I sat with Violet Lim, award-winning entrepreneur, TED speaker and “Chief Cupid,” according to her Linkedin profile. While that last one might be a rather quirky title, it’s not an inaccurate one. Lim is the co-founder and CEO of Lunch Actually, Asia’s biggest lunch dating company bringing people together one meal at a time. With offices in Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, Lunch Actually has arranged over 140,000 dates and matched more than 4,000 married couples. But what is the secret to her company’s success as a lead matchmaking service? Tapping into hidden potential in even the most challenging situations, Lim says. During our discussion, Lim delved into how she was able to keep her business running during the pandemic while keeping the human connection alive both with her team and clients.
How would you define leadership?
Leadership is about aligning and then acceding a group of people to work towards achieving a goal together.
What core principles guide you as a leader?
I started out as a Management Associate at Citibank and that was a really entry-level position. I was only there for about one year and four months. And then I quit my job and started my own company.
So the truth is at first I was pretty lost as a manager and leader because I’d never led anyone before. I started off by defining the certain things that I did not like as an employee or as a “follower” when I was working in a bank.
So one of the principles I like to follow as a leader is “do not do upon others what you do not want others to do upon you.” So for example, I do not like to be micromanaged, so as a result, I do not micromanage my associates. Now that I’m a leader myself, I’m just very mindful about things that I didn’t enjoy previously and thinking about ways not to put my associates through the same things. Another thing that I realized as a leader is that we need to recognize what’s the most important thing for our associates. For me, family comes first and most of the time it’s the same case for my associates. So when they come to me with problems about their families, I don’t even ask about it. I let them know family comes first and I encourage them to go do whatever they need to do and just come back when they can.
What do you think about inclusion in the workplace?
To me, inclusion in the workplace is a given. It’s very clear that everybody should be heard and respected. But, of course, sometimes it’s challenging because there are just so many different and sometimes contradicting needs among groups in an organization. So for example, in my organization, there might be different genders, age groups or belief systems. So I think as a leader since my overarching principle is that everybody should be heard and respected, it is my responsibility to align everybody’s interest and really help everyone see each other’s points of view.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced while leading a diverse organization?
The challenge comes when you have people who maybe have different values and I think it’s something that every organization struggles with. We certainly have. But what I found really useful is when we are hiring to not only focus on past experiences or what their performance was like but also whether they match our company’s culture.
So when we do interviews, we actually have a hiring manager focused on the candidate’s skill set and another one conducts an interview to make sure the candidate has potential within our culture. In fact, the person hiring for culture has veto power, even over the hiring manager. Of course, as the hiring manager, you are just looking to fill the spot, but the other person who might be hiring for culture might think something different. And if they cannot come to an agreement — usually they do — they’ll ask me to meet the person and let them know what I think.
What are some of the steps that Lunch Actually has had to take to stay afloat during the pandemic?
When it happened, it really caught everybody by surprise including myself. When countries started to be affected we were all shocked and then the next thing I knew I had COVID… And I was actually in the hospital. But I’m very thankful because the healthcare and health workers in Singapore are amazing.
What we did for our associates was let them work from home whether their specific country was on lockdown or not. Their health was the most important thing and we were not going to take any risks. Since then we’ve had very structured regular updates. So for all the different teams, we would have a daily video update and throughout the day there would also be what we call ‘huddles.’ So our managers have virtual catch-ups, bonding sessions or even game sessions with our associates because one of the things that I talk to my managers about is mental health.
Even though all of our associates have been performing really well during this entire situation, mental health is a top priority. They could be living alone or don’t know how to manage so much time with their families. So it’s our job as an employer to see what we can do to help them ease into this transition.
As far as I go, I also started doing regular catch-ups with all the different teams in my company. So every four to six weeks I arranged catch-ups with no agenda or work talk. It’s a way to say hi and make sure your employees know I’m here to listen. I’ll share with them my latest quarantine story like how I bought clippers and started cutting my son’s hair. And then they’ll share things with me as well.
On the business side, we had to make a larger pivot because our business is very much an offline, face-to-face business. So when the lockdown started, we were unsure of what the future would look like because we couldn’t meet with our clients and they couldn’t go on dates with each other. But fortunately, when things started to happen, we did not wait to prepare. We had already started trying out some virtual consultations in case we were put on lockdown. Thanks to that preparation, our team was able to adapt well. We converted our entire business to virtual in a matter of weeks. So we ended up doing virtual consultations, dates, events and webinars. In fact, last year, we did more than 40 webinars, which is something that we had never done before and we also had about 1,000 virtual dates.
The virtual dates were actually quite challenging in the beginning because a lot of clients were like, “Oh, I’m already using Zoom for work. You mean you want me to use Zoom for dates as well?” So they weren’t very receptive at first. They thought it wasn’t going to work, it was going to be awkward or they just weren’t going to enjoy it so we really had to work on their mindsets.
We prepared them to have different options, so as an example, making a drink before the Zoom call. That’s something they can talk about when they get on the call. Some of the feedback that we have gotten from virtual dating is really interesting. The structure allowed clients to, for example, watch the sunset together virtually. That might have been something they wouldn’t be able to do on one of our normal dates scheduled around mealtimes. Also, people just got to see a different side of their dates that they wouldn’t have gotten the chance to explore in a restaurant like what their homes looked like, their interests, etc.
What do you think lies ahead for businesses in a post-pandemic world?
I think there’s definitely a lot of opportunities. The pandemic has shown us how to work and manage remotely, which I think in the past we, including myself, never thought having a remote workforce could work so well.
I think the opportunity here is not having to limit our workforce to just the countries we have a presence in. So now I am working with my associates in Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia. In the past, I would actually have had to fly in very regularly, but due to the pandemic, I’ve realized that maybe that’s just all in our minds. It’s so easy to manage remotely especially with the power of video conferencing whether it’s for catching up with my team members or communicating with clients. For the most part, all of our coaching sessions with clients were done face to face before the pandemic but now video coaching is a great alternative. With video conferencing as a tool, companies really have the opportunity to see what else they can leverage to bring their business to the next level.
What advice would you give a younger you?
One piece of advice that I would give the younger Violet is to not worry so much about what others think. I’m now 41, but looking back I was always so concerned about what others thought. I’ve realized it’s all in my head and worrying about what others may or may not think just gave me a lot of self-doubts. So now I know there will always be people who like me and people who don’t and that’s okay.
This interview has been edited for space and clarity.
For my full interview with Violet Lim, head over to my Youtube channel. There you’ll find other leadership interviews as well as countless bite-size videos on all things related to business, negotiation, and learning to thrive both during and after the pandemic.