In August I shot an interview with Mr. Trần Quốc Khánh, host of the “Me and Vietnam” program on the FBNC business television network here in Saigon.
We discussed building a fun company culture, how we treat our people as customers, finding your passion and motivating teams. Khánh was a very engaging and relaxed interviewer.
Khánh’s team even took some footage of me delivering a “$2 Award” to a Dream-Maker and dancing swing outside the office. It was a lot of fun.
The interview is in English with Vietnamese subtitles. I’ve included a transcript below.
*(I give the “$2 Award” to the Dream-Maker who had a good idea and took action. $2 bills are considered good luck in Vietnam. Always a good time.)
Khanh: Hi Chris. Thank you so much for your time.
Chris: My pleasure.
Khanh: Appreciate it.
Chris Harvey came to Vietnam in 2004 on a traveling trip to the Asian
region, and the S-shape country has kept him here for many
special reasons. Great energy of a developing country made
him decide to quit his job back home in America to seek out
new opportunities. Destiny brought Chris to Jonah Levey,
who founded Navigos and Vietnamworks, a new job recruiting
website, in 2002. It was his turning point. Under Chris’
leadership, Vietnamworks has grown quickly to become a
leading job recruiting website. With experience accumulated
from his previous jobs at Yahoo and AOL, plus strong
improvement efforts, Chris has brought so many achievements
for Vietnamworks and made it become a very attractive
Chris: My four years at Yahoo and two years at AOL taught me a lot of
really valuable things about how users behave online. One
of the things I learned that’s really important is users
are mostly interested in doing simple things and doing them
fast and doing them quick. We did more research on what do
people care about when they use webmail, AOL, Hotmail,
Gmail, Yahoo Mail. People care about really simple, basic
things. They care about speed. They care about how much
storage they have, and they care about how easy is it to
use. We have limited time, so let’s focus on the areas that
make the biggest difference to our users, to the biggest
number of users. So I’ve applied that idea at Vietnamworks
by trying to make sure that we do simple things very, very
well. Search for a job, apply for a job, upload your CV.
And don’t try to do really complex things. Our product
team’s motto is to make our website so easy to use that
your grandmother can upload a CV and apply for a job in
Khanh: All right. If a grandmother went looking for a job.
Chris: Hey, who knows?
Khanh: Online job seekers are probably already familiar with
Vietnamworks.com. Just like its leader has emphasized, the
website has a catchy look but it is easy to use. It takes
only a couple minutes to sign up for an account and to
access a huge data site of jobs, career tips, company
information, and salary. With an account already, the users
also can manage their paperwork in a professional manner.
It also increases their chances of getting hired. We can
say that finding jobs online is becoming a popular trend
because it saves time and increases effectiveness for the
young Vietnamese generations who are dynamic and tech
Chris: From a job seeker point of view, I think a lot of job seekers
don’t understand how to market themselves. As a job seeker,
you’re a product, and you’re marketing a product, and that
product is yourself. A lot of job seekers don’t spend
enough time to create a really good CV, and by good CV, I
don’t mean perfect. I mean a CV that doesn’t have any
spelling mistakes, that’s formatted well, that shows the
achievements that they’ve been able do in their career. A
lot of people don’t understand that, and then they get
upset that they’re not getting job offers. One of our
missions at Vietnamworks is to help job seekers market
themselves better, which is why we have regular events to
help people learn how to market themselves better, and we
also have a lot of content on our website to teach people
how to create better CVs, how to interview, and how to
negotiate. When our job seekers are more successful, we’re
more successful. I think that some basic lessons about how
to write a CV, how to do an interview would be helpful for
universities to provide students.
Khanh: Finding talent in Vietnam has always been a challenging task
for many, many years. What do you think is the root of the
Chris: There’s always a talent shortage in every market. There’s never
enough talented people. But the talent shortage here in
Vietnam is especially big. I think the reason for that is
Vietnam is relatively new as a developing country, and only
recently, in the last 20, 15 years, really joined the
international economy, joined the WTO only a few years ago.
I think as a result of that, we haven’t had enough time for
talent to develop at high, high levels. So high level
leadership, high level management, high level technical
skills, like marketing and accounting and finance, there
just hasn’t been enough time. The good news is every year
people are getting a little bit more developed here in
Vietnam, so that problem will get better over time. I think
the biggest challenge for Vietnam certainly is maybe some
education. But I look at my own career, and I learned the
most after university.
Khanh: Okay. That could be a lesson.
Chris: Yeah. I learned the most about business after university.
University helped give me some basic skills in math and
Excel and some other things, but I mostly learned about
business on my own after university. It’s training I got in
different companies that really helped me advance my
career. So I think that problem will correct itself over
Khanh: One of the common pieces of advice for job hunters, we’ve
usually heard do something that you love, find your passion
and go for it. But it’s not easy to realize there’s
something that you love. It’s not easy to realize your true
passion. Any tips for young people?
Chris: Yes. Number one, I don’t really like the phrase “find your
passion.” I like “discover your passion.”
Khanh: How about that. Yeah.
Chris: Your passion is already inside you. It’s already there. You
have to discover it. It’s like discovering what are your
favorite foods. You don’t know until you try it, but then
“Oh, this is really good. I really like it.”
Khanh: That’s a great example.
Chris: So the advice I have for young people is this. A lot of people
say, “Follow my passion. Wow, that’s so big. Gosh, I don’t
know how.” They think oh it’s this huge thing. No. You
could have small passions, even small ones. A passion is
something that when you do it, it gives you energy. You
just enjoy doing it. Young people should look at what
they’ve done, look at experiences they’ve had, in school,
in other activities or clubs. What activities did they do
that they just really loved to do? What was it?
Let me tell you a little bit about how I discovered some of
my passions. When I lived in Washington D.C. and I worked
at AOL, I volunteered to teach English to immigrants and
American citizenship. I did it once a week from 7:00 to
9:00 at night. Often, at the end of the day, I had a long
day, I’m tired. I want to go home. I really don’t feel like
going to class. As soon as I got into that class, bing, I’m
wide awake and I just had energy.
Khanh: That’s natural. Something just natural, right?
Chris: I discovered . . . I didn’t realize it at the time. I actually
hired a career coach, who helped me realize it later, but I
look back, and that was something that gave me energy. It
told me I like to coach people and I like to teach people.
My job now gives me the opportunity to coach and teach and
share, and I really love doing that. So I encourage people,
young people to think about what do you enjoy? Do you enjoy
talking to people? Do you enjoy meeting others? Do you
enjoy achieving things? Maybe you’d be good at sales. Do
you like numbers? Do you just like how numbers fit
together? Maybe you’d be good at accounting or finance.
When I interview people, I always try to understand if they
like the activity of their job. If they come in and they
work on a spreadsheet all day, is it like a puzzle that
they enjoy to do? So look for your little passions.
Everybody has them. You don’t know until you try it, but
think back to your experiences. Which experiences did you
do, which activities did you do that gave you energy? Those
are your passions.
Khanh: So being a leader at Navigos, what is the biggest challenge?
Chris: I’d say one big challenge is being a model. Leaders need to
model the behavior they want to see. As a leader, the
higher you are in an organization, the more eyes are on you
every day. They watch you.
Khanh: You’re the center of attention.
Chris: You’re the center of attention. If you say to everybody, “Our
work day starts at 9:00. I want you here at 9:00 every
day,” you as a leader better be here at 9:00 every day,
because if you’re not, you’re sending a very clear message
that it’s not important.
Khanh: A great leader to me is someone who can select the right,
talented people and know how to take advantage of their
fullest strength. How have you been doing that as a leader
Chris: The challenge for a leader is knowing where are people strong
and where are they weak. It might be clear with a football
player where they’re strong and where they’re weak. For
someone who works in an office, are they strong or weak at
speaking? Are they strong or weak in detail work? Are they
strong or weak in how they communicate with others? A
leader’s job is really to get inside that person, develop a
feel for that person, and develop a feel for where they’re
going to be strong in an organization. Where are their
strength points, and make sure that they’re in a position
that maps well to their strength points. Sometimes you have
to redesign the job a little bit to take advantage of
people’s strengths. Make the job fit the person. Don’t make
the person fit the job. If you don’t have a natural talent
in an area, you’ll never be really strong in that area.
Khanh: What is your weakness then?
Chris: One of my weaknesses is detail work. Very detailed, checking
things off, checking things and making sure . . .
Chris: I’m good with numbers, but I don’t have the patience to do a
lot of detail. Let me give you an example. When I was in
business school, I spent the summer in an investment bank.
Investment banks, there’s a lot of financial analysis and a
lot of pressure.
Khanh: A lot of financial models.
Chris: A lot of financial modeling, a lot of pressure. If you have a
number wrong, people go crazy. I knew that I didn’t have
the patience to check every number in all my models all the
time, and I knew I was going to make mistakes. That’s one
of the reasons I decided not to . . . it didn’t fit my
strength areas as well, and I decided not to continue with
that line of work.
Khanh: You’re pretty famous in putting together a lot of fun
activities at work. Where are those ideas coming from, and
how does it affect you workplace efficiency?
Chris: I think every leader has a different personality. There are a
million different ways to be an effective leader. I have my
own personality. I like to do fun, crazy things. I just
enjoy it, and I think it’s funny. I don’t think work should
be serious. This is work. We must be very serious. I don’t
think work needs to be like that. Work can be fun.
Khanh: Chris is a creator of many joyful activities at work, helping
to ease the working pressure of everybody.
Chris: Do you have an idea?
Chris: No ideas here. Okay, next. $2 award! Hai Quynh had an idea, and
she took action. Her idea was to send birthday notices,
electronic cards to dream makers to make their birthday
even more special. And it was Hai Quynh’s idea and action.
Thank you Hai Quynh for your idea, and thank you for your
Phuong: Working for Vietnamworks is my great opportunity and happiness.
After almost one year, I never felt like I was going to
work. It feels like going to a second home where there are
relatives who are always friendly and happy to see me. A
great happiness is the chance to work for a CEO like Chris.
He is really close to his employees. Whenever we run into
each other, he is always the first one saying hi. He always
comes up with different activities to make people feel
happy about their working environment. And one more thing,
even though he is a CEO, he is willing to accept that he is
wrong in front of us. That really makes him more
Mai: The first thing I’d like to say about our working environment is the
slogan “Fun, Challenge, and Reward”, and everybody here
really lives for that slogan. One of the activities is the
Women’s Day Celebration, when the guys take their bikes and
give the girls a ride. I think it was really fun. We have
fun with each other after work as well. Chris really
respects the reward value. He said everyone is a dream
maker, and he cares for each one of us.
Chris: Happy birthday. [sings] Happy birthday to you. Happy birthday,
happy birthday. Happy birthday to you. How old are you
Woman: I am 25 years old!
Chris: Oh, 25? You are still young and beautiful!!!
Chris: One thing that turns me on, Khanh, is creating. It’s the act of
creating something. I want to make a working environment at
a company that’s the most challenging, most rewarding, and
most fun working environment in all of Asia.
Khanh: Okay. In all of Asia?
Chris: In all of Asia. Hey, Khanh, if you’re going to think about a
goal, why not think big?
Khanh: How do you plan to do that?
Chris: Constant effort every day. Always pushing for more. Coaching,
training nonstop. Coaching other people to be leaders, and
then they can coach their people to be better and better
and better. Innovating constantly. I mentioned earlier
about how there’s not enough talent in Vietnam. I decided
to do something about it. We train like crazy. We train our
people. We try to hire smart, committed people and then we
train them. I really enjoy that. I want Vietnamworks to be
like the Apple of Vietnam.
Khanh: Why not, right?
Chris: Why not? Let’s try.
Khanh: Let’s try.
Chris: Let’s try.
Khanh: So as a leader, what was your most unforgettable failure
Chris: I have many. I think all leaders fail, and I think failure is a
necessary part of success. Every time you fail, every time
you make a mistake, you learn something. I have. I’ve made
many mistakes in leadership, but I’ve learned from them.
Probably the biggest mistake I made was early in my
Vietnamworks career when I was working with one of our
directors. She was producing some work, and I wasn’t happy
with her work. I said, “I’m not happy with this work.” She
said, “Oh, no problem. Why don’t you talk to so and so on
Khanh: Okay. The people below her?
Chris: The people below her. I said, “Okay. I’ll talk to them
directly.” So I begin saying, “Oh, can you do it this way?
Can you do it that way?” This was my mistake.
Khanh: What happened?
Chris: By talking to her people directly, I could no longer hold the
director accountable for the work. Because I was speaking
to them directly, now I’m accountable for her work. Number
one, that was the first problem. The second problem was she
lost face. She lost face with her people, because I was
going directly to her people. She started telling her
people, “Oh, I think your work is good, but Chris doesn’t.”
It hurt the trust between us, and the environment just went
down. I could have avoided all of that. This director ended
up leaving the company, and many of her people followed
her. It was painful for everyone. It was painful for me. My
big lesson was never do that. Always hold leaders
accountable, and never give orders to someone’s person who
reports to you. Never. Always give the orders to the
leader, and then the leader can tell their people.
Khanh: As a leader, Chris also comes close and serves people. He loves
reading and loves sharing valuable book lessons with his
employees. Chris said reading is the best way to improve
himself and help employees improve themselves. At
Vietnamworks, employees often meet with each other to share
and learn from great books. Chris believes in servant
leadership. He never wants to create distance with
employees. One business lesson that he likes the most is
that a leader must know how to encourage normal people to
perform with outstanding results. And perhaps, all of his
employees already have that feeling.
Khanh: I see that many corporate leaders, they realize that besides
salaries, they need to create a value added working
environment, a very fun, very effective working
environment. But why are they still failing?
Chris: That’s a great question. Let’s assume a lot of people know that
money is not the most . . . money is important. You have to
pay good salaries. You have to, absolutely. But it’s not
enough. If you want to keep great people, you have to
create an environment where they feel part of a team, where
they feel valued, where they have interesting work, where
they’re able to make decisions. Talented people love to
make decisions. I think the reason why more leaders don’t
do these things is because it takes time and patience and
effort. It’s just like everybody knows how to be physically
fit. Exercise every day. But how many people do it?
Khanh: I have a problem with that, too.
Chris: I have a problem also. Why not? Why don’t you go to the gym
every day? Well, you get busy and this happens. Same.
Khanh: After work, Chris always knows how to enjoy the life in Vietnam
by joining many social activities with local friends. One
of those is the weekly swing dancing class at Molinari
cafe. Actually, he is the funny teacher of that class.
Joyful swing dancing moves help Chris make a lot of
Chris: Everyone else that reports to me has their own teams and their
own responsibilities. Hang is the only one that
helps me do my job, so we are going to have a little show
Khanh: Employees at Vietnamworks were also very excited to witness his
dancing skills. Chris is truly a leader who knows how to
bring joy and laughter to the employees. That is considered
to be Chris’ personal brand. It is the reason why
Vietnamworks has become an attractive working environment.
Living in Vietnam for seven years, Chris really has had
great experience with Vietnamese culture, especially the
diverse meanings of the Vietnamese language.
Chris: [speaking Vietnamese]
Khanh: Not just you and me, right? Not just you.
Chris: It’s much simpler in English. When I meet someone in
Vietnamese, what’s our relationship? Are you older than me?
Are you younger than me? Is this formal? Is it informal?
But what I really like about it is learning those rules and
learning how to use those personal pronouns has taught me a
lot about Vietnamese culture and how it’s different from
American culture. It’s all about our relationship. How do
we relate to each other? Are you older or younger? Is it
formal? And that’s very, very important. Who you are
depends on your relationship to the group, whereas in
America, who you are is more independent of the group. It
still depends on the group some, but learning Vietnamese
has helped me understand Vietnamese people better.
Khanh: So for now, are you able to figure out the right way to call
them when you meet them the first time?
Chris: I still . . .
Khanh: Like a wild guess? What?
Chris: I still have problems. I play tennis every Sunday, and the guys
I play with are Vietnamese guys. They’re all older. Some
are about my age, but some are in their 60s, some are in
their 70s. I rarely meet people in their 70s. So I didn’t
know. Should I call myself chau? But that felt weird.
Khanh: That’s safe, right? You meet an older guy.
Chris: So I called myself toi, but toi is too formal. So I asked my
teacher, and she said, “Well, next time you go play tennis,
why don’t you ask them?” So I asked them, and they said,
“Call us chu. Chu and chau.” Okay. Got it.
Khanh: He doesn’t want to be old.
Khanh: What is one of your greatest experiences so far in Vietnam?
Chris: I’ve had many great experiences. I think one general great
experience is just working with the Vietnamese people,
working in the company. One thing I love about Vietnamese
character, and I felt this immediately when I came here the
first time, Vietnamese love to learn and they’re hungry. I
like to coach and I like to teach, and I really enjoy that.
That’s been super rewarding. But as far as other
experiences, before I moved to Vietnam, I took a five-day
motorbike tour from Hà Noi to Lang Son and Cao Bang.
Khanh: Really. That sounds interesting.
Khanh: Tell me about it. What did you do? Just ride a motorbike?
Chris: Well, we rode on these Minsk motorbikes. Minsk motorbikes. I
had to wear earplugs it’s so loud. What I like about it is
we got into the middle of the country, the countryside
where tourists normally don’t go.
Khanh: In the North?
Chris: In the North. And there are these mountains unlike anything
I’ve seen. I’ve driven from coast to coast in America, from
the East Coast to the West Coast. I’ve never seen anything
like this, and it was beautiful, the farmland. I found the
people were super friendly. There would be kids, and there
were four of us on the tour, two European guys and me. When
kids would see us, they don’t see foreigners very much,
they got, look they go, “Hello! Hello! Hello!” That was
Khanh: Really seeing a foreigner for the first time in their lives.
Chris: Yeah, maybe. I stopped in a village once. I was by myself,
because I was the slowest motorbike rider. They were all
far in front of me. I stopped in a village to take some
photographs. One person popped up. I don’t know where he
came from. Another person came over. Another person came
over. In about two or three minutes, I was surrounded by 10
or 15 people. I couldn’t talk to them at that time, but I
brought postcards from Washington D.C., and I was giving
them postcards from Washington and New York. People were
inviting me into their house for tea, and it was just a
really great experience. I really enjoyed it.
Khanh: Nice. Great. Thank you so much for sharing. Good luck with
leading and coaching people.
Chris: Okay. Thank you, Khanh.
Khanh: Thank you so much, Chris. [speaking Vietnamese]