In this installment of our series of interviews with female leaders in Japan, Barry Lustig of Cormorant Group speaks to Tomoko Akizawa of Edelman. Akizawa, who spent many of her formative years in the US, is deputy MD and director of technology and digital and joined the company in 2012. We draw on her bicultural background to ask for a perspective on Japanese communication styles in an international context.
Did you grow up overseas?
I was born in Kobe. Because of my father's work I moved to Chicago when I was 13. When I arrived in the US, I could barely spell my name in English letters and didn't even know the future tense. But after five years I was completely Americanized.
Do you think your experience going to high school overseas influenced your choice of career?
I was very interested in learning more about Japan when came back. This interest in Japan helped me choose my first company, Sumitomo Trading. I was just curious. What's life like in those big companies?
Most of my schoolmates went straight to foreign companies. But I thought that if I want to continue working in Japan, I should know how Japanese business is done.
What were some of the lessons that stuck with you about working in a domestic Japanese company?
At Sumitomo, I learned how the team functions closely together. I could state my opinion but in the end we had to function as a team.
My second job was at Chuo Koron Publishing Company which is a very old, historical and well known publishing company. That’s ‘THE Japan’ as well.
At Chuo Koron, I helped the literary team to work with American magazines in Japan. As we were dealing with the media. we were very conscious about what articles would be good to translate for their particular audience. I had to explain the cultural context of the content without emphasizing that Japan is number one; without explaining why Japan is unique. This is where I learned to talk about Japanese culture in a more universal way.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing your clients?
Many companies, especially the manufacturing sector, have been great at expanding overseas. But there are many other sectors, for example the service sector, which also need to grow outside of Japan. In order to do this, there are strong communications needs that need to be addressed. Domestic Japanese companies face various cultural challenges outside of Japan. Communications will be critical to meet that challenge.
What are some of the cultural barriers?
These challenges are not barriers. It's about understanding what kind of communication is needed in different countries and in different cultures. There has to be a very strong and specific understanding about how communications is done in each country. In order to do that, we need to have expertise located in those regions which can help. Edelman and others have learned quite a lot about how that subtle adjustment should be done.
How important is Japanese exceptionalism for multinationals when communicating with the Japanese market?
I think it's overrated. When we think about what journalists want to know, what should be communicated, we should never say “this is Japan, you need to do this differently.”
It’s not that radically different. It is true that because of the language and the culture, there have to be subtle adjustments in messaging to get a point across. In our business, it's important to give Japanese companies guidance on what they need to do outside of Japan to succeed without making them nervous.
What do you think managers in communications should be doing to support women as they rise up?
First of all, I think if a woman seems to have difficulty speaking up then I think the management should encourage female middle managers to really speak up and be clear that that there is no reproach for speaking up.
I'm not speaking on behalf of all women. This applies to men too. Japanese people still have a bit of hesitancy to speak up in front of people. This is partly because they are not encouraged by the educational system to speak up and this is something I've observed throughout my career. It’s important to create an environment where both men and women are able to speak up and exchange opinions. I think only the leaders can create this [open] environment. This is really important.
Do you think that your experience in an American high school helped you have confidence to speak up?
Yes, probably. In America or in Western countries, if you don’t speak up, you don’t exist. It's not that radical. It’s something that’s actively encouraged. I was lucky to be thrown in into situation where this is the natural way of communication.
Even now, when I am nervous about presentations in English or speaking with my boss or throughout the network, I remember the first time I went to America and how I felt. I also remember how I was able to succeed there. My experience in the US built confidence that I can rely on.
What has helped you succeed as a manager?
I pay attention to details about daily operations. I ask the team to brief me on unusual things, for example, small things that a client says; something a little unusual thing that they say which may not make sense.
We work in a very complex environment and need to understand what clients want. I tell the team to be very observant of what they see through their daily client relationships and to give me a heads up if they hear or see something unusual.
I don’t get mad if there are problems or mistakes. I don’t want the team to feel shy about telling me what's happening for fear that I might get upset with them. So I try to create an environment where we raise issues early and then people get together and figure out what to do.
What advice would you give foreign managers in Japan?
Japanese people are not encouraged to speak up in public like in America. Especially when speaking in English, many Japanese people cannot express the full complexity of their thinking. Just because Japanese tend to be a little quieter, don’t ignore them because many have interesting thoughts. If you ask someone individually for their opinion, they will start saying what they think.
Barry Lustig is managing partner of Cormorant Group, a Tokyo-based business and HR strategy consultancy.