Now Is The Time To Become A More Compassionate Leader

Originally posted on Forbes.com

Nine years ago, Cindy Vuu—the CEO of Biti’s, Vietnam’s largest footwear brand—was facing many challenges in her life. With a successful career, a great education, and an executive leadership at a young age, she appeared to have it all.

But despite her many achievements, Cindy felt empty inside. “Sometimes having too much can cause you a lot of problems,” she says. Determined to live a life filled with meaning, she searched for a way to invite more happiness into her own life as well as those she worked with every day.

Though the changes weren’t instant, Cindy eventually became a model for positive and compassionate leadership. Today, every team member is encouraged and supported to integrate mindful practices into their home and business lives. She’s even integrated Biti’s own version of Gross National Happiness—a concept first used by Bhutan to measure the happiness of its citizens.

The program, called “Happy Biti’s,” has created a more balanced environment for Biti’s thousands of team members. This positive and happy work culture also seeped into major marketing campaigns which helped to put Biti’s back on top after foreign brands began to take over Vietnam’s shoe market.

Cindy knows that real business success goes beyond focusing on revenue alone. It’s about servant leaders that take good care of themselves and focus on their teams with compassion, care, and genuine happiness.

Building a Compassionate Business Culture

While starting her journey into mindfulness and compassionate leadership, Cindy came across a book by His Holiness the Dalai Lama titled, The Art of Happiness—a book that would prove instrumental to her life. Though packed with layers of wisdom, the theme that stood out most was the Dalai Lama’s insight that the purpose in life is to be happy.

Raised by two parents who were both in business, Cindy was raised with the mentality that success was all about working hard, getting good grades, starting a good career, and becoming wealthy. “They never told me that I should do something that makes me happy,” she remembers. “Now, His Holiness is telling me that the purpose of life is happiness.”

Was being happy really more important than a great career and making money? Or did that idea sound nice but had little place in the “real world?” Curious and eager to find out, Cindy integrated more mindful practices into her life like daily meditation and gratitude journals. It didn’t take long for her to realize that the Dalai Lama’s words rang true. “It’s changed my life,” Cindy says “It helps me to appreciate what I have.”

She even had the opportunity to meet His Holiness the Dalai Lama in India. He told Cindy, “If you want to be happy in this lifetime, make sure your motivation is to benefit all sentient beings.” As a business leader, she reflected on how this wisdom applied to her.

This reflection led Cindy’s perspective on everything to change. She wanted to do more than bring more positivity into her personal life. She was determined to cultivate mindfulness and happiness into Biti’s culture.

Cindy began reaching out to experts on happiness, business, and mindful leadership like Dr. Ha Vinh Tho, the former director of the Gross National Happiness Centre. “Happiness is a very abstract thing,” says Cindy. “A country that measures the level of their happiness was really intriguing to me.” She learned that numbers and metrics were key to the success of the program’s effectiveness.

When she first proposed the idea of creating Biti’s own version of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) system, many of her colleagues were skeptical. “Business people are always talking about revenue. They wondered why I was talking about happiness,” Cindy laughs. But with her enthusiasm and insights, it didn’t take long for them to see the potential. “The most important thing at a company is the community and to live in harmony,” Cindy says.

With a desire for firsthand knowledge, Cindy traveled to Bhutan to research their GNH program, and devise a model specifically for Biti’s. With Dr. Tho’s help, Cindy and the Biti’s leadership team created and implemented “Happy Biti’s.” The mission would be “to create a community of working, learning, and living happily—together.”

Happy People. Stronger Company.

Along with the new initiative came a new tagline—“Happy Me. Happy Biti’s.” It represents how their positive work culture would focus on the individual’s happiness first. If the individuals were happy, then the company too would become stronger and more successful as well.

Biti’s had every employee learn mindfulness practices like meditation, self-care, compassionate communication skills, empathetic listening, life balance, how to better connect with nature, and more. Biti’s further supported this culture by giving them time and space during the workday to use these practices.

So far, Happy Biti’s has transformed the work culture and the brand for the better. “My colleagues have become more aware of their emotions,” Cindy says. “They’re more connected with themselves and what is causing them problems.”

Increased awareness also meant better conversations and enhanced communication. “For a company to be successful, you need to have the collective effort of everybody. You need to make sure that everyone is on the same page,” says Cindy. “Your awareness sharpens [with mindfulness] so you can recognize a bad habit or an unhealthy way of reacting to situations.”

The Biti’s leadership team also promotes the value of patience and kindness. “Kindness towards others, towards ourselves, and towards others is very important,” says Cindy. “In this world, we need to be very patient and kind to ourselves. If we do that towards ourselves, we can do it with others.”

This is especially critical in the fast-paced business world where empathy and kindness can sometimes be an afterthought. “We want instant results,” says Cindy, “But the reality is not that way. You need patience. You need time for [your team] to grow.” As people, it takes time to learn your craft, whatever it may be.

“We have to be patient with the people and the process,” says Cindy. Mistakes are inevitable. So, rather than get frustrated, leaders should listen to their team and support them even when mistakes happen. Mindfully embrace the totality of the process. “When you enjoy the process,” says Cindy, “It gives you a lot of benefits and joy. When we’re curious, it makes our lives interesting.”

Success Through Mindful Values

Values like happiness, listening, communication, and mindfulness have even helped bring Biti’s back to the top of Vietnam’s footwear market. They had long been one of the country’s most popular shoe brands, but it was becoming harder to compete with an influx of international brands like Nike and Adidas.

Taking a cue from its company culture, Biti’s launched a campaign for a new line of shoes called BitisHunter. The overarching message encourages people to connect more deeply with others, explore nature, take time for yourself, and share their life experiences.

The campaign was a huge success. BitisHunter became so popular that it helped thrust Biti’s back to the number one position in the Vietnamese shoe market where it still stands today.

Now that Biti’s has regained its top spot in her own country, is Cindy eyeing even greater growth? “Whether or not we can be a global brand, it’s okay,” says Cindy. “As long as we stay true to our mission, try our best, and believe in what we think is right, that’s already beautiful.”

The conversation with Cindy Vuu continues on the Leading with Genuine Care podcast! Learn about her wisdom on positive leadership, how a culture of happiness boosted Biti’s success, what she does for her daily mindfulness practices, and more!

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