As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Tia Graham, Founder of Arrive At Happy (aah!), a company with the mission of inspiring transformation through the science of happiness and neuroscience. She has worked with dozens of global companies such as Goldman Sachs, Hilton Hotels and Kashi to elevate engagement and drive bottom line results through engaged and happy cultures.
Tia has a Certificate in Happiness Studies and a Certificate in Teaching Happiness from Harvard’s Tal Ben-Shahar and The Happiness Studies Academy. She is a Certified Chief Happiness Officer from Woohoo Inc., Europe’s premier Happiness At Work organization and is a speaker and coach at the annual World Happiness Summit. Tia is also Certified in Neuroscience from The Neuroscience School and a Certified Coach with the International Coaching Federation. She hosts the Arrive At Happy Leaders show available on Spotify and iTunes. Her book, The Happy Leader, will be published by Morgan James Publishing in January 2022.
Prior to launching aah!, she led sales and marketing teams at luxury hotels in the United States and Turkey for brands such as W Hotels, Westin and The London. She has a Business Degree in Tourism from The University of Hawaii.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My career began leading sales, marketing and public relations efforts for luxury hospitality brands around the world, including Istanbul, Honolulu, Kauai, New York and Los Angeles. I did this for 14 years and was grateful for the experiences, relationships and opportunity to travel. However, I faced unexpected turbulence once I had my second daughter. I found myself struggling to “stay balanced” while juggling motherhood, work, marriage, friends and my sense of self. As someone who found my natural state to be optimistic and upbeat, this was a challenge.
I had always dreamed of creating a happiness company and being a catalyst for positivity in the world. When I saw my own happiness dwindling, I knew it was time to grab hold of my life in a new way, and work to turn this entrepreneurial vision into a reality. I found my inner clarity during the time of real struggle and knew this was my calling.
I obtained a Certificate in Happiness Studies and a Certificate in Teaching Happiness from Harvard’s Tal Ben-Shahar and The Happiness Studies Academy. Additionally, I became a Certified Chief Happiness Officer from Woohoo Inc., Europe’s premier Happiness At Work organization and am certified in Neuroscience from The Neuroscience School. In 2017, I launched Arrive At Happy, a company with a mission of inspiring transformation through the science of happiness and neuroscience. I partner with organizations and leaders to grow their business through engaged and happy cultures.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
When I first started out in luxury hospitality in my early 20s, I had never led a team. The GM of the hotel I was at used certain phrases frequently, and without realizing it, I began using those same phrases when talking to my team. Thinking back on it, my GM was experienced, she was my mentor, so in a sense, I was emulating her. However, my team eventually called me out on it — you say the same things as Angela!
My lesson from that was, you can and should learn from others you admire, but you still need to be you and have your own style.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Karen Guggenheim, the Co-Founder of the World Happiness Summit®. I had been running Arrive At Happy for two years and reached out to Karen, who kindly allowed me to share my story on stage at the Summit. This enabled me to meet all of the other speakers — Ivy League neuroscientists and other very smart, connected people in the happiness space — and gave me more confidence because I could say I had spoken at the Summit. Karen supported me and helped grow my company, and if she believed in me to succeed, I felt I could believe in myself. We currently have several collaborations in the works I’m excited about.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
To spread science of happiness and happiness at work to as many as possible. From leading teams and working with global corporations for nearly two decades, I realized that happy companies are successful companies. I set out to create a repeatable process that lets leaders create a culture of happiness that not only drives business growth but also changes lives — inside and outside the company.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
When I was Director of Sales at the W Hotel in New York City, I stepped into the role right before the financial crash. As we all know, NYC is the hub of financial business in the U.S. Almost overnight, my salespeople who had been exceeding their numbers, were struggling. Hotels went from nearly 95% occupancy to 45%. For the 18 months I was there, I led the charge to keep the team motivated and happy. Communication and transparency with the sales team were key during this time.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I love a challenge so I never considered giving up but this didn’t come without being highly stressed and overwhelmed. In terms of my hotel role, my dream for so many years was to land in New York. I knew the financial crash wasn’t going to last five years, so there was always light at the end of the tunnel. I was motivated to push forward because of my team — they needed to see hope and positivity. Their mental wellbeing relied on me, to a certain extent.
When I started Arrive At Happy, I was working full-time at The London West Hollywood Hotel. Life was definitely full with an executive career, leading a team, studying, creating a new brand, and balancing my family and personal responsibilities. There were definitely days where I thought, can I do all of this? Is this going to work? The motivation to keep building my company came from the passion to truly help people and the desire to create a lifestyle that aligned with my values. My drive is sustained today for those same reasons and the huge need for happiness at work and personal happiness that I see in the world.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
To be an effective leader during challenging times, you need to be the one with vision that can see past what’s currently happening. You need to be able to accept this is the situation, but your energy needs to demonstrate — we’re in this difficult situation but we’ll find a way out together.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
My top ways to inspire, motivate and engage a team are:
- Create a team connection. Make sure everyone feels like they are part of the team; they belong and have a role.
- Celebrate and acknowledge any amount of success. Even baby steps are progress.
- Communicate to your team that the work they are doing matters and has purpose. Help them find meaning in the work.
- Communicate results to your team. Be transparent even if the results may not be ideal or what you were hoping for.
- Engage with your team on a personal level. Listen and be empathetic.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Bring everyone together and don’t leave anyone out. Again, be transparent about the news and what it means. Show that the bad news is also affecting you as a leader — this isn’t a failure or setback for just your team, you’re taking responsibility for it as well.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The future is always unpredictable but we’ve seen just how unpredictable it can be with the COVID pandemic. A five year plan isn’t practical right now, so focus on 30 or 60 day plans, or maybe six months. Involve your team in planning. Don’t make decisions and then tell them about the plan. You want to have their buy-in, and it also creates something for them to be motivated and optimistic about.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle is stick to your mission or purpose. If you always stay connected to that, it will be easier to move through the turbulent times.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Common mistakes include:
- Lack of communication — If you’re not communicating why you’re making certain decisions, your team may question it and feel uneasy. For example, if you have to make layoffs or furlough employees, it’s critical to explain why and the path moving forward so employees aren’t left to wonder — am I next?
- Not spending enough time understanding what people at different levels in the company are going through. Slow down and take time to listen before you react or pivot.
- Allowing your leaders’ negative emotions — stress, anxiety, fear — to trickle down through company. This is toxic to a business.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Deepen client relationships. Look at how you can support and grow those customers. Leverage those relationships to help get new business, make introductions or obtain referrals.
Conduct weekly brainstorming sessions/check-ins (at a minimum) with your business development and customer services teams. There needs to be time for this and not just the day-to-day work projects and tasks discussion. When times are challenging, this is even more important.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Listen: Less talking! And listen to what’s being said or not said by your employees. What is their tone of voice or nonverbal cues that convey what they’re really feeling about a situation.
- Be empathetic: During the pandemic, work and personal lives have become even more blurred. Staff needs to know you understand their challenges and care about them. Give people time and space to connect with their loved ones.
- Provide psychological safety: Create a safe space for employees to say how they feel and bring up any concerns or challenges.
- Be positive: Create optimism and hope. Highlight the good things that are happening. Leaders need to be in charge of this energy.
- Create connection: Working remotely can be isolating. Bring your team together in a way that makes sense for them. Call them or send a handwritten note to acknowledge a success. Make time for people to share during meetings and not dive right into business.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.” –Dalai Lama.
I try to live by this and it’s really the foundation of Arrive At Happy. You can’t sit back and expect to be happy; you need to be proactive in identifying what makes you happy and create actions that align with this.
How can our readers further follow your work?
The Happy Leader book (Pre-Sales Start May 2022): https://www.arriveathappy.com/book