Find Your People, Find Your Purpose: Youngsuk ‘YS’ Chi, Chairman of Elsevier
“One of the pieces of advice I like to give young people is to collect knowledge, interests and a network of people you want to know. You don't know yet how you are going to use it all, but later it will become obvious which pieces fit with which,” says Youngsuk ‘YS’ Chi, Chairman of Elsevier. If you want a great example of how this approach works, you can look at Chi’s own remarkable career which took him from banking, to helping enable Amazon’s early growth, to being president of Random House to his current role at Elsevier and its parent company RELX, where he is Director of Corporate Affairs and Asia Strategy. Chi reveals to host Shiv Gaglani that what connects those disparate experiences are two people he “collected” at the start of his own career with whom he stayed connected in a mutually beneficial partnership. Seeing relationships as core to success explains why Chi makes time to be a mentor to dozens of people in a wide range of professions. Although wanting to help them on their career journeys is the prime motivator, Chi is quick to point out his mentees are a network he can tap for expertise as part of his commitment to continuous learning. The wisdom drop continues as they discuss how to help employees connect purpose to their work and how a post-COVID analysis needs to include “a humanistic re-questioning of what we do and why we do it.”
Shiv Gaglani: Hi, I'm Shiv Gaglani and today on Raise the Line, I'm delighted to welcome Youngsuk 'YS' Chi, a longtime leader in the media and technology industry who currently serves our parent companies Elsevier and RELX in several different capacities. In his primary role as Director of Corporate Affairs and Asia Strategy for RELX, he's responsible for governmental affairs, corporate communications, and corporate responsibility. As non-executive Chairman of Elsevier, he works directly with governments, Elsevier customers, and industry associations worldwide.
YS was previously president of the International Publishers Association and has served on dozens of charitable, educational and industry boards including at Princeton University, the Korean American Community Foundation, and ETS. I will say, I haven't met someone who's better at relationship-building than I am until I had lunch with YS and it was very clear how he had gotten to where he is. So, I'm excited to have you on the show, YS, to introduce to our audience.
Youngsuk 'YS' Chi: Thank you for having me here. I think you are a little bit too generous with credits.
Shiv: I don't think so at all. I obviously know a lot about your career having spent some talking to you, but could you kind of walk us through some of your career highlights and what got you interested in publishing, media and technology in the first place?
YS: I think where I am today is certainly not anything that was imaginable or planned. I started out as a banker and then after several years, I moved on to the IT Industry. We had tremendous success with the company IPO and then I moved over to distribution. That is where I really got into the book sector -- I won't even call it the publishing sector, the book sector -- and it was right at the time when Jeff Bezos started Amazon.com and our company was shipping every book for Amazon to support his takeoff.
After several years, we came up with the brilliant idea of having virtual inventory through something called ‘print on demand’ which vastly increased the number of books that were available for anyone. From there on, I became president of Random House and then I moved on over to Elsevier around seventeen, eighteen years ago.
Through all that process, the thing that people cannot figure out is where the dots are connected. The dots are connected through people -- not through the industry, not through any of my knowledge, domain expertise, none of that stuff. It was through two very important people that I worked with all my life. As they moved along and they had their opportunities I went along with them as partners, and I think that is how I ended up here. Otherwise, it would be absolutely inconceivable how the path can be actually drawn together.
Shiv: There are a lot of threads to pull on that. We normally reserve the question of advice for our audience for the end, but what you are mentioning there is something very important that we like to click on, which is the importance of people and relationships. So, now is actually a good time to just ask you specifically about the people you worked with it. Then I know you have been paying it forward with other folks including Jan Herzhoff, who I report in to through Elizabeth Munn, and helping elevate him within Elsevier and it has been wonderful to work with them. So, can you talk specifically? We know two people helped you progress in your career so maybe you can share any examples.
YS: I came to America as a high school student. I went to a boarding school, learned English, went to college and graduate school. During that time, the only thing that I could really count on was, one, my own effort to do the best, and, two, unsolicited help from people who for some reason were extraordinarily generous to provide me the opportunity to be exposed to things or to have a chance at something that I otherwise would not have been able to do on my own. I have always appreciated that personal relationship, where someone would actually sponsor or mentor or take responsibility for someone that is not related to them.
I have benefited from it so much that it became really my modus operandi when I started working. So, for me, mentoring is not something that I started when I became an executive. It is something I started when I was an entry-level banker and it has been going on for a long time. I think that what it has really allowed me to do is add both, on the top-end, opportunities that otherwise would not be visible to me and on the bottom-end, having that stability and sense of sureness that if things go wrong, I will get a second chance. I won't be just swept out with the first mistake, but I would get a second chance.
That is the value that I ask young people to continually seek. It is not the best pay. It is not the best title. It is not the most famous company. It is who you get to work with. Among those have to be at least one person who really cares about you so that when you do something by mistake and you learn from it, there is a second chance. And if, on the other side, you do something really extraordinarily good and accomplished, then somebody has to recognize that, right? What good is it if you sing a beautiful song and there was no audience or you didn't record it? In the same way, you really need to have an interpersonal relationship.
I'm sorry I gave you a very long answer, but it is just such a core part of what I really believe in the professional as well as the personal world.
Shiv: Don't apologize at all. That is really valuable advice. I would also encourage our audience to consider that it is not too early to be a mentor. If you are listening to this and you are a nursing student or a medical professional, you can find a high school student or a college student that you can mentor.
Shiv: So, start paying it forward early and make that part of your process and frankly, you have no idea how those careers intersect later on. One thing I realized, YS, very early on after we met was how many shared people we knew. People like Deb Quazzo, who runs the ASU + GSV Summit where we are both going to be on panels in about two weeks. So, the world is very small once you start leading with a "people-first" mentality, I think.
YS: Yes. There's also a selfish aspect of these interpersonal relationships that I think people need to know. For me, when I mentor for someone else, it is an opportunity to really learn something about me. It really is. In speaking with somebody and in listening to that person's options, choices, troubles, challenges...I have to kind of internalize it and see, "Okay, how would that have affected me and therefore what would I authentically be able to tell that person is the right path or right way of thinking, the right choice?"
I cannot tell someone to do this when I would have gone off to do something else. I have got to be honest and authentic about it. So, for me, mentoring is as much about learning who I am and what I am and why things are important to me, as it is to that person.
Shiv: That is interesting because what I thought you were going to say is when you mentor someone young you are learning about trends in the industry or whatever.
YS: That too. (laughs)
YS: At my age, Shiv, I'm removed from what is really going on with teens, early twenties and thirty-year-olds, right? One way I can stay connected is to listen to them all the time about what it is that affects them. My wife and I have two daughters. When they were growing up, we could relate to a lot of things that otherwise parents might have been a little bit too remote to understand but that is because we were listening to people of their age group. Not necessarily from them….you know the whole issue of ABP syndrome? "Anyone-But-Parents."
Shiv. Oh! (laughs)
YS: The syndrome is kids will talk about something with anyone but parents, right? So in that process, I think it is helpful. But even today, for someone in a leadership position like we are, you can become very remote not because we intend to, but because people are kind of afraid to approach us. By having these relationships, you can have a natural link to truly what is going on in the organization. Honest feedback. I think that is really valuable to me today.
Shiv: That is a very good point. We may have to consider making an Osmosis video on ABP syndrome. (laughs) We hadn't heard of that condition yet.
So, let's go into some of the things you have learned. We launched this podcast Raise the Line at the beginning of the COVID pandemic in the US. A lot has changed in higher education and healthcare and government over those two years. Given your kind of bird's eye view right now on the board of a higher education institution like Princeton, and a nonprofit like ETS -- and of course your roles at Elsevier RELX -- what are some of the things that get you most excited about where the industry is going as a whole, or maybe most fearful of, on the flip side?
YS: This is such a big topic, Shiv, that you and I could have a conversation to last the rest of the evening. But I think if I were to just pick one or two things that I am learning through this process, or this is very unfortunate pandemic, is number one, that a lot of things we took for granted should not be taken for granted. And it should be both a threat and opportunity for us, right? As we undo the things that we have taken for granted for decades we've got to think about how we reconstruct this, and in the reconstruction of it, we have to relearn everything that we had learned before and then forgotten or taken for granted. So, I think that relearning process, re-questioning process has been healthy.
Then you lay on top of it the new things that are available to us, namely technology, right? Technology has moved so rapidly, and during the pandemic era it has moved even faster. Suddenly, all the little cracks start to show where there is an opportunity for us to vastly make our society better. Now, that journey from where we were to where we want to go is not going to be a straight line nor is it going to be calm. It is going to be very turbulent. There are going to be winners and losers. I think this is why we are kind of hesitant to move too fast toward that next destination. But I think it is time that we are honest with ourselves.
We need to look at everything we have been doing and ask, how can we vastly make our society better by using technology, on top of the humanistic re-questioning of what we do and why we do it. The humanistic re-questioning on top of the technology, I think, is going to be a great combination. It is the stuff that you do at Osmosis! That is exactly what you do. You take very simple human concepts to teach and you use technology to make it easier, less expensive, more efficient, more flexible, and that's why you have been so successful.
Shiv: Thank you. Thank you for that. And yes, absolutely, there is this great re-think or great reshuffle -- there's a whole bunch of terms that it is being called -- where people have had to sit at home and face tremendous grief and pain and economic and emotional loss over the past two years. We've had to do this great rethink of what is our relationship work? What is our relationship with our communities? I believe because of the pandemic, people have reconsidered what is their relationship to social media or the news, to politics, and a whole host of other things.
One reason we felt so comfortable becoming part of Elsevier is because of the entire focus on sustainable and social reformation. RELX, decades ago as you and Erik Engström and others came on board, started investing in things that now are paying off a lot of fruit. You have investors investing in RELX simply because of the stake in the ground you guys have made on climate change or on social justice, and diversity, equity and inclusion. Can you talk a bit about what those early years were like, even having those conversations about those topics, when so many other companies may only focus on the bottom line?
YS: We do have to focus on the bottom line because the bottom line feeds the ability for us to do what I'm about to talk about, right? It is not like we are just trying to figure out a way to give away as fast as we can because what we do well, we should be rewarded for. But it is not a question of how much money you make, it is what you do with it, right?
I don't want to take any credit for the wonderful things that have happened in this company over the past nearly two decades. Things were already there. We made great content to improve the lives of our society, both health and non-health. But I think that the change we brought about was to try to find these disparate things that we were doing that actually had common purpose, and we verbalized that purpose. That is what we did, is we helped verbalize it so that it would be almost like a pole and people would go toward those poles and touch it.
One of those is to help improve health outcomes. So much of the things we did were about publishing books. The shift was to say, "No, we don't publish books. We enable people to make better health decisions." It was the ability to verbalize the myriad things that we were doing into those foci, and it really touched our people. As you know, folks at Elsevier, for example, have enormously long tenures. They were always there, but they suddenly began to realize there was a higher purpose, and we came up with the words "unique contribution" to distinguish ourselves from competitors who do similar things. Mechanically, they do similar things, but we were always looking for what is unique? What is our unique contribution to our customers? What is our unique contribution to our society? And they began to be verbalized and our team began to really embrace it.
So today, as we went through two years of COVID separation, if anything, our team has become even more convinced of why we wake up every morning and do what we do, even though we are not in the office. Why do we work so hard? Why do we work so politely and together as a team? Because there is that unique contribution. So, I don't want to take any credit. I think the credit goes to our collective ability to verbalize it and center around it, and I think we got really lucky.
Shiv: One of my favorite quotes is Thomas Jefferson who said, "I'm a firm believer in luck and I find that the harder I work, the more of it I have." I think you are being very generous giving the credit out. But obviously, you were a major part of that change that happened at Elsevier as well as the other leaders like Kumsal Bayazit, the CEO.
I saw how over the last three years the employee net promoter score has really massively improved under her leadership. We are only 80 employees in Elsevier's workforce of over 8,000, but even so, she took the time to join us and talk to our entire team about her journey and what is important to her, including these initiatives. You have to have a double bottom line. As they say, "no margin, no mission." Success helps fund those investments and as you grow, you can hire more people and help instill those values in them, too, and they can be agents of change.
The last point I will make before I let you respond to any of that is it reminds me of the famous story where John F. Kennedy went to NASA's center in Houston and asked a janitor what his role was. And the janitor said "Mister president, I send men to the moon." Even at that level he had that calling that was much bigger than him.
YS: Indeed, and I think that is what we try to do is to make people feel that no matter what piece of the entire puzzle you are putting together, you matter. Therefore, you need to do the best job that you can because as a team, oftentimes we end up at the lowest common denominator. When you raise the lowest common denominator, we all rise together. It is not just that one person rising means the whole team rises together. I think your example of the JFK incident at NASA is exactly right. Everyone, whether they are in a more mechanical job or they're in a strategic job, everyone feels they make a difference.
Shiv: In terms of how to make a difference, you wear so many different hats at Elsevier and RELX, among other boards you are involved with. What does your day-to-day look like? I'm sure that's changed quite a bit with COVID and the travel restrictions that came from that.
YS: I think my day-to-day is impossible to describe. Even my week-to-week looks so different from one week to another. I should say that my professional and personal life has this wave that is different each day, each hour, each week, depending on what is a priority. What I can say is that it is a mix of multiple things.
It is one, a lot of time with customers. That is the number one, overriding thing. It is not internal meetings. It is not thinking. Number one is spending as much time as possible with customers. See what they do. Learning firsthand why, how, and what are their pain points, The second is studying a lot. Study all the time. You study by watching other people do it. You study by reading about it or watching things, even on YouTube, or asking people. You have to grow your knowledge base every day. I think that the combination of spending time with customers, learning on your own, and then thinking and addressing as a team what matches between our collective knowledge and our customers' needs and then, betting the house on it and work, work, work to complete what we agreed to do...it's in that kind of sequence.
So, every day for me, I have those elements professionally. Time to spend listening, time to study, time to discuss and exchange ideas and then come to a consensus. Then, work, work, work to make it happen. Not just all talk. Work, right? It is that balance that fills my day.
Now, whatever time I have left, I have got to do things for myself, too. So, insert in there exercise routines, lots of travel, time for my family, time for my mentees. Then, before you can blink, the day is over.
Shiv: Yeah, that is quite packed. I love that framework of spending time with customers. When we were starting Osmosis, it was very easy because we were the customers because we were medical students at Hopkins. As we've gotten bigger and started serving millions of learners and other professions, we now have nursing students in Zambia who learn by Osmosis or practicing cardiologists in Japan. I have a sense of what they do, but the empathy isn't immediate. Spending time with customers is something that Kumsal and Jan have both mentioned as well.
On the research and learning and reading, where do you go? Like, what type of books are you reading now? Or where do you go to learn and study that you can recommend to our audience?
YS: When you get to my age, you don't try to learn something in a semester, right? You try to learn in many, many smaller pieces. Naturally the first place I go to learn are things at the article level. Whether it is an article in a newspaper, a journal, or in something else. It is really pieces of things that are very contemporary. When issues in the contemporary circumstances are unfamiliar to me, that is when I do the digging to do the traditional study to find out what it is, and that for me has become increasingly challenging because there are expertise areas that I'm really not familiar with.
My cheating mechanism is, as you know, I have a lot of mentees. I go to them and I say, "Hey, I have been reading this. It makes no sense to me. I cannot get it. Why is this that?" and I ask them to tutor me. I have dozens and dozens and dozens of tutors around the world that are going to be willing to teach me. Some people teach me about blockchain. Some people teach me about the latest vaccines. Some people teach me what really is happening in the mentality of leaders in Ukraine as they fight the Russians.
I think having these tutors is necessary for me. That is how I learn now. It is not thick books. It might be sections of it. Thank goodness they are all electronic, right? It is really at an article level, and it is really digging deeper through tutors that can help me put the pieces together.
Shiv: That is the added benefit of relationships, right?
Shiv: I love that. That is really, really helpful advice. We are coming up on time so I just have two other questions. The first is, we already started this podcast episode with advice -- finding mentors and how to develop that into becoming a mentor -- what other advice would you give to people in our audience and/or just generally to young people starting out their careers in a very uncertain world with a lot of unforeseen macro trends that are pretty new?
YS: You know when I talk to people, I like to use two types of analogies. One is food and the other is sports. On this question, I'm going to use a food analogy. I think when one is still young, you should be in a collection mode. You are collecting knowledge. You are collecting interests. You are collecting opinions, right? And you don't know exactly how they're going to be all coming together, or which ones you are going to throw out and which ones you are going to add. But you have to be in a collection mode without having the preconceived biases already saying, "I don't need this carrot because I'm going to cook something that doesn't require a carrot." No. Pick one up. You never know, right? You may change your mind and not cook that dish. You'll make up something else. So, one of the pieces of advice I like to give young people is just keep collecting. Collecting knowledge, collecting interests, collecting a network of people you want to know, and you want to be around. Collect, and then at some point in time, it will become obvious which pieces fit with which. But you don't have to plan that in advance.
Our education system, in most countries in the advanced world, is about putting people on a path. You were on a path for a while. You jumped off that highway, boldly, from medical school. I mean, until that point you were on a highway going 110 miles an hour and beating everybody, right? From high school to Harvard to Hopkins, and you were ahead. But you got off and you kind of re-assessed. What have I got? I want to do this on Osmosis. Who do I need as a partner? Do I need to Rishi as a partner? Do I need someone else as a partner? You didn't plan that, did you? No. It worked out, didn't it? Yeah.
So, I think that that would be my advice to young people. You are in medical school. You are in nursing school. Whatever you are doing, you are collecting knowledge. You don't know how exactly you are going to use it. You might become a physician or you might go into medicine-related publishing or medicine-related technology or medicine-related policy and become a politician and set our health care policy. Who knows? And does it matter? Not yet. It may matter later on. But until that point, it is about collecting knowledge. It is about collecting interests. It is about collecting networks. So, there you go.
Shiv: I love that. In hindsight bias, you create this narrative fallacy where all these pieces fit together. But moving forward, you have no idea. One of our previous guests on Raise the Line, Dr. Michael Mina who is Chief Scientific Officer at a digital health company called eMed, was a Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka back in 2004 and then eventually went and became a doctor.
YS: Imagine what he took with him from learning about being a monk to the rest of his life.
Shiv: Is there anything we've missed about you, Elsevier, RELX, or anything else that you'd like our audience to know about?
YS: I think that your audience is generally self-motivated, driven people that have purpose and goals in life. As we just talked about, fine, you can go 120 miles an hour. It is okay. But just make sure you look around and know when to jump off the highway. Take a rest. Take a little local route and discover. You can get back on the highway when you want to, but make sure that there's variety in your life. That if you are a STEM student, your life is not all about STEM. It is about reading, about philosophy, about literature and about human psychology. Or, the other way around, right?
I know someone who is just a die-hard athlete. I'm constantly reminding this person to stop and enjoy something non-athletic along the way and combine the two. It makes it so much richer to do so. I think that is what the audience of this podcast would get the most out of.
In my case, as a foreign student coming to America through the generosity of scholarship systems and getting the education that I got -- but more importantly, getting the people that I met at these institutions that are my lifetime friends and colleagues -- I think that is something I did not value very much at that age. That, of course, turns out to be the most valuable thing that I got. I went to graduate school and I joke about the fact that the most important thing I got at graduate school is not my job, although my first job was amazing. The most important thing I got was my wife! She went to the same school and I met her and my life changed forever. So, don't always plan it.
Shiv: Totally. I could not agree more. It ultimately comes down to relationships, and together you can do quite a bit. So, YS, thanks so much for taking the time to be with us today and obviously for creating this legacy that Osmosis is just a very small, but excited part of.
YS: Very exciting. You can set an example -- not just to other parts of Elsevier, but to other parts of this education and information analytics space -- because of what I described earlier about combining these two things together. I hope that we have more "Osmosises" just scattered everywhere in our organization.
Shiv: I love it so much. Thanks again, and to our audience, thank you so much for checking out today's show. Remember to do your part to flatten the curve and raise the line. We are all in this together. Take care.