“When I was 18, I already knew I wanted to be a business leader someday—and not a basketball player,” recalls Linh Thai. As a business and lifestyle visionary, Linh Thai used her skills and knowledge to manage a string of business successes. Celebrating the tenth installment of How I Manage, we meet with the investor to find out what it takes to live, learn, and lead like her.
What are three words that would describe your management style?
Open-minded, mentoring, result-oriented.
I’m open to hiring people who don’t check off everything in the job description as long as they are willing to invest their own time into learning. I always explain to my hires the reasons underpinning our company actions. I don’t let my staff execute like robots.
I spend a lot of time explaining a problem, but I only do it once. They need to write it down, and then practice whatever item I just explained. The person asking the question has the responsibility to learn the material. The onus is on them to learn, not on me to re-teach.
And the deadline doesn’t change just because an employee doesn’t know how to do the task yet. If they’re already experienced, they take one hour to complete the task. If they don’t know how to do it, they’re expected to spend 10 hours on it, and still turn it in at the same time, with the same results. They can spend a lot of time working, but if they don’t deliver results that doesn’t count.
Who has been the most influential in your career?
If I name one person it would be unfair for the rest of my mentors. At every one of my past jobs there has been someone who took time explaining things to me. A common thread among my past mentors is that they add a lot to my insights, but they also expect results from me.
You don’t pay back to your mentor by thanking them and forgetting what they said the next morning. You need to memorize what they taught you, apply it to your work, and be more effective.
I now mentor my team the way I was mentored before.
Describe your ideal hire.
I hire people who love to learn, and those who have already proven themselves in the past. They ideally have 5 years of experience, during which time they have had a maximum of two jobs. That means they have been committed to deepening their knowledge and experience in that field.
With this deep foundation, they are better equipped to learn more advanced topics while working with me.
The quality of their experience is more important than the total number of years. If you have 10 years of work experience where you switched jobs every six months, you haven’t gotten to know any field deep enough. That is because for the first 6-12 months all you learn are the basics.
What is one advice you would give to someone starting out in a management position?
You need to switch from the executing mindset to the managing mindset, from diving into the details to giving directions and checking the details, and from doing to mentoring.
When you were a junior employee, your job was to get things done. When you’re a manager, your job is help other people do it. Individual tasks will turn into meetings and follow-ups.
That brings me to my next advice: do all you can to hire the right people. The whole purpose of having more people is to get more done than you can do on your own. If you hire the wrong people, you end up doing the job by yourself, you waste money, you don’t sleep, and the quality of your work will suffer.
What do you find most difficult about your job?
Dealing with people is the toughest part. No two people are exactly the same in their personalities, goals, and aspirations. Once they pass the recruitment process, an employee becomes a brand new project for you to work on as their manager. You have to spend time understanding what everybody on the team wants and needs, then you have to balance that with what the company wants and needs.
When do you give up on difficult employees?
There’s a research paper that assesses employees on two different axes—one for their attitude and the other for their effectiveness, or results. Of course you keep people with a good attitude and high effectiveness, and fire those who score poorly at both. But what about those with a bad attitude and high effectiveness?
I used to put up with bad attitude-high effectiveness people because I valued results above all else. But in the past few years I’ve realized attitude is equally important, especially for startups and small teams. If you have one person who behaves badly, no matter how effective they are, your team culture will be damaged. That one person will drag the whole group down.
Right now I only have room for people who are easy to work with and deliver good results.
Would you say you’ve become more impatient with time?
Yes. Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot of time so I have to choose my problems carefully.
As I become more senior in the field, the standards are raised on me. I’m expected to deliver so I also have to expect the same from my team. This chain of expectations needs to be fulfilled. Otherwise our company can’t move forward.
Do you prefer power to be distributed equally or hierarchically in business?
Ideally, power would be distributed in a way that facilitates autonomy and harmony. Different organizations require different amounts of hierarchy versus flat leadership. So common sense is key. You have to make sure that your team can think on their own, while setting up enough guidelines so they know when they need to ask for permission and when they can be pro-active.
How often do you think about long-term goals?
Once a week. You don’t necessarily plan out all the details, but you need to have a direction for your future. You should be thinking 10 to 20 years down the road, obviously knowing that the details will change.
I love asking people where they see themselves in the future. When I was 18 I planned out my 40s. Now that I’m in my 40s I often ponder on what I’ll do in my 60s. Everybody says they want to be retired, but that’s as general as a teenager saying they want to work after college.
At sixty you can still be young at heart and full of energy. What will you do with all that?
Do you see yourself in Vietnam in 20 years?
That’s something I discuss with my husband a lot. We’re still not sure yet. I like to think of myself as a citizen of the world. Most of my family is in the US so I’ll travel back and forth often. I’d love to live in Spain for a few years to experience the culture and learn the language.
Vietnam is near and dear to my heart. Wherever I’ll be, I will always be here somehow.