“Listen and Learn”
Ted Ning and LOHAS
Talking to Ted Ning, it’s easy to form an early impression that his success is something that happened to him rather than something he accomplished. He tells you that his coaching an Olympic ski team was really just a result of his own poor skiing. He explains that rising form a data entry position to the Director of LOHAS was not something he planned or even thought he’d be able to do. And yet, there he is, at the hub of a network of businesses, information, and education that reaches tens of thousands of businesses and consumers interested in health and sustainability every month. The more you talk to Ted, the harder it is not to suspect that his passion, generosity, emphasis on listening, and depth and breadth of knowledge about the green economy have more than a little to do with where he is today.
How did you come to LOHAS?
I came back from Japan, and I was trying to start an import-export business that failed. I joined a dot-com and got into the computer aspects of things. I then met a childhood friend who I always admired and he talked me into trying to sell life insurance, which was not my thing. I was at my wit’s end. I was in debt. I started applying at Home Depot and P.F. Chang’s, and I was looking in the newspaper and I found an ad for LOHAS as a data entry person. I got that job and worked my way up to now running it. I still teach people, but I do it from a different platform. I teach adults how to improve themselves as well as their business and give them the tools and the resources and the space for them to learn.
When you work with a business to evaluate the triple bottom line, how do you help them strike a balance?
That’s the challenge. It depends a lot on size and goals. More and more people want to be part of the discussion rather than being told about a new initiative. Companies also need to be transparent about it and say we see that this is an issue, we don’t have a solution yet, but we are working on it. It tells the consumer, “Okay, you are not just pushing me aside.” Companies that pretend they have all the answers are the ones that fail.
What things do you find similar in being an Olympic ski coach and leading LOHAS?
When I started skiing I was awful, so I could relate to people who were starting. I had to really work and learn how to do it. Because of that, I could really empathize with those people who are struggling. I would go to summer camps just to listen to how different people say things. That was the first way I learned to take different pieces from different experts and comprise them to make something of my own. I guess I kind of do that here, too.
What about things like teamwork?
You certainly have to understand how to develop team-building skills and how to encourage people, depending on who you’re working with, to determine what works in terms of giving them accolades to get them to the next level. And also make sure that you are on a schedule or on a program that’s going to get everybody to where they need to be at the right time.
Do you have any advice that you would give to someone who is trying to start a social enterprise?
To someone who is trying to start a social enterprise?
It’s not easy. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it. I think that it’s very important to always follow your heart. It’s important to always have a thirst for knowledge, too.
I would suggest watching Daniel Pink’s presentation on “What Really Motivates People” on Youtube. He basically talks about how incentives work if it is a task that is directional. If you complete one thing, you get this. But if there are other things that are going on, then it really fails. You need to find things that speak to people’s hearts, and it’s unique to each person. These little things given at the right time really make a difference. It demonstrates that I am listening to my employees and I understand their situation and sometimes their struggles. It’s just maximizing those relationships you have and spreading out the benefits of the relationships to the others. Maybe I am asked to go to a media announcement or luncheon, and I will have someone else go. By giving them responsibility, you are acknowledging that they can do it, and people really jump at that. And ask them what they want. Even when there’s tension, you need to be able to say, “I hear you.” And that’s enough to diffuse the problem. And really listen; you need to be engaged. “I understand that you are not being paid enough, and I am so sorry about that. What is it that you want?” Really ask that question because the money is a commodity of exchange. Really push them to think about why they’re doing this. Those types of deep discussions are really important to an organization.
What do you look for when you hire someone?
I give them a hypothetical situation. Based on their response, you get an idea if they fit or not. Also, asking what is their biggest weakness. I see if they are sincere about it. If they can’t talk about it or they stutter it means that they haven’t prepared themselves for tough questions. You have to go beyond the question. You are listening to their tone and watching their body language. You’re taking a variety of different assessments that can give you some hints on how it would feel to work with them. Also, ask what they have done in the past that is similar or talk about something that was challenging.
What do you do when you face obstacles?
There are two different models: Captain Kirk and Captain Picard of Star Trek [laughs]. I remember when the Captain Picard actor was on Jay Leno, Leno said “Okay, so, who would win, Captain Kirk or you in a fight?” His response, which I thought was very clever, was “Picard would never let it escalate to the point where they would get into a fight.” So you need to get ahead of the situation before it gets to that point. You need to be sensitive to what’s going on and the circumstances. There are various personalities, but to get to a point where you can be diplomatic about those issues and take out the emotions is very important when any kind of conflict resolution is occurring.
Can you give me an example of a difficult decision that you have made at LOHAS?
I have had to hire and fire employees or different partner groups and it’s been tough because a lot of them have taken it personally. If they get upset and stomp away, all I want to say to myself at the end of the day is that I have tried to do everything that I could to make it okay.
What has been the most surprising part of your experience at LOHAS?
That I have been able to do it. [laughs] It’s not a plan. I wish I could say I had a strategy. I don’t. [laughs] It’s just kind of organic. And people say, “Oh my God, how did you do this? What’s your recipe?” I don’t have one. It’s more out of divine design than my own design.
Is there anything that you wish you had done differently earlier in life?
No, I don’t think so. I would say that everything that I have done that I thought was an absolute failure, I learned a lot from. And I would say I would not be as successful as I am now had I not gone through that pain. I think everything happens for a reason.
What is your definition of leadership?
There’s a quote from Lao Tzu: “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, and when his work is done, they say, we did it ourselves.”
What’s next for LOHAS?
I think evolving to be more like that quote and really giving people the power and the tools to instill change in their lives, professional and personal.
What’s the biggest challenge you feel like you’re facing to get there?
Wanting to get it all done tomorrow.