When asked why he left the corporate world, Shawn Liu doesn’t hesitate. “What’s bigger than solving business problems?” he asks. His answer: “Social issues.” Today, he turns such issues into learning opportunities that help leaders to develop key skills. “If you really want to develop leadership skills, don’t sit in training classes. Instead, go and experience the real world, and make sure those experiences are exceptional.”
Shawn’s “awakening” to social issues took place several years ago in a village in southern India. He flew there with a group of senior leaders, all medical professionals and business executives, to help the local children solve their malnutrition problem. After arriving, they soon realized that the cause of malnutrition wasn’t just a lack of food, but poor hygiene. The villagers ate with their hands, which were often dirty. When the hygiene standard is low, you cannot absorb the nutrition you take in.
So, the team started thinking about solutions, like giving them forks, buying them soap, even having them produce their own soap. But these solutions all failed. Why? Because that wasn’t what the children were used to. When they were on the verge of giving up, one team member suggested that they make the soap into a toy that the kids could play with before meals so their hands would be clean. It worked! This simple, effective idea is a great example of real innovation. And how you don’t need big budgets or breakthrough technology to change mindset and behavior. You just need new perspectives and ideas that go beyond your comfort zone.
When Shawn returned to Germany, he started thinking about making a social business out of this experience. His mission: to create extraordinary leaders by exposing them to extraordinary experiences that also better people’s lives
Discovering what matters to you
When Shawn was younger, he didn’t know this would be his future. He had no career plan whatsoever. Growing up in Shandong, in a military family, he graduated from university with a finance and economics degree. Fortunately, and unfortunately, he soon realized after graduation that playing with numbers wasn’t his preferred career choice.
He only found out what he was really interested in a few years later, while working in the sales department of a Chinese shipping company. When he rotated into the HR department, he discovered that people were his passion. This took him to England for his Masters in HR Management and Organizational Development. After returning, he left the shipping company to join Accenture. As a consultant in a high-performance environment, he learned how to quickly read people and understand situations.
In his next job at Tyco, the Vice President of HR became a mentor and good friend to Shawn. They had such a good working relationship that when the VP left to join Boehringer Ingelheim, Shawn went with him. After two years, he took an opportunity in Germany to restructure the company’s entire HR function at a global level.
But after years of achievements in the corporate world, he still felt he had to do more. That trip to India stuck in his mind. He decided to combine his consulting background with his desire to help people.
Inspiring and developing leaders through social change
Today, Shawn is creating something of tremendous value. When he started Wan Chu Management Consulting, his aim was to provide management consulting services to leading global and Chinese companies on strategy and transformation. Now, he works with clients who want to improve their leadership and develop better business strategies, but in his own unique way.
“I want to turn social challenges into leadership development and social innovation opportunities,” says Shawn. “To create these projects, you have to convince business leaders to embrace a new mindset. I do this by offering them the chance to solve problems for those with real needs.”
Turning social challenges into a leadership development opportunities
When Shawn explains what he does, his passion and dedication shine through. His projects move and inspire people by making them experience extreme situations. He brings people into a different reality to teach them how to solve real problems with limited resources. He connects business leaders with social entrepreneurs.
“The social entrepreneurs know the problem. I bring in business people who can help solve them.” As a facilitator, Shawn turns a social need into a learning opportunity for those who want to develop their strategy and leadership skills. “If you want your people to learn entrepreneurship, don’t send them to a training class. Come with me to see real entrepreneurs in action,” he says. “In the field, you’ll learn how to develop a business strategy better and faster. Social projects force you to come up with realistic plans to solve difficult issues. And through the social entrepreneurs you meet, you learn from their optimism, positive attitude, and how to make more out of very little.”
Shawn shares an example of one leadership team from a major multinational company that developed a sales strategy for a village they visited. The villagers demolished their proposal in a few minutes. The farmers didn’t have access to all the resources the executives took for granted.
The next day, they had to present another idea. “One executive told me that he had never been more nervous in his life about a presentation,” recalls Shawn. “In the countryside, you quickly learn that your degrees and qualifications can’t help you. Instead, you need to get your hands dirty and develop real solutions.”
Shawn also points out that many business leaders are used to traveling first class and staying in the best hotels. But when they go to a place where people have so little, nobody dares to complain about the food or accommodations. “Such conditions make what they experience much stronger and more powerful. And leaves a deep impression on each participant that they’ll always remember. Their common purpose, which is so much bigger than them, brings everyone together to work side-by-side.”
Through his consulting firm, Shawn has transformed his philanthropic passion into an opportunity that benefits both social entrepreneurs who want to solve difficult social issues, and business people who want to improve their leadership and strategic skills. It’s gratifying helping people in real need while helping others develop new key skills doing it. With every project he leads, Shawn proves to participants that no matter how qualified you are, what really matters is how much you care to challenge yourself and deliver something of real value to others.