Sue Chen: How to Build & Retain a Great Team

The NextWomen ‘How-to’ Theme

Sue Chen founded Nova Medical Products in 1993 when she was just 23 years old with a strong vision: to improve lives, with style.

Today, Nova has grown to become an industry leader and innovator of mobility, bathroom safety and independent living products such as beautiful canes, hot walkers and stylish mobility bags. Nova is on a mission to unleash the power and potential in millions of physically challenged people and determined to shift the fear, stigma and discrimination her customers face; reconnecting our human bond that all people deserve to live and thrive. 

Most recently, Sue was a finalist for the prestigious Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award, recipient of the Community Leadership Award from the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, and named one of the ten Most Powerful Entrepreneurs in Fortune Magazine’s Most Powerful Women issue.  In 2011, Sue helped successfully lobby the California legislature to protect sharks with the passing of the Shark Fin ban.

Sue is an Annenberg Foundation Community Champion, YPO member, Founder of Operation Blue Pride, and Director of Reef Check Foundation and WildAid. She also speaks to thousands of people each year about her passions and missions. Sue believes in a happily un-balanced and chaotic life and is also a shark advocate, avid diver, classical music junkie and author of Confessions of the Walker Stalker.

Last year, Sue was interviewed in one of our top ten most popular articles of all time. 

We spoke to Sue about the challenges she encountered whilst building her team and how she overcame them; her advice for entrepreneurs looking to retain their people; and why she believes that investing in your team saves costs.

TNW: What have you been up to since our last interview in February last year?

SC: A lot! I am living a very happily chaotic life. My mission and obsession with our Mobility Makeover products and helping America move better and more beautifully has spread to our Bathroom Safety products and Fall Prevention mission. I am upset...well, frankly angry, that falls are the 5th leading cause of death for Americans over 65, with most of the serious injury falls occurring in one's own bathroom. So, I developed a mission campaign called Bathroom 365: keeping our bathrooms safe and happy, every day of the year. This is one U.S. epidemic we can cure and move the needle in the right direction. 

Also, last September something incredible was a dream come true. With some miraculous fate and powerful destiny, two missions that fuel my life came together.

The mission to empower people with physical challenges and the mission to save our sharks. And, there was a vital third mission that will forever be in my life: the mission to meaningfully support our wounded veterans. On September 19, 2012, Operation Blue Pride was formed and we took three wounded veterans on an epic adventure to come face to face with hundreds of sharks, including Emma, our favorite Tiger Shark.

This adventure became a mission that we could not have even imagined and the documentary will be released this upcoming Veterans Day: 

TNW: What are the biggest challenges you encountered whilst building your team and how did you overcome these?

SC: Training and embracing new hires, and allowing your people do it better. 

When the company is small and hires just a few people a year, you and perhaps a couple of key people can be responsible for training, orientating and embracing new people into the company. As we grew, hired more people and my time became in greater demand, I tried to hold on to this 'trainer/welcome committee' role and suffered some new NOVA people "pool incidences." Many new hires got thrown into the deep of the pool and were just not ready to swim or tread deep water.

Here's what I figured out: Firstly, let it go and trust your crew. You can still connect with new people, without being their go-to person.

Secondly, allow more people including your newer staff to be part of the training and cultivation process. Not only is this good for the new hire, but this training/cultivation process is also good for the trainer and can be a stepping stone or stage for evaluation of newer people to show their stuff.

Today, our training program has evolved quite dynamically. The program now includes rookie people and gives them a new responsibility in training, allows them to bond with new hires, and re-confirms with the trainers what should be done and how well, because they now teach and coach it. Also, getting as many people involved in the process takes this long and thoughtful process to the oversight and responsibility of many, rather than just a few people, who are now invested in the success of the new hire - and meaningfully connects the new employee with a team of people. 

Knowing when to let someone go.

By personal human nature, I am a pleaser, can be a bit of a pushover, and a serial optimist. The first two qualities may not serve most CEOs well, but I am who I am, and work very hard at self-realization and improvement.

So, I have really struggled with letting people go, even when that tiny voice in my head, heart and especially gut tells me to do so, NOW.

I realize that after 20 years of running my company with many episodes of going with my human nature vs. my gut, that this gut of mine is pretty darn wise, right in decision and I need to trust myself . What has helped me with this internal battle are two things: Firstly, I write my feelings and facts down so I can see them and show myself, especially the mushy side.

Secondly, surround yourself with people who truly know you and care for your best interests (which should always include your company). Their role isn't necessarily to give you advice, but remind you of who you are, your past experiences and feelings associated with those experiences and that your GUT is an extension of your human nature.  

TNW: What role has technology played in enabling your team to grow?

SC: Because it is so important to me and NOVA's culture that everyone get along, connect and actually like each other, having a growing staff in two cities - Los Angeles and Chicago - has been challenging and frustrating at times. Technology has been absolutely key, as it allows our systems and communication to be completely synced and provide platforms to see each other, connect with each other and make us all feel that we are family and working together.

TNW: How do you balance keeping costs down whilst investing in your team?


I'm going to get a bit bold here so please listen up: Investing in your team DOES keep your costs down, and very significantly, I may add.

Let me explain. When your team is unhealthy, not getting along, unhappy and deflated, your company will incur expenses, lose revenue and become very inefficient, uncompetitive and not a place that inspires an executive or CEO. In other words or numbers (in my opinion): unhappy people who don't like each other perform at 20-50% individually, 10-30% as a team and bring down your own drive, productivity and innovation by 20-80%. NOVA is in a very competitive industry and landscape climate and I always know this: MY people are better because they are happier. It is quite common for people to wonder (whether it is because they hear it on the phone or see us interacting at a trade show), "what juice are NOVA people drinking that they sound and look so happy?"

It is easy to cut and chip those "people benefit" line items from the budget that may not immediately hurt the company today, but believe me - your people know and are affected.

They also know it when you are investing in who they are, what they do and the place where they spend between 2, 000 - 2,500 hours a year.

Here are just a few things we do to make NOVA a place I love going to work every day.

1. Choose your chair. Everyone at Nova gets to choose their office chair; not a generic or passed down option.  Not only are people completely unique in body, but they may be sitting up several hours a day, on your watch, so make sure their chair feels good and is their choice.

2Build an awesome lounge. Hard working people on a mission need more than a dark and dismal break room to relax, chill and connect with others. So, create a space for your work family to really lounge.  Decorate and furnish this place like a home or groovy lounge and NO company stuff in this sacred place.  Instead, create a small library of cool books, put in bistro tables and stations for catching up on all of the Facebook, etc... stuff.

3. Eat often and well together. 

I'll repeat myself: you spend thousands of hours at work and with your work family; and a family that eats well together, lives well together. So, eat together, often and well.

At NOVA, we have done this from the time we had 5 people to now over 75 and it just keeps getting better.  Here's the best part for me: I don't even organize it anymore, I just get to enjoy yummy food and fun times. My people have embraced the love of eating well and together, and plan the most epic feasts! So epic that I often wonder if we should expand to become Nova Medical Products and Foodies Extraordinaire.  Some of this funded by NOVA and some by people individually.

4. Spend on benefits. Every year we find ways to make our benefits better, not worse. This year, in addition to paying 100% of individual benefits, we added a $500 health flex spending and added one more week to the vacation plan.

Not only do you attract better people, but they stay healthy, feel supported and get time away to do whatever they want.

TBW: When hiring, what are the key qualities you look for to ensure the success of your business?


1. Agility. We are a small, but mighty company so change and pace needs to be constant. We hire people that are agile and actually like change and speed.

2. Grit and Tenacity. As I type this article, I can feel the minor cuts all over my fingers because I encountered a unexpected product display that I needed to put together for a new and key business partner and somehow it got done and looks excellent. Because we are small, yet mighty, we always have to outshine and outperform, no matter what the circumstances.

You have to have that grit and tenacity to represent your company beautifully and effortlessly, even when your heart is pounding, your soul is crying or your fingers are a little cut up.

3. Aptitude with Alignment. When you are on the small side and a mission based company, you must have people who can learn well, quickly and in alignment with your core values. So, even with my thoughts about trying not to throw newer people in the deep end of the pool, I do need key people to be strong and fearless swimmers, in every end of the pool.

TNW: Do you hire people based on individual qualities, or do team dynamics play a part in your decisions?

SC: Individual qualities, but central to those unique qualities must be alignment with our core values and company integrity.

Diversity is good, period. The more diversity you have in people, the better. You have more perspectives, experiences, passions and personalities.

Not only is that quantifiably good for business, but just so much more fun. Enjoy, embrace and learn from the people you spend more time with than just about anyone. And, don't forget to create an environment and opportunities to share these individual and diverse qualities.

TNW: What are your favourite three questions when interviewing someone for a position on your team?


1. Tell me about a very challenging episode in your life, personally or professionally, and how that experience has transformed you.

2. When you see someone that looks very different from you, what do you think? What do you feel?and what do you wish?

3. Chocolate chip cookies: with or without nuts? (I prefer with nuts, but there is no right answer...I love cookies and just want to know).

TNW: An entrepreneur has been fortunate enough to build an excellent team. What three tips would you give them for retaining their people?


1. Try not to have an administrative assistant or anyone who lives between you and your staff. Connect with your people because empowerment from you is vital to retaining and developing them. Who better than you can make your staff into a team of heroes?

2. Create a culture for them to thrive personally and professionally, as a whole human being. I’m getting repetitive here, but again: you spend more hours working than anything else, so that arena of life really should be the epicenter for personal growth.  Be the source for that personal development.

Here's a suggestion: Give your managers or all people if you can afford it, a "Rediscover, Ignite or be Uncomfortable Fund".

This year I gave all of my managers $300 dollars with the requirement to do something that either 1) Rediscovered a passion or hobby, 2) Ignited a passion or hobby, or 3) Do something that makes you feel really uncomfortable. The only requirement was that you had to report back to me and the other managers in three months. This was so awesome and I have several incredible stores. One of my managers spent the fund on a Toast Masters class because she was scared of public speaking, but desperately wanted to overcome this fear. Two months into the class, she won for best presentation and couldn’t wait to share the news with us. Not only am I so proud of her for overcoming her fear, but she has a new swagger and confidence that her grandchildren are proud of as well.

3: Stay in touch and remain grounded.

People work for people they admire and support. Would you LOVE working for YOU?

I spend 3-4 weeks a year diving and working to save our ocean reefs and sharks. I make sure that my people know about my diving and share my other mission and passion with them. This has also given them a way to give back to me. One year my Chicago warehouse crew got together and raised $500 to donate to my shark cause. They said to me, "This is for you and your sharks." I cried. 

TNW: How do you encourage your team to perform at their best, both individually and as a team?

SC: Communication often and with Context. Make sure everyone knows what is going on in the company, the industry and with the competition. If you have the right people and they know WHAT is going on in your industry and what your goals are, then that competitive spirit almost always kicks in gear and they want to be Better, Faster and Stronger; and work together to make sure their company is always setting and raising the bar and not catching up to the bar. Don't forget to make sure they know how awesome they are too!

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