Happiness reigns: meet Laurence Vanhée
After a long winter and an even longer recession, it’s reassuring to know that an uplifting movement has been at work throughout at the very heart of Belgium’s infrastructure. Spreading her own brand of happiness is Laurence Vanhée, Chief Happiness Officer of Belgian Ministry of Social Security and HRM of the Year 2012.
hw s13 5 A former VP HR at IBA and Group HRD at DB Associates, we asked Laurence how her current position of Chief Happiness Officer differs from a more conventional senior personnel role...

"Happier people perform better. They are healthier.
They dare more. They shine."

Managing people is much broader than pay and administration. From individual development to performance management, from building values to monitoring KPI’s, from communicating on social media to building trust in my relationships with union reps, the scope the “HR” job is everything but a spreadsheet monkey’s one. This is why I’m not Director of Administrative Affairs.

We are people. We are not resources. We all like to be treated as a person and this is absolutely legitimate. Signing an employment agreement with an employer doesn’t mean throw your brain and your heart into the trash can. These are useless here. We are people with thoughts, feelings and talents. We have ups and downs but most of the time, we are motivated people if we find the right opportunities to deliver results with our talents and capabilities. This is why I’m not Human Resources Manager.

We are a team. We are not a human capital. We are not, together, the sum of each individual human resources. We can’t, as person or as a group of people, be considered like a capital that has to deliver a double digit return ever quarter. This is why I’m not Human Capital Director. Happier people perform better. They are healthier. They are less stressed. They are more creative. They dare more. They connect to more people. They enjoy being considered as people and behave with respect towards each other. They spread their happiness around them. They shine.

This means giving freedom to people, considering them as adults, allowing people to work in team, asking people and the team to be accountable for their choices, trusting people.

Being a boss means behaving like a resource to the team, to provide guidance, to give support, to listen and help. Putting the team first. Being egoless.

All these small, easy steps improve the performance and the profitability of the organization. And make for happier colleagues.

Freedom + Responsibility = Happiness + Performance.

This is why I’m Chief Happiness Officer.

My job is about building strong and shared values, about encouraging trust and developing wise leaders, about monitoring results and not time nor presence. My job is to create the conditions within the organization making people happier and more productive.

If my colleagues are happier (and thus more productive), our customers/citizens are happier (and then come back to us).If we deliver a better service or if we produce more, we improve the Key Performance Indicators. We have then happier shareholders/stakeholders. This is why I’m happy to be Chief Happiness Officer.

What competences and skills do you need to be a successful Happiness leader?

A passion for people management, the ability to inspire, courage, trust, creativity, leading by example and one of the most difficult ... humility (management of your ego).

I guess this is more than a job title. You must need to live your role too. What is your philosophy?

I believe in 5 dondoos to change our workplace :
  • Don't Manage. Love
  • Don't work. Have fun
  • Don't think. Think green
  • Don't complain. Innovate
  • Don't motivate. Trust

My philosophy is to spread happiness around me. Hence my business strategy is the following formula : "freedom + responsibility = happiness + performance".

So have you made employees happier so far?

I hope so. In my own team, 94% of people state that they are happy at work and 90% proud to be a team member. At the organisation level, 88% are happy and 84% are proud to work at the Belgian Ministry (FPS) of Social Security.

How do you marry your quest to make people happy with the commercial realities of budgets, targets, dealing with poor performance, letting people go etc...?

This is extremely easy: surveys show that happy people are between 10,8 to 31% more productive. They are 2x less sick, 6x less absent. According to Gallup, companies investing in their workers' happiness have a growth of earning by share which is 3.9x more important than organisations that don't. Gallup estimates the cost of disengagement reaches 350M$ in US companies. This has a direct impact on the bottom line of the organisations!

"Happy people make happy customers".

Must be even harder in a long recession, and in winter say...

Managers have really to understand that happy people make happy customers. Happy customers make happy shareholders.

It must be especially tough when you have a bad day as people expect you to always be happy. Or maybe you never have bad days....

Of course, I have bad days, like everybody! But cultivating a happy mood increases your resilience. And if ever I'm unhappy, I can count on plenty of friends who are supporting me, sending me comforting messages, often funny... they contribute to bring me back really quickly to a happy state of mind. On the other hand, you don't have a rainbow without sun and a little rain.

You seem to be a prolific contributor to social media sites like LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook. What value does this add to your mission?

Social media are key to embrace the world in its diversity and its tremendous source of knowledge. Martin Seligman, father of the Positive Psychology, demonstrated that connection is one of the four pillars of happiness. I cannot consider a modern and perfomant HR function without using 2.0 tools and collaborative platforms. In 2018, the next generation is coming on board. How do we want to attract them if we ignore the power of 2.0?

What happiness networks are there? If HEADWAY readers want to engage with this growing happiness mafia, what should they do?

For the time being, I'm focusing my energy on Belgium. Jean-Paul Erhard (@jperhard) and I founded Happiness Day, taking place for the first time on March 20 (www.happinessday.be). Our initiative supports the United Nations' resolution to make March 20 the International Day of Happiness.

Your readers can connect on facebook (www.facebook.be/happinessdayBE), on LinkedIn (group "Happy at Work"), on Twitter (@behpd and #behappyday) and on Scoopit (laurence vanhee, Happy {organisation}). We curate sites and articles, we share experiences, we connect happy organisations and we animate a network of leaders believing in happiness at work. I also wrote a book, Happy HR (La Charte, Die Keure) that is released early March 2013. It explains the journey to move from a HR role to a Chief Happiness Officer one.

"Happiness is contagious and borderless".

Some might consider your job title rather pink and fluffy - potentially less serious or strategic than a traditional VP HR or HRD. What reactions do you get in traditional circles?

Quite the opposite actually! Reactions are really positive. Some are curious. Some are enthusiastic. And usually it puts a smile on people's face or makes people from all over the world write me emails to congratulate me on the title and philosophy. My blog, www.missphilomene.com has been read from more than 145 countries in 2012, despite the fact that most of the articles are in French. I consider this fact very positive and motivating. Happiness is contagious and borderless.

The word 'officer' seems rather out of step with the modernity of your Happiness title and 21st century mission.

Personally, I like the term Officer. It really drives to make it happen (and happy :-)). You're right. It's a kind of oxymoron (paradox). It turns happiness into the business reality.
Interestingly, this title has been quoted as one of the most attracting by Forbes1 late 2012, along with Princess of Possibilities and Networked Society Evangelist.

I read an article in The Economist a while ago on how happiness is age related. In our twenties our happiness levels tend to be quite high, then dropping down to its lowest levels around age 46. That was described as the 'u-bend' in life, when typically your children have grown up, or their problems are bigger, your parents are elderly, and your career potentially at its most stressful, and you may have a few ailments. Then you start getting happier again later in life. What is your view or experience of this?

Well, I'm 41. Thankfully that gives me 5 happy years before reaching this U bend (laugh). As I said, cultivating happiness as a daily art de vivre helps me to overcome difficulties and to learn from adversity. So I do hope I will be well equipped by the time I reach this period you mention...

You were HR Manager of the Year for 2012. Why did they choose you? Looking back what has been the impact?

I suppose I've been given this award thanks to an unconventional approach of our role of HR. And I have really appreciated this recognition from my peers.

Thanks to this award, I also got plenty of calls from headhunters ;-) and an increased visibility in the media.

Former colleagues describe you as visionary, among lots of other positive accolades.  What responsibility do you feel as a role model to develop other happiness professionals in your wake?

I consider myself as both an evangelist preaching the gospel of Happiness at Work and as someone who gets results and helps others to achieve success. It's not only words and bla-bla-bla; it's about concrete achievements and a real impact on bottom line!

"Happiness at work is mainstream"

Where is the Happiness movement heading? How far can it go?

I am convinced that Happiness at work is mainstream! No doubt about that. People are not ready anymore to spend hours in the office performing non-sense task for a big bad boss they never see. It's just a start which is promising.

I'm co-organising the 1st Belgian Happiness Day on March 202, namely with a Happy Lunch in a very selective place with some very famous keynote speakers like Peter Van Rompuy, Belgian Senator leading the taskforce of Happiness KPI and together with his father, Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council who is a real ambassador of Happiness! More than 20 companies already declared themselves as Happy Organisations, only a few days after the launch of the initiative (www.happinessday.be). If your readers want to join us, they are the most welcome!

Laurence Vanhée’s book Happy HR (NL - published by Die Keure ) and Happy RH (FR - published by La Charte) will be released early March. The English version should be available in late 2013.


2UN resolution about International Day of Happiness http://bit.ly/Yt3eIv