Ep. 47 Hero S2 Ep47 Huijin Kong

Decoding Positive Influence: Huijin Kong on How to be a Successful Influencer

Empowering leadership through influence

27 min

Ep. 47 Hero S2 Ep47 Huijin Kong

27 min

With nicknames like Compass and Energizer Bunny, Huijin Kong has really made an impact in the business world. She’s been a go-getter since the beginning — graduating not only summa cum laude from the Wharton School of Business, but also holding an M.B.A. with Highest Distinction from Harvard Business School. Her strong sense of direction, courage to call out the elephants in the room and relentless energy has enabled her to counsel CEOs, Owners, and founders of all ages and backgrounds. Most importantly, she deeply believes that everyone has a leader inside of them. Today, Huijin is a Principal Counselor at LinHart Group and co-author of the book Positive Influence: The First and Last Mile of Leadership. In today’s episode, Huijin tells us how she was called to this career, why higher ups can start to lose their “why” as they move up the ladder, and how leaders can positively influence their team through successful transformations within the company.

Read transcript

“The key as an influencer is to really understand the key goals that you have, that your company has. What's going to be difficult for people? Because our definition of influence and leadership, which is interrelated, is ‘Are you able to get someone to do something better, faster, or new that they wouldn't have otherwise done?’”

Quick takes on...

How Huijin changed career paths

“I had a bit of a soul searching crisis where I really wondered about the value, the real value of what I was doing…And I did a lot of inner reflections and heard really God's inner guidance to me that I should change and do some work that He calls me to do and that is meaningful to me at that stage of my life and development. That turned out to be really about positive influence about how to help everyone, including myself and starting with myself, find that sense of inner compass.”

Taking the leap and trusting yourself

“Success and our pride is very, very hard to let go. That was the most difficult thing for me in my own transition — to move on from one successful career to, frankly, what looked like a not very promising second career that I probably will fail at. So, do you dare to take the leap and then find the courage in yourself and in your company and your organization to do it?”

Meet your guest, Huijin Kong

Principal Counselor at LinHart Group / Author

Spotlight S2 Ep47 Huijin Kong

Huijin is a driving force behind LinHart Group’s programs for leaders looking to reach the apex of success, satisfaction, and self-actualization. She is visionary in making higher order skill and quality development widely teachable, in Singapore and beyond. Her belief that everyone has a leader inside of them motivates her to mentor many people and create learning environments where people discover the leader in them.

Huijin earned an M.B.A. from Harvard Business School with distinction of Baker Scholar, and a B.Sc. in Economics, summa cum laude with perfect GPA, from the Wharton School of Business.

Episode transcript

[00:00:00] Huijin Kong: The key, I think, as an…

[00:00:00] Huijin Kong: The key, I think, as an influencer is to really understand the key goals that you have, that your company has. What's going to be difficult for people? Because our definition of influence and leadership, which is interrelated, is are you able to get someone to do something better, faster, or new that they wouldn't have otherwise done?

[00:00:31] Daniel Saks: That was Huijin Kong. Huijin is a powerhouse in the business world. Her strong sense of direction, Courage to call out the elephants in the room and relentless energy has enabled her to counsel CEOs, owners, and founders of all ages and backgrounds. She pioneered group leadership programs that have made deep learning and leadership development scalable through her work at Linhart Group.

[00:00:56] Most importantly, she deeply believes that everyone has a leader inside of them. Today. Huijin is a Principal Counselor at Linhart Group and co author of the book Positive Influence, The First and Last Mile of Leadership. In today's episode, Huijin talks about how even the most successful people can lose their why as they move up the ladder, and she shares tips on how to harness vulnerability in order to drive positive influence within a company.

[00:01:25] This is Daniel Saks. Co-Founder of AppDirect, and it's time to decode positive influence and how to discover and strengthen the leader within yourself.

[00:01:40] Welcome to Decoding Digital. A podcast for innovators looking to thrive in the digital economy. I'm your host, Daniel Saks, and I'll sit down with other founders, CEOs, and changemakers to decode the trends that are transforming the way we work. Let's decode.

[00:02:04] Huijin, welcome to Decoding Digital.

[00:02:05] Huijin Kong: I'm so excited to be here, Dan. Thanks for inviting me.

[00:02:09] Daniel Saks: Thanks for coming right off your Alaskan cruise. I know. So, for the Decoding Digital listeners, Huijin and I go way back. In fact, when we were first establishing AppDirect's values, priorities, and operational structure, Huijin and her partner Tsun-yan, who are also co authors of the book Positive Influence, really helped shape the path of AppDirect and a lot of the way that we think about influence in leadership and the way we've developed as leaders.

[00:02:39] So Huijin's here to share their new book launch. So what we'll do is kind of first start by Huijin, I would love to learn more about where you grew up, how you partnered with Tsun-yan, and how you came about creating the book.

[00:02:53] Huijin Kong: I love to, well, I'm Chinese Canadian, so another Canadian, yay yay! And I immigrated to Canada, where I'm actually doing a podcast today from West Vancouver, at the age of 10, and that was, you know, very lucky to have the best of Canada.

[00:03:11] And also the United States when I went to college in Philadelphia and then spent about six years of first career as a management consultant. And then I had a bit of a soul searching crisis where I really wondered about the value. The real value of what I was doing, I was rated well, made lots of money for my relative young age, but I was like, what was the value of really what I was doing?

[00:03:37] And I did a lot of inner reflections and heard really God's inner guidance to me that I should change and do some work that He calls me to do. And that is meaningful to me at that stage of my life and development. And that turned out to be really about positive influence. About how to help everyone, including myself and starting with myself.

[00:04:04] How to find that sense of inner compass — some might call it True North, like Bill George — of the positive outcome that we want to have on the world around us immediately and the bigger world and how do we develop ourselves to have the skills and also to be able to tap into the deep human qualities we are gifted with to be able to have influence others.

[00:04:29] To think, feel, do in a direction of the positive outcomes as they need to happen in different circumstances. So I didn't have all this language back then, but that was also probably what attracted me to Tsun-yan. He just seems to have this almost magical ability to at least get senior clients to listen to him.

[00:04:51] Maybe not everyone, but certainly chairmen, CEOs, founders. To really listen to him on some of the really difficult issues. And I said to myself, I want to be like that. But I knew I couldn't just become like that by myself. There's some things that one cannot figure out, no matter how one thinks one is smart.

[00:05:11] So I influenced him to take me on as an apprentice and a student and therefore we've been journeying together really in a mission of helping other people raise their positive influence for the last 12 years.

[00:05:28] Daniel Saks: Excellent. And can you share more about Tsun-yan and his background for the group?

[00:05:32] Huijin Kong: Ah, where do I start?

[00:05:34] So his career speaks for itself. 30 years with McKinsey, one of the most successful senior partners, Rainmakers. I think what people don't know about him is really his heart for wanting to help people. And that's really what motivates him. He turned down multiple CEO ships, so very, very glamorous. And big companies, because he wanted to continue to help people as a counselor, as a catalyst, as an advisor.

[00:06:02] And he continues to do so at the age of 70. I tell him, you know, his drive, he kicks my butt every day. And I'm like, where do you get this? He says, it's within me. And now of course, he's been on the boards of Manulife, Singapore Airlines, Dyson, Bharti Airtel within the last 12 years. So he has that. experience of making difficult and important changes at the board level himself as well.

[00:06:31] Daniel Saks: Yeah, it's pretty impressive. I'll travel around certain conferences and meet CEOs, founders, billionaires, and Tsun-yan's name comes up and they speak to him with such compassion. And I know, you know, similar to the clients that you've engaged with. And that's really what makes me so excited that you wrote the book.

[00:06:49] Because I've known firsthand your ability to coach and influence and mentor people. But to have the toolkit on paper can be so influential for our decoding digital audience. So one of the things that I wanted to bring up is, I remember one of our first fortune 500 customers, he was actually an executive at Comcast.

[00:07:07] When we started, he was giving me advice on how to navigate, you know, bigger organizations. And he said, master what you can control, focus on what you can influence, and don't worry about anything else. And what he said is that the more senior he's got, the less he actually controls and the more he needs to hone in on his influence to make change.

[00:07:27] Because he found that if you beat something with a stick and you force someone to do something that might work in a small team, but that doesn't work in influencing cross functional functions, you know, in up and down leadership. And what I found over the years is that there actually aren't many good resources that can hone in on your influence or even define what positive influence means within an organization.

[00:07:48] So what I really liked about the book is you speak specifically to some of the habits that can be trained and the behaviors that you can adopt to be able to hone in on those skills. So I'd love to kind of start from the beginning and get a sense of, from your research interactions, what do you feel are the most important ways to train for positive influence?

[00:08:10] Huijin Kong: I think it starts with the why and the what. So I will mostly talk about the what, but I think the why is important in the sense that, you know, why do we get out of bed every day, metaphorically? Is it because we have a job to do whether, you know, Dan's job is to be a founder and a CEO, or is it that, you know, I'm a customer service worker, right?

[00:08:32] But really, why do you do that job? Do you bring to it a sense of passion and purpose and meaning versus it's just a job? And I really do mean this as a serious question, I think, not only for perhaps hourly workers, but I think it is as significant as a question for executives and founders and owners with so much power, because sometimes in the day-to-day grind of having to do your business, whatever that is.

[00:09:01] That connection to your ultimate purpose and that passion weakens, actually, unless we're very, very intentional and very clear with ourselves, because that drives the want. So for us, you know, whether you are that executive at Comcast, or you are a team leader or project leader, I'm pretty sure most people feel like we don't have as much power and influence as we want.

[00:09:24] So therefore, the Decision that you make about what positive outcomes you will aim for in that particular role that you have in that particular challenge that you're facing becomes really the boundary of your influence. We cannot influence what we do not set our mind. And if we do not have in us accessible to us day to day, that passion and purpose, we're not going to be very ambitious in defining the outcome, right?

[00:09:56] I mean, there's always different ways how far we can stretch ourselves to do so. And we find that most people tend, even at the most apex level, tend to define the positive outcomes. Too, shall we say, conservatively, actually, rather than ambitiously. And so that's not inconsistent with, of course, the beehive goals that especially our tech world is full of, right?

[00:10:23] And you might wonder, hey, how can those two exist? But thinking that you have a beehive goal out there is not the same thing as having a deliberate, well thought through, ambitious positive outcome goal for a particular interaction that you have. So it really does start with setting the positive outcomes that you really want to accomplish.

[00:10:48] Daniel Saks: And do you see that as being done as part of the annual planning process, or as part of performance development within an organization? Or how do you think that's best done?

[00:10:58] Huijin Kong: So I think the management world, definitely, is full of great tools in terms of annual planning processes and even personal planning.

[00:11:07] I think of the tech world favorites, things like OKRs, etc. I've seen, for example, even some of our friends that we have in common, they have very detailed OKRs, and I think they are really, really good. Now, what's the connection then between that and then the key people and the projects you need to influence?

[00:11:31] I think maybe I can expand a little bit on that. Um, now in the tech world, I think in the investment world, et cetera, you have phenomenally smart people who will be able to find their way to do many things. So the key, I think, as an influencer is to really understand for the key goals that you have, that your company has, what's going to be difficult for people?

[00:11:57] Because our definition of influence and leadership, which is interrelated, is are you able to get someone to do something better, faster, or new that they wouldn't have otherwise done? Because we believe hugely in human potential, human ability, that left alone, actually people can do a lot, but left alone, there are also many things people won't do.

[00:12:20] Maybe it's emotionally difficult. Maybe it's a, you know, it's a difficult, actually, logical decision, investment decision, or a difficult problem solved, and we avoid difficult things, right? So as a leader and influencers, it's about that. Zero in and out for each of your OKR, your annual goals, your key project.

[00:12:39] How do your key people need to be influenced to be more at their best to have that breakthrough? And then zero in even further to ask yourself, what is the conversation or more likely conversations? You need to have with them in order to exert that influence so that they are able to achieve further horizons of their own ability to think, and to feel, and to act.

[00:13:09] Daniel Saks: One of the things that I've noticed is that you've coached me to be more detail oriented, more hands on, more engaged with team members so if left to their own devices that may not enable them to succeed, but at the same time, you kind of preach the importance of influence and empowerment and giving people autonomy.

[00:13:30] So how do you find that balance as a leader between making sure that your teams have the structure and clarity and support, but don't feel suffocated by control?

[00:13:41] Huijin Kong: So I think it starts with having the insight into, I think, the nature of two things. One is really the nature of the task. And second is really the nature of the individual in relation to the task.

[00:13:56] So first, on the nature of the task, I think in the tech world, there are tasks that really are probably best done by a very small group of people, potentially even by the founders themselves. You know, sort of your way to the product market fit to that business model. I mean, of course, it takes a village to execute all that, but to really to kind of find that insight into things, or to convince that tenth customer to really go with you, or to rescue a deal that's gone bad.

[00:14:31] It does require some special abilities and special touch that a few specific people can do, right? Versus there are tasks when you are really scaling, when you found that replicable formula, you're scaling, then frankly, those special people should get out of the way because you actually need 10, 20, 100 people to do that, not like two people.

[00:14:54] So I think differentiating really the special touch, if any, is really needed or whether you need a more systematic scaling of scalable approach is very essential. The second is, of course, who you got. You know, we never had the perfect team around us. So, the person relative to the task is where you need to have the insight.

[00:15:18] If this person left to their own devices and their own power, How far would they get? And therefore, what extra nudge or help can I give that person? Oftentimes, the bigger the organization, it's just not one person. It's multiple people. So, then you need to consider the interaction dynamics. Right. So I know it can get a little complex, but I think the key litmus test question we suggest people ask themselves as a leader is, what would happen without you?

[00:15:47] And what would happen with you? So because that really allows you to try to identify, do I in fact have a unique and necessary value add relative to what the task requires? And then, you know, it's sort of a check on either too much empowerment or too little empowerment.

[00:16:08] Daniel Saks: So let's take an example. A lot of our listeners are either driving digital transformation within their organizations or are driving digital transformation as, you know, consultants or service providers to others.

[00:16:20] And as we know, digital transformation can come in many forms and functions, but it can also fail under the weight of an organization. So many of our clients and ecosystems are saying, how can we implement Gen AI fast and effectively and swiftly? And oftentimes that could mean many different things to many different people across the organization.

[00:16:40] So using your example, do you find that it's potentially a CEO or founder initiative to tackle some of this transformation? And if so, how do they influence others across their organization to be able to adapt to Gen AI as quickly as they can?

[00:16:57] Huijin Kong: Well, first of all, I'm really excited about Gen AI. I think we could do another podcast episode about how influence is even more important than Gen AI, but I won't digress.

[00:17:05] So I think if you look at the fairly voluminous amount of records about successful transformations, which is by the way, the minority and unsuccessful transformation, which is in the majority, I think there's no doubt that the personal involvement and driving energy of an apex leader, whoever that is, be it the founder or the CEO is essential.

[00:17:31] I mean, I cannot think of an example where that isn't the case, right? But the question is what then is so essential for the founder and the owner to do and the CEO to do in getting everyone to embrace the transformation? So I think it also comes down to the why, the what, and the how. I think most leaders under-invest in getting people to really internalize the why and the what, and I underline the word internalize because I think a lot of really successful leaders feel like they communicate a lot.

[00:18:12] But communication isn't the same thing as people actually internalizing. So, to internalize, first you have to understand, oftentimes, non tech people don't understand, especially, digital stuff. I'm a non tech person, so I would be the first to confess, often, I do not really understand. And yet, how many people would really admit that they don't understand?

[00:18:36] So, there has to be an opportunity to understand. Then there has to be an opportunity to question. Sometimes, I think in the urgency and in the sort of the optimism of pushing for something, there isn't really that much space for people to question. Yet, if you don't understand something, you don't believe it yet, right?

[00:19:00] Because you don't understand, you haven't had a chance to think about it. And yet you don't have an opportunity to question what then psychologically happens. You could either say, well, I don't buy it. Or if you feel that's too, shall we say, organizationally unacceptable, then you just kind of go along, but you don't really actually understand nor know what is it that you should do.

[00:19:23] So I think that you can see then the what gap will be very big because you haven't even filled the wide gap yet, right? And before we even talk about the how. So I think the influence opportunity for Apex leaders in the digital transformation world, including Gen I is, I think, really to create that space for real dialogue about why do we really need to do this?

[00:19:51] What would happen if we didn't do it? I think for a lot of companies, that should be a real inquiry rather than something that's a bit of a rhetorical question, right? And give people the opportunity to question, give people the opportunity to say they don't really know. Last one I think is also, I think if people would get it immediately is like, Show some real business results.

[00:20:14] There's too much, I think, hype around a lot of transformational initiatives, whereas a business leader actually looks at it and they say, what is the real result in this? So I think if you can't actually say what the real result is, it's very difficult to fuel any transformation.

[00:20:32] Daniel Saks: I remember one of the first things that Tsun-yan highlighted to me was what he called the elephant and the cow.

[00:20:37] Meaning is if you're a leader, you could be describing an elephant, but your team may be seeing cows or lions or any other animal. So that internalization is actually fairly difficult. And oftentimes if you speak to an audience and you think that they're not understanding, you have the tendency to personally talk more and repeat the message.

[00:20:56] But that doesn't necessarily mean that people are going to internalize it and understand it and own it and see it like you do. So what ways do you suggest people can have that shared context? So they can learn on their own to be able to kind of come to a similar conclusion.

[00:21:13] Huijin Kong: So I think to do that you need to go into a vulnerable space of actually really hearing what people are seeing and thinking.

[00:21:22] So to use your elephant and cow analogy, invite people to draw what animal they see. In Asian context, that often is one of my personal favorites. I do surveys all the time in meetings and workshops. First, you know, it's a lot simpler to read 10 lines of what people think than listen to 10 people saying things.

[00:21:41] A lot more efficient. But two is a lot of people aren't necessarily comfortable saying something that is against the grain or maybe they think it's a provocative question or stupid question. So I think a leader, or frankly anybody, can provide the space for people to express because it's the people's thoughts, people's feelings and their inclinations.

[00:22:02] That's the real game. So I think we all gotta ask ourselves, do we have the guts to play the real game? But I would, you know, hazard to challenge all leaders, fighting leaders, as well as owners and CEOs and founders that you're really serious about getting those positive outcomes that your business and your sense of purpose endeavor to have.

[00:22:28] You've got to do this. Because otherwise, you know, you're here and all the stuff is going on here and you will find yourself not having the kind of traction you want much down the line and with much less time to course correct.

[00:22:46] Daniel Saks: Yeah, I definitely find that in today's world, the good and the bad is out there.

[00:22:50] So whether it's Glassdoor, whether it's a review set on your company, whether it's the rumor going through the water cooler, everyone knows the good and the bad and the weaknesses. So if you can address those vulnerabilities transparently, you can. Seek to have other people empathize and understand your point of view, or even if they may not understand, at least they see that you're trying to really listen and learn, but that definitely goes against prior generation archetypes of what I would have thought from watching a movie or on TV, what a leader would be like, because you'd think that a leader always has everything in control and is always perfect, but you realize in today's world, that's not possible.

[00:23:28] So embracing that vulnerability and fear is critical. So that brings me to the kind of second point that I mentioned earlier, which is the intersection of fear and influence. So you gave the example, you know, with Gen AI, like, what happens if we don't do this? You know, that's to me like a wake up call to say, we can't just rest on our laurels.

[00:23:45] We need to take action. But how do you think leaders can harness fear in order to drive a positive influence as well?

[00:23:55] Huijin Kong: So first of all, fear, like all emotions we experience, is actually God's gift to us, right? So it's meant to stress us out because it's meant to indicate that there's something we should be worried about.

[00:24:07] I think the issue is how can we develop the healthy responses and influences to influence the fear, right? So I think that I find it helpful to make the distinction between rational fear and emotional identity based fear. Rational fear is like, you know, metaphorically or business wise, there's a tiger out there and it's about to eat us.

[00:24:29] Okay. Like, is there really a tiger, right? Or is it, actually, we're just sort of seeing the shadows of it. Sometimes there are real tigers, then we gotta deal with the real tigers, whatever they are. But sometimes the fears are really more about ourselves. Maybe it's things that are lessons. It means our discomfort.

[00:24:50] It means something that is opposite of what we want to believe about ourselves, our pride. And I think it's in those things where leaders have a bit more work to do. to channel those fears and to help people to understand those fears and reframe. And so that does require the leaders to be emotionally quite intelligent themselves and therefore to be able to use their own intelligence to guide their people to do so.

[00:25:24] Because oftentimes it means letting go of something you're very, very successful at. So I think Clayton Christensen's well known study of incumbent companies who knew the threat coming — the tiger, right? Years, even decades in advance, right? Even tried to do something about it. But, uh, are unable to. Success and our pride is very, very hard to let go.

[00:25:47] I mean, that was the most difficult thing for me in my own transition. To move on from one successful career to, frankly, what looked like a not very promising second career that I probably will fail at. So do you dare to take the leap and then find the courage in yourself and in your company and your organization to do it?

[00:26:07] And to know that you can reinvent yourself and that is part of the natural, natural process. So that's where the influence of the leader to guide people how to think, to guide people to face the fear, but not to be debilitated by it and call on that courage within themselves and to do it for the team, do it for themselves, do it for their families to me is where the able positive influence warrior shines the brightest.

[00:26:37] Daniel Saks: Well, that's truly inspirational and I've really enjoyed the conversation and enjoyed all the advice you've given. And for our listeners, can you share where they can learn more about Positive Influence and where they can find the book?

[00:26:47] Huijin Kong: Check out www.positiveinfluence.life because it is about life, not just about work.

[00:26:54] And influence should frighten your day. All the time, you can find out more information about us as authors, what we do, about the book, where to buy the book, and lots of resources to help you along on your own positive influence journey. But thank you, Dan, for having me, and I want to let you know that it's been a privilege for Tsun-yan and I to accompany you and AppDirect and Nick along this journey, and you have, in my mind, Absolutely embodied much of the courage and the inspiration of a positive influence leader.

[00:27:28] And I can't wait to see more.

[00:27:30] Daniel Saks: Well, really appreciate that. And thanks again for joining us.

[00:27:32] Huijin Kong: Okay. Super.

[00:27:38] Daniel Saks: Thanks for listening to Decoding Digital. Make sure you never miss an episode by subscribing to the show and your favorite podcast player. To learn more, visit decodingdigital.com. Until next time.