Challenging the Status Quo

Tips for Influencing and Leading Change

Dr. Leon Zeng, Senior Director of Behavioral Marketing and Analytics at Morningstar

Leon Zeng, Senior Director of Behavioral Marketing and Analytics at Morningstar - Headshot

In this episode, Dr. Leon Zeng reveals a newly developed interview technique to find the best talent for a position. He shares what it felt like to come to the US as an immigrant and describes the positive impact his Menttium mentor had on his career trajectory. We discuss why it can be difficult to change behavior, and he suggests two simple steps that help people make positive changes. As an expert influencer, Dr. Zeng also shares his #1 strategy for influencing.


Brown: Welcome to the Menttium Matters podcast, where we talk about leadership, life, and the transformative power of mentoring. This is Solveig Brown, and I am thrilled to be joined by Dr. Leon Zeng today. We’ll talk about the business case for conscious inclusion, how lessons from behavioral insights can help people make positive changes in their life, and Dr. Zeng will also share some great tips for influencing.


Dr. Leon Zeng is the Senior Director of Behavioral Marketing and Analytics at Morningstar. He received a PhD from Purdue University with a focus on human factors and management science. He has also completed executive education at Yale University. Dr. Zeng has over twenty academic publications and has co-authored an APA Handbook of Consumer Psychology.


He lives in the Boston area and enjoys cooking, dining, and networking. Welcome, Leon. I am so glad to have you as a guest today.


Zeng: The honor is mine. Thank you for having me today.


Brown: Our topic this month is conscious inclusion. Can you share why inclusion and DEI are important to the success of a business?


Zeng: This is such a personally intriguing and important topic. On our team, we often talk about the arguments out there that some people view the desire for fostering DEI at odds with hiring top talent. In our view, these two desires, these two goals should not be at odds with each other.


Instead, fostering DEI can often help us find, secure, and retain the best talent. I think that sometimes people out there might have some concerns over the talk of DEI. Maybe because for some of us, our understanding of the word DEI, where diversity essentially is staying at a starting level and view diversity as only meaning that we look differently, such as gender or race. So, it might be helpful if we could elevate our understanding of diversity to a higher level. Essentially, we believe that diversity should capture what is cognitive diversity in the business world.


In other words, at Morningstar, one thing we did well, and we’re trying to do, and trying to propagate throughout the whole organization, is trying to foster DEI in a meaningful way and an appropriate way to make sure that we give all job candidates equal chances to demonstrate their cognitive diversity and how they can help us solve real world business challenges effectively. And how we did it and what we did was through what’s a structured interview. So basically, for each specific role we’re trying to fill, they will form a hiring committee. The search or hiring committee will jointly identify those essential skills needed for someone to be successful and effective at that position. So be it, technical skills, or problem-solving skills, we would then accordingly design technical skill problems, questions, or business cases to analyze if someone has the needed technical or business skills, analytical skills, or problem-solving skills to be effective.


Then according to the role, we will design the structured interview guides. We give everybody the same set of questions to answer business cases, to analyze, and then we will evaluate everybody’s responses according to the same rubrics. We would then invite those top-scoring candidates on site for their interview.


So, that’s one thing we’re doing to try to truly foster DEI and cognitive diversity to help the business and help us deliver the best value to our clients. To sum up, I always try to use an analogy to shed light on some of these loaded, complex topics, right? So, if I could draw an analogy from Star Wars, we would say that we like Yoda on the team, not because Yoda is short or green, but because Yoda has some special talent to inspire others on the team, like Luke Skywalker to accomplish the mission.


Brown: That is a great analogy. Your structured interview hiring process is such a solid example of how an organization can level the playing field in an interview and be more likely to get the Yoda candidates through to those final interviews. Thank you for sharing actual practices that you can do. Leon, you came to the U.S. as an immigrant. Can you tell me what that experience was like for you?


Zeng: This is such a great question. I think it’ll be an interesting question to some other folks who might share a similar experience as I do if they also came to this country to try to fight for and realize their American dream.


I came to this country to further my graduate studies. The adjectives I would use to describe my experience are both thrilling and frightening. When I first came to this country, I clearly remember that vivid moment when I first landed at the ORD International Airport in Chicago.


I couldn’t understand a single word that people were speaking around me, and I just said to myself, welcome to Mars Leon. And so, I think that was the frightening part of the experience. But the thrilling part and the rewarding part is that I think the U.S. has provided ample opportunities for people to learn, for people to venture in their life, and then to learn from their experience, and then to grow professionally. I learned so much at school and at work. I think what truly makes my experience thrilling, and I owe a huge thanks to all my mentors, both through at work and through the Menttium program, I really want to emphasize that. I learned a lot from a mentor from the Menttium program, Janice Chopra, who is a currently Chief Commercial Officer at the Tropicana Brand Group.


For some folks like me who came to this country from a foreign culture, we might have experienced culture shock. How people think might not be the same way as how people we think should think in our home country. When I first came to this country, I tried to present my thesis or any of the things at school or at work, I tried to propose a business solution to my colleagues or tried to get buy-ins from others. Then I realized that to be effective in real world business is quite different from solving an equation in school.


What I truly learned a lot about is soft skills. Soft skills are something that I didn’t learn back in school in my home country. I think some people might already have been very good at it and they might have been born with talent, with super good soft skills, but not me, right? I had to learn my way up.


Through the Menttium program, I learned a lot outside of school about soft skills and how to present a solution that potentially would get of buy-in from people or it would at least invite a lot of interesting questions from. I think this is something really, truly beneficial to my career growth.


And I would say that for people who came to this country from another cultural background, learning all of this through the Menttium program, through more experienced mentors sharing their experience, would help us avoid bumping our nose again, and maybe our route forward would be smoother if we could learn from those elite mentors.


Brown: It was so great that your company had that program because it seems like it was a really good way for you to feel supported and included, learn the skills that you didn’t necessarily know you didn’t know, because they are so full of cultural nuances. So that is such a great story. Thank you so much for sharing that.


You are also an expert in behavioral insights, so I can’t let you leave this interview today without asking you two questions. One, why is it so difficult to change behavior? Secondly, can you give us some pointers on how we can use insights from behavioral science to make positive changes in our life?


Zeng: We get asked this a lot on our team as a behavior team in the business world. Firstly, why is it so challenging to foster any positive behavior change? As we learn from psychology, people tend to enjoy the comfort from the status quo, and they often fear the uncertainty and the risk from making a change or after making a change. That’s why you typically hear concepts such as behavior inertia, where people often argue with you in the business world that, oh, we’ve done this for ages. This is always how things get done here, right? Things like that. And then you try to propose a change. People use those arguments to argue against you. What are some of the seemingly straightforward behavioral leverages we can leverage to nudge desire changes?


There are some simple ones for people to get started. I would say start small. So, start small and reduce the friction. I will elaborate on these two simple behavioral levers a little bit. Start small, don’t ask for a big change to begin with. Try to foster some small change to begin with, right? So, I think that people already know that we all should work out, but it’s really very difficult for us to encourage all of us and others to work out more.


In the financial world, a lot of companies like us would like to encourage people to save more, to stay invested, and then to invest prudently. But all of these, as you can imagine, are very challenging behavioral asks. We want to get realized and so when we talk about starting small, you see some of the banks out there being smart.


Instead of asking people to save $1,000 or $2,000 each month, they ask people to start by saving $10 each month or maybe saving the change from every purchase, every buy you make, right? So, start small and then reduce the friction. What does that mean? Make it easy for people to make the change.


Again, some of the smart companies out there, when they try to encourage people to save more, they would develop smart apps, which would enable people to make those wake, set, and done, set and forget type of thing. You set it once every month and automatically transfer $10 from my checking account to my savings account. Or you set it and then you forget about it and then you just watch all the savings grow as time goes by. So, start small and reduce friction, and if at the same time you can reward yourself a little bit, then that will help you foster a meaningful new habit more effectively.


So, these are some of the easy things I think people can already get started trying.


Brown: I look forward to trying those. Start small, reduce friction, maybe offer yourself some rewards. I also like the examples of how businesses can use these principles to create changes for customers, clients, and consumers.


Leon, you are also good at influencing. Can you suggest some ways that people can expand their skillset to be more influential in their organization?


Zeng: I think this is another, could be very complex topic. I think a lot of people in both academia and business are intrigued by this topic. There are a lot of much smarter people than me who can recommend approaches. So, I just want to talk about one approach, which I tried personally, and it worked for me to add more influencing power or influencing effectiveness for my role.


A lot of people struggle with rallying people to achieve a joint goal, right? Then sometimes they struggle because they find out that others do not listen to them, or they couldn’t get others buy-in. And then they ask the question, how can we be more influential? How can we effectively rally people up? Not just the people reporting to us; that would be the easiest way. But how do you rally people above you, around you, who do not report to you, to join you to work towards the same goal.


One technique I find to be very effective is to be a giver, to be helpful to others. This might sound from the surface kind of unintuitive because many of us, due to that natural human tendency, might view the world as a zero-sum game. If I do not get my proposal adopted, someone else is going to get their proposal adopted. If things do not move, in the way I like, then the things will be moving in the ways that others like, but it doesn’t have to be that way.


The real world does not have to function as a zero-sum game, that our win must be someone else’s loss or vice versa. Outstanding psychologist, Adam Grant has done a lot of research illustrating this illuminating topic of givers and takers in the organization. According to his research, a very interesting finding is that givers tend to be more successful career wise than takers in the organization.


I think from a psychological standpoint, it’s not that difficult to understand why this is the case for givers to be more influential, to be more successful. That’s because when you give help to others without being asked, when you try to strive, always strive for win-win situations, it’s likely that people first will see what’s also in it for them. When you strive for winning situations, you are more likely to get their buy-in. When you always try to help others with or without being asked, then the power of psychology will work out its magic later and you’ll be surprised when people reciprocate your favor. Even when you can’t remember what favor you did for them, people still remember in their mind, and they reciprocate and help you out when you are in need.


So, I think that being a giver, trying to be helpful, trying to always strive for win-win situations, are some of the easy things that might seem intuitive, but very helpful. I tried, it worked for me, and it might work for others as well.


Brown: Thank you for that because that is an easy thing to try out too. To practice giving more intentionally without thinking about what you’re going to get back and just saying, how can I give in this situation to help someone else? And like you said, later down the road, it will come back to you, and you won’t even remember how you helped someone out initially. But people remember, if you give generously to people, they don’t forget, and in the future will help you out.


Zeng: That is a good way to summarize it. I like the idiom that, the karma train will come to bite you. I think it works the other way too. The karma train will come to help you out as well if you get things done right.


Brown: I love that, that’s a great analogy. Leon, we have time for three final questions. The first one is, do you have any habits or practices that you feel have contributed to your success?

Zeng: First I wouldn’t use the word success or successful to describe where I am. I think that I’m still at the very beginning phase of a long journey to try to drive some meaningful difference. But I think that I could share some of the lessons I learned, some of the habits that worked for me that might help others. The first habit I’d like to share is first and foremost, to be reliable. To your colleagues and to your management, and this will be very helpful.


Second, think hard before you work hard. Again, this might also sound a little bit unintuitive, but if we just dive into something and start working without thinking, we sometimes find out that we’re not being truly effective. If we think hard and strategize more smartly, often you find that you’ll be more efficient in terms of identifying the most promising approach to solve the business problem at hand. And often you don’t have to work as hard if you think hard to begin with.


Thirdly, be meticulous, be detail oriented. And this might help us create high quality work if we are prudent, always meticulous, and focus on the details.


Brown: Those are great practices. Next question, what would your advice be to up and coming leaders?


Zeng: Lead by example, lead by kindness. And then you’ll see how the karma train will come back to reward you if you do this.


Brown: I love that. Lead by example. Lead by kindness.


Zeng: We don’t need the karma train to come back to reward us. From the depths of my heart, I firmly believe these are the right things for leaders to do. If every leader can do this in his or her hard work, we can jointly make this world a little bit better for all of us.


Brown: Final question Leon, do you have a favorite saying, quote, or motto?


Zeng: I do have one, and what has been motivating for me through all these years, and the reason why I gave you all my thoughts this way is because of one person, Michelle Obama.


There was a memorable line in one of her speeches where she said that when you’ve worked hard, and done well, and you walked through that doorway of opportunities, you do not just slam and shut it behind you. Instead, you reach back and give other folks equal chances, the same chances that helped you succeed.


That’s what motivates me through all the years; to give back through the Menttium program and then to be helpful to others, hopefully at work to the best of my ability.


Brown: Leon, that is a beautiful quote to end this podcast and such a good reminder that you have a responsibility to help others the way that you’ve been helped, and to go back through that door and help others be successful too. Thank you so much for being my guest today. I especially appreciated you sharing your story of what it felt like to be an immigrant, like welcome to Mars. I love that. And how mentoring helped you learn the soft skills that are so essential to doing well in business.


Thank you for your timely reminder that conscious inclusion maximizes cognitive diversity, ultimately strengthens the bottom line, and for the interview technique that makes the interview process fairer for everybody applying for a particular position. I look forward to trying out your suggestions for creating positive change and limiting inertia, and I really appreciate that the best practice for influencing is to be a giver and just to give. I love your advice to be kind as a leader.


Thank you all for listening to this Menttium Matters podcast. We have many great episodes lined up and look forward to having you back next time.

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