As a part of my HR Strategy Series, I’m talking to top experts in the field to teach prospects what hiring managers are actually looking for, while also supporting business leaders in their hiring and retention strategies. Today I had the pleasure of talking with Jasmine Chen.
Jasmine Chen, Founder & CEO of the adaptive cognitive training (ACT) app and workplace wellness solution, the LIFE app (thelifeapp.io). A former hedge fund investor, Jasmine applies a highly analytical frame to the topics core to work and life. Incorporating hundreds of scientific studies, LIFE takes your moods and provides problem-solving content, helping you manage stress and anxiety, improve work productivity, and build lasting relationships.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! First, please tell us what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me! After Princeton, Harvard Business School, and years of investing, I was working at a hedge fund. My role was to analyze companies and industries to find untapped opportunities.
When I studied the mental health space, I found that what was common today–CBT and meditation–comprised less than 1% of our full wellness picture. We lacked a more holistic toolkit. For example, meditation can’t teach me to become a better partner or show me how to weigh difficult decisions. We were missing critical information on many topics that, if not managed well, all contribute to stress and anxiety.
When I studied the HR space, I saw executive coaching or workshops that were one-off. This created a lack of common language problems: If only some managers were trained, their feedback to untrained colleagues would fall on deaf ears.
Companies did host some company-wide training, but those came mostly in the form of once-a-year retreats. These are fun, but fail to create lasting change. Research shows we lose 80% of what we learn in a matter of days if not retrieved. We lacked consistent practice.
At the same time, I was discovering these problems, I was also experiencing a personal frustration. I and high-achieving peers were wasting precious mind-space on issues that affected performance. The problem seemed to be getting worse, judging by the spike in teen anxiety and depression.
So, I decided to use my hedge fund skill-set to research, analyze, and act on the problems that are core to our lives. At LIFE, we’ve made a "Coaching app" that helps you problem-solve with science, no fluffy platitudes. We also provide a team-based community and a company-wide solution to structurally change the way companies are set up to care for employee well-being.
Can you share the most interesting or funny story that happened to you since you started this career and what lesson you learned from that?
It’s pretty funny whenever I get compared to Billions character Wendy Rhoades (she’s a hedge fund in-house psychiatrist). I hate to admit that I don’t actually watch the show, but could certainly see how fast-paced professional atmospheres need it. At a hedge fund, you’re constantly being measured and have to keep emotions or mental heuristics from getting the best of you. My response is, “Yes that’s great, but LIFE is meant to make that support scale!”
Are you working on any exciting new projects at your company? How is this helping people?
At LIFE, our adaptive cognitive training (ACT) is helping users manage stress and anxiety, improve work productivity, and build lasting relationships. We think of it as holistic workplace well-being. What does that mean? We’re solving the three problems I identified before: at the individual level, the team level, and the company level.
At the individual level, our education system doesn’t really teach self improvement & other management skills. So, our app has curated hundreds of scientific studies into one thoughtful curriculum on everything from self-awareness to goal-setting to conflict resolution.
Learning is meant to prevent problems. But, if an issue comes up, where do we go today? To friends, Google, Reddit? These are inefficient and often inaccurate. Instead, bring those problems to LIFE. Online/mobile, with one tap, you can select how you’re feeling and receive the content and directives to solve it, all backed by cited research you can vet for yourself.
The second problem we identified was employee engagement with well-being tools. As one executive put it, “we started offering therapy and saw little uptake.” Similarly, HR spends all this time putting together workshops and trying to garner attendance for an often thankless and fleeting outcome.
While cognitive training alone is great for private learning and practice, we find that it makes a much bigger impact done together as a team. In order to develop buy-in, we find two things very important. The first is the messaging. We polled people on how they’d like to find out about well-being tools: through friends, or through their managers? It turns out that on a scale of 1–10, with 10 being the highest, 9’s and 10’s went to hearing about well-being from managers that say: “This is something I purchased specifically for us to do together because I care about your success in this role and in future roles.” Messaged in this way, it not only allows people to feel cared for and invested in but also focuses on the team’s success, eliminating stigma and creating a shared experience.
Finally, the third problem we identified is the lack of a company-wide solution. LIFE grows with you throughout your time with a company. Onboard with our quick, asynchronous training for preventive mental health and proactive career development. We grow alongside you, with different topics as you’re promoted from the first hire to a manager.
Affordable for everyone, we establish a common language across departments and geographies. This improves not just day-to-day collaboration but extends to diversity and inclusion and remote work.
Wonderful. Now let’s jump into the main focus of our series. Hiring can be very time consuming and difficult. Can you share 5 techniques that you use to identify the talent that would be best suited for the job you want to fill? Please share an example of each idea.
According to a Leadership IQ study done over 3 years involving 5,247 hiring managers, when new hires don’t work out, 89% of those failures are due to a lack of soft skills, not hard skills.
The top 5 ways in which people failed?
26% because they can’t accept feedback
23% because they’re unable to understand and manage emotions
17% because they lack the necessary motivation to excel
15% because they have the wrong temperament for the job
Lack of technical skills came in at #5, affecting only 11% of failures.
So, my tips are as follows.
1. Hire for soft skills.
Would you rather work with a competent jerk or a lovable fool? Amazingly, researchers took all the traits we use to describe personality and discovered a universal dimension of social cognition: that all these traits can be defined on a scale of warmth vs. competence. Most would agree that jobs require a certain level of competence. So, these findings are situation-dependent. However, in general, research shows that warmth is judged more quickly, contributes more significantly to evaluations, and is perceived as more enduring and accurate. Warmth is weighted more heavily when assessing others, whereas competence is weighted more heavily when assessing ourselves.
I’ve made the mistake of hiring people who looked incredibly competent — great universities, resumes — but lacked these five skills to live up to potential.
2. Hire for those who can accept feedback.
Relationship expert Dr. John Gottman describes four “relationship ruining” attitudes. One of those four is defensiveness. In interviews, it helps to screen for humility and the ability to own one’s actions. In a situational interview, this could be as simple as asking someone about the last time they made a mistake. How did they handle it? If they acknowledged, apologized, and changed their behavior for the better, that’s great. Even the best CEOs have had to apologize to the public for all sorts of mistakes, from data breaches to product recalls. We’re never above taking responsibility.
3. Hire for those who can understand and manage emotions.
This includes being self-aware about how others perceive you. This could be asking, “Tell me about the last time someone was upset with you or vice versa. How did you manage that conflict?” Were they empathetic and understanding of the other person’s viewpoint? Could they calmly explain their point of view? Did they repair the situation?
4. Hire for those committed to your company’s mission.
Ask them why it personally resonates. Research shows that purpose is not only positive for our well-being; it’s actually a precursor for driving engagement and work performance. I’ve made the mistake of hiring people who didn’t quite understand the problem our "wellness living app" solves only to find that customer empathy is everything. Those who have experienced the problems we solve firsthand are not only personally dedicated: they can also best build for and sell to our customers.
5. Hire for a growth mindset and self-management skills.
You can’t micromanage every new hire or every ethical dilemma. The ability for employees to take ownership, whether that means researching best practices or anticipating risk, reduces downtime and supercharges progress. You could ask: “What did you do the last time you were given an unclear assignment and you had no idea how to proceed?” Or, see how well they self-manage by asking how they’ve organized and reached personal goals. I’ve been asked: can you develop a growth mindset? 100%. I believe that’s part of what LIFE aims to do. Our curriculum begins with things like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), cognitive distortions, learned helplessness/optimism, and growth mindset in order to prime people for proactive behaviors. However, self-management encompasses even more. We also teach people to manage their goals, values, decisions.
With so much noise and competition out there, what are your top 3 ways to attract and engage the best talent in an industry when they haven’t already reached out to you?
1. Attract with well-being initiatives for a strong employee net promoter score. 89% of workers at companies that support well-being initiatives are more likely to recommend their company as a good place to work. Most employees will attempt to do their homework before accepting an offer, asking friends or even strangers on LinkedIn what the experience is like on the inside.
2. Engage with internships. At Princeton and Harvard Business School, a handful of names were commonly thrown around. Those that were top of mind had gained name recognition with internships. They came to campus to interview every year for summer-long or even spring break one-week programs, even if offers weren’t ultimately given. They used interviews to showcase brand and culture.
Offering opportunities also equalizes the playing field for less traditional candidates to gain valuable exposure. Coming from Iowa, I knew I wanted to experience fields and cities that aren’t available in the Midwest. At Princeton, I worked every break and part time role I could find, from DC to NYC. By the time I got to the hedge fund, I’d gotten the lay of the finance landscape.
3. Broaden your search. Some firms that only recruit from certain companies or schools are missing out on an incredible pool of talent in other areas. Perhaps a talented individual accepted a full-ride scholarship to an in-state school instead of taking out loans to attend a brand-name one. Perhaps another wants to work remotely or part-time because they have to care for family members. Consider whether the role you’re looking for requires someone to be in the office or from a certain background. Hire for what you really need.
What are the 3 most effective strategies you use to retain employees?
1. Differentiate on development. Support your people’s professional and personal lives. 87% of employees expect their employer to support them in balancing work and personal commitments. This could mean everything from LIFE’s cognitive training that addresses both work and personal issues. Or, it could mean introducing more flexibility, such as days working from home.
2. Perform with clear communication. People want to be working for effective companies, and poor communication isn’t just bad business, it’s incredibly frustrating employee experience. Companies of ~100,000 and ~100 employees estimate a loss of $62.4M and $420K per year, respectively, due to poor communication. Numbers aside, what do we tell our friends or spouses when we get home from work? Usually, we complain about some communication issues: departmental conflicts, difficult colleagues. LIFE works as a great "counseling app" and can combat this by establishing a common language. All new hires are asked to take our curriculum when they begin. Similar to marriage counseling, it only works when all parties involved are on the same page.
3. Progress by acting on feedback. Companies constantly strive to better serve their customers by asking for feedback and integrating suggestions into their products. The same should go for their other constituents: employees. Employee engagement surveys are currently the norm. But, these polls are often ineffective: they may tell HR what’s wrong, but HR is still responsible for fixing those problems, a daunting task. So, the survey goes nowhere, people feel stiffed, the status quo persists. At LIFE, our company-wide solution aims to make change management easy. With a 24/7 pulse, we can create custom content to addresses anonymous Q&A and push it to every employee’s phone with the click of a button. Voices can be satisfied, not just heard.
In your experience, is it important for HR to keep up with the latest trends? If so, please share an example of what this might look like.
Critically important. Modern HR is shifting from the traditional reputation of being like the principal (where you only go if in trouble) to the role of counselor. They encourage your development, help you set goals, mediate conflicts. However, that means their tools also need to change. In the words of an actual school counselor: “I am stretched so thin that I only have time for the top 10% of kids getting scholarships, and bottom 10% of kids getting in trouble. 80% of students fall through the cracks.”Right now, when HR focuses on payroll, screening, and performance review tools, those are great but are table stakes. Rather, they can differentiate by finding tools focused on well-being and development above and beyond normal KPIs. Stretched for time, they need tools that are both holistic enough for everyone yet customizable for the specific culture and situation of that company. That’s where LIFE aims to reach everyone, making sure 100% don’t fall through the cracks.
What are some creative ways to increase the value provided to employees without breaking the bank?
There’s a wealth of psychology around extrinsic motivation vs. intrinsic motivation. Money and free food motivate to a degree but pale in comparison to intrinsic motivators such as the feeling of safety, authenticity, belonging, appreciation.
LIFE helps companies foster such intrinsic motivation in an affordable and easy way. Our cognitive training is compared by users to therapy at a fraction of the time and price. Our team-based workshops have been compared to group therapy, creating a safe space for trust to thrive.
I’m also a huge proponent of the remote work movement. It’s not only a cost-saver for the company to decrease its footprint and lower overhead. It’s also a joy to have freedom over your time and location. And it decreases congestion and environmental damage from commuting.
If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
LIFEs mission is common emotional literacy and management across generations and geographies. Get the LIFE app when you’re 18, and prevent a school dropout. One of our college-age users found that our program helped her move from a failing grade in Chemistry to finishing the year with honors. Keep LIFE through your first job, and double productivity with mental fortitude and relationship skills. Teams that use us find that the app is not only therapeutic but also helps problem solve on the fly. Use LIFE through parenthood, and receive parenting-specific content. Share LIFE with your spouse, and work through conflicts before they escalate to divorce. Each phase in life, we’re here to grow with and support you.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote” and how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” — Arthur Ashe, Ashe grew up in a time of segregation. Such institutionalized racism can be age-old and seemingly impossible to change, but as one individual, he did what he could to lead a movement. He made historic wins at the US Open and Wimbledon. And, after being diagnosed with AIDS, he gave what he last could, establishing foundations and institutes for health.
By definition, startups that are trying to put something new into the world face an uphill battle against the status quo. Whoever thought we would be getting into other people’s cars, or staying in other people’s homes? Norms and institutions forbade it, but the uphill battle was won.
At a startup, it can feel like you’re never moving fast enough. You’re keenly aware that you are a blip in the stratosphere compared to blue chip companies. But, it’s key to remember that every single one of those successful companies started from one individual. And those individuals started right where they were: in a dorm room, in a garage, in a rural village. They used what limited funding they had. They did what little they could. I try to keep that fresh perspective when things feel impossible: I’m just doing what I can, with what I have, right here, right now.
We are very blessed to have some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have a private lunch with, and why?
Melinda Gates. She’s a pioneer for women in STEM and I have so much respect for how she’s created a platform for good. I loved reading that her dad was an Apollo-program engineer, and her book titled The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World had to do with the point of spacecraft take-off. What a beautiful tie-in, and one that aligns well with LIFE’s space theme!
Thank you so much for these fantastic insights!