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Understand and Be Understood

December 10, 2021

Although this may seem obvious, I believe that mutual understanding is the foundation of business. And while the foundation is the same, each individual company is different in terms of its particular industry, its corporate culture, its employees, and the problems that it faces. Communication among companies can be difficult, but mutual understanding even within a single company can be surprisingly difficult to achieve.

There was an incident about four years ago when, of the 15 or so employees that we had at the time, around five decided to quit. I wondered what was going on. There was no reason to think that they had been treated badly and their pay on par with market rates, but nevertheless they were dissatisfied and left. One reason was that we as a company had decided to move from doing our work on Excel to a custom-designed software package. Some people were very suspicious of this thing that they hadn’t tried before, saying, “Changing to this software is just too risky – we need to stick with Excel!”

I realized, however, that that was not the root cause. One day a staff member came to my office and told me, “Dai, you’ve just got to become a better leader.” And he gave me a book.

As I read the book, I started to see that I had not only been neglecting the study of management, but also failing to consider the growth of our staff members. I had been pushing forward with what I wanted to do and how the company should appear, without giving sufficient thought to how our employees wanted to grow and develop. Furthermore, I had been failing to fully communicate even the limited ideas that I did have.

So, I completely changed the order of my thinking. Instead of the idea that the CEO should use the employees to get work done, I switched to thinking that the CEO works on behalf of their employees. Instead of first considering what I wanted my staff to do for me, I started thinking about what I could do for my staff. Before thinking about how much I would get from the company, I began thinking about how much I would be able to pay the people who worked for me. Having taken a hard look at myself, I decided that given my limited capacity, I would freeze my own salary for the next three years, while raising the salaries of others. I also stopped paying out bonuses and dividends to management from company profits. That was because I changed my definition of the CEO from someone who reaps profits from their employees to someone who should be working for growth and development on the part of their staff and clients.

More than anything else, I started making an effort to understand how our employees were thinking about their work. For example, how should we be improving our technical capabilities? What should customer service look like? I would go out for drinks on Friday evenings with sympathizers in the company and discuss these sorts of questions. At first there were only two or three of these kind souls, and sometimes there would be only one. Sometimes these discussions would get heated and opinions would clash. I imagine that our staff members were wondering why on earth their CEO continued doing this. But I felt it was essential to work out with the staff the philosophy that would be our company’s axis, and I kept pursuing these discussions single-mindedly.

Six months later, we had worked out the prototype of “TOPC Axis,” our company’s managerial philosophy. Although we refer to it as a philosophy, the content is quite straightforward. Things like “Stick to the basics” are put forth by companies and their leaders everywhere, with only a change of wording. Even so, we worked them out together with much debate, and they are very important phrases to us. These words are packed with the thoughts of me and my employees.

Notwithstanding, simply formulating this Axis and having it printed doesn’t mean it was “understood.” Taking each philosophical concept in a weekly rotation between English and Japanese, we came to a shared sense of understanding and experience. Through that process, we gradually learned about these ideas from different angles, and then came up with a summary during the third week that everyone could appreciate in English and arrive at a common perception. No doubt there is merit in having new hires learn various things from more experienced staff members, but I found it interesting that I myself as the CEO learned many new perspectives and gained much insight from the staff members. It wasn’t just me thinking; rather the staff added things along the way, such that my own thinking evolved and became sharper. This is the significance of the CEO learning from and integrating the thoughts of the employees.

There are people out there who are known as wonderful business leaders and who are highly charismatic. But there are also business leaders like myself who simply weren’t born with a lot of charisma. It would be easy to quit due to lack of talent, but it is the CEO’s mission to exert themself to the utmost for their employees. That is why I will always strive to communicate what is important in our company, and how we will grow and develop until they were “understood” by everyone.

The reason that I am the leader of our company, even though I am not especially charismatic or good at leading, is that there is nobody else who considers the wellbeing of our employees as seriously as I do, or who works as hard as I do on their behalf. To the degree that I have actually communicated my thoughts, I do feel that there have been changes in the thinking and actions on the part of our staff. At first, it was very uncomfortable and I hated managing, but now that there are people in our company who say to me, “I enjoy my work,” it makes me enjoy my work, and I work all the harder. The most important thing in a company is that the CEO’s vision and thinking are communicated to the employees. There is nothing so strong as a company whose CEO and employees are moving forward together as one. Still, it is easy to tell people things but much harder to be “understood.” And that is why the CEO must continue to work at this until their thoughts are truly understood and everyone is growing and developing together.


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