by the way, I’m so happy that we happen to connect at HR Transform that was worth going, just that.

Mai Ton: Lifelong friends now!

John Hollon: Yeah, well, and you had a little list near the end of your presentation under the sort of the heading I wrote of create new norms for yourself. And you then listed some things. But one thing you said that sort of follows the empathetic theme is you are defined by what you overcome. And that really resonated with me, given how many things people have had to overcome the last two years and are still struggling with now. Can you talk about that a bit more?

Mai Ton: Oh, my gosh, um, the funny thing is, I remember the slide. And I don’t know if I share this with you. But I actually work with a neuroscientist to build slides. And so, it’s funny. Wow. Yeah, it’s funny that that’s the one slide that you would remember, it was only a whatever a 10 slide show. But the reason why it’s coming to my mind is because that slide was about a pencil being sharpened through time, but the shavings of the pencil are just littered about. It’s a messy, messy thing, but the pencil is sharpened. And so, I think that it’s not in times of peace and quiet, where you’re at your best. It’s actually in times of adversity where you have to use your grit and your like resilience, to get through things. And I think that’s what really shapes character. And I’m trying to teach Emma that my 13-year-old I have seven character traits that professionals believe children need to have and they are grit, curiosity, optimism, gratitude, social intelligence, self-control, and one more that I’m forgetting, but like those are the character traits that make up a healthy human being beings from my friends who are neuroscientists and my friends who are psychologists. And so those are the traits that I think are brought out when you face adversity. They’re not brought out when things are quiet and peaceful and wonderful. It’s actually, you have to suffer a little bit in order to really dig deep.

John Hollon: Well, and I’m always fond of saying that, you know, when life is going well, it’s easy. It’s when life is going hard that your real character comes out. But one more question I have, because we’re sort of approaching the end here, this goes really, really fast. And I know you’re in a new business now a new company. And so, my guess is you’re going to have this conversation at some point, if you haven’t already. But what one piece of advice would you give to leaders today, for managing workers in 2022, as they, as all of us come out of what we’ve gone through in the last two years, sort of slowly and with fits and starts, what one piece of advice would you give them about, coping, leading, managing moving ahead?

Mai Ton: Oh, gosh, John, one piece of advice is I think we should just all be more kind to ourselves to each other. Because in the end, nobody has this formula down, right? We’re all living our life trying to do right, trying to be good citizens of the world. And in the end, it is the relationships that we build, that allow us to thrive. And so, I would encourage folks to find the right room, like be in the room where you can be motivated and inspired by the people that you’re with. Because that’s what if I bring out the best in you, you will probably bring out the best in me. And so, I think it needs to come from a place of deep care, and concern for your fellow colleague who probably went through more than you did, right. And we don’t always have those conversations. But I do believe in starting from a place of care and kindness, because I feel that that leads to a better world for all of us.

John Hollon: Well, that’s great advice, I think. And, you know, I marvel at someone like you who has been that so many startups, I have been at one. And I thought, oh my god, do I want to do this again?

Mai Ton: Well, this is why I look old, I am old, because of all of those scars and experience that I have. But yeah, I do feel lucky. And I feel like I get to invent something wonderful for the future. I just, I want it to happen overnight. And I know it’s gonna take some time. But these conversations definitely helped me to think about what can we do differently to help ourselves?

John Hollon: Well, as we wrap up today’s Talent Experience Podcast, there’s a question we ask all our guests. And it’s this, Mai what do you love about your job and what you do?

Mai Ton: I love all the stories I get to be a part of, it’s wonderful to see people get promoted people retool their skills, or people just talk to me about their personal lives. And I just get the fortune of hearing and learning from everybody else. And so, it’s probably why I thrive in the people space, knowing that there’s some roller coaster of emotions up and down. And things don’t always go as we planned. But being a part of the stories and maybe perhaps even contributing sometimes to folks’ success has been like the thrill of my life.

John Hollon: Well, that is a great way to like end this. But it reminds me of another session at HR Transform, I don’t think that you had a chance to see and maybe you did. But when the HR lady from Pixar said, when a person leaves Pixar, they send an email to everybody in the company about what one moment do they really remember during their time there? And she says it has such a way of bonding people as someone’s going out the door. So, you know what you’re saying kind of runs along those same lines to.

Mai Ton: Well, I’ll end with this because I got a moment of feedback where sometimes, you know, people are very generous with what they tell me, and they said that, Mai you’re like an Easter egg. And I was like, why was that mean? And they said, You know how sometimes you don’t find it until later on. But then you open it up and you smile knowing that Mai you’re an Easter egg that people you know, when they find it, they smile, and I was like, oh, it makes all of the heartache and the hard work worth it. So, thanks for letting me do a little humble brag here at the end. But it was a nice little moment.

John Hollon: This is great. I’m glad that you closed with that. And thank you Mai for taking the time to be with us here today. It has been so great to have you here and your chat’s been great, and good luck on the new job. I know you’ll be really successful!

Mai Ton: Well, thank you for having me. It’s wonderful to be in front of your audience.

We hope you enjoy listening to this episode of the Talent Experience Podcast with Mai Ton! We look forward to sharing more learning with you.

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