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From Management’s Point of View ~What Motivates Employees? ~

February 10, 2023

I don’t have a clear answer to the question of what I should do as president to motivate our employees. But even without any particular answer, I would like to spell out in this post some of the things that I have found through my own experience.

There are people in the world who are leaders in the sense that they attract other people. There are those like former President Trump or Elon Musk who make a strong impression with a top-down style of management, and there are also those like Mahatma Gandhi or Saigo Takamori who subjugate themselves in dedication to others.

As a child I enjoyed reading books about great military heroes. Such chronicles tend to attract the hearts of modern readers even centuries later, and I felt great admiration for those historical figures. Despite being impressed with great figures from history, however, I didn’t have much respect for the adults around me (my father for example) when I was young; in fact, you could almost say that I hated them. In my childhood memories, my father was out drinking most evenings and rarely came home before our bedtime. When he did come home, he would coerce my younger brother into bouts of sumo that would typically end in tears. He didn’t get any big promotions at work, and he and my mother were constantly arguing about money. Being raised in this environment, my resentful child-mind would think, “If only I had been born into a rich family...,” and I wanted to grow up quickly so that I could make my own money. After graduating high school, I decided to go to university in America, but since my parents weren’t able to pay the full cost of that, every time I would run out of money I would come back to Japan and work in construction or loading trucks, and then go back to the States after earning enough for the next round of tuition. Repeating that pattern, it took me six years before I was finally able to graduate.

At that time, I thought of leadership as, “Having superior ability compared to others.” That idea came from applying myself to my studies in college, as well as sports, where, thinking about the people who tended to surround me, it seemed that the only way to attract others was to raise my level of capability. Even more so in the working world, I decided that the only way to make it in America was to develop my skills, and so I focused on my job. That effort paid off, and I was promoted to section chief after about five years with my first employer. I was making more money than my father, and in the eighth year after starting my first full-time job, I was given the opportunity to start my own business. After starting in Seattle, we merged with a Los Angeles firm, and we took on more employees. Based on my own experience, I told those working for me that they would find it in their interest to raise their skill level. Doing a good job was the main thing, I felt, and I would often scold them when their work wasn’t up to my standards. In this way the company continued to grow little by little, and superficially it appeared that things were going well.

But then, about five years ago, a situation arose where five employees suddenly quit. At the time, in the midst of my feelings of frustration and annoyance at losing these important staff members, I couldn’t understand the reason and spent a lot of time and energy worrying about where the problem lay and how this could have happened. However, when I faced reality and sat down to analyze things piece by piece, something became apparent that I hadn’t realized at first. That something was my own leadership style.

In retrospect, my impression of the company is that the staff didn’t really get along well together; communication was somehow lacking, and the company as a whole was like a set of gears that didn’t mesh properly. I was confident that we were far ahead of the competition in terms of knowledge, experience, and technology, and looking at things objectively, I think I can say that we actually were. However, that alone wasn’t really enough – something was missing. Even as I gradually came to recognize this, there wasn’t anyone around me who could tell me what it was. But I wanted to do something about it! With that idea firmly in mind, I began to read everything I could get my hands on, and I eventually came across an episode related to Dr. Kazuo Inamori.

In 2009, when Dr. Inamori was nearly 80 years old, he took on the task of reconstructing Japan Airlines, which had fallen on hard times. He accomplished this by putting his own management philosophy into practice, reorganizing the company, and then guiding it to recovery. I had known about that part before, but what really made an impression on me was his reason for finally accepting the responsibility, despite having repeatedly turned down the request due to his advanced age and also having had no experience in the aviation industry. It was to avoid further dismissals of JAL employees, and to avoid additional downward pressure on the Japanese economy. Furthermore, Dr. Inamori took on the heavy burden of the JAL chairmanship without drawing any salary. For me, someone who had experienced higher education and work in America, the values represented by an “altruistic” spirit of dedicated service to others, without expectation of personal benefit, came as quite a shock. I thought to myself that it was precisely because he took that approach that he was able to successfully restructure JAL, while also thinking how incredibly far short of this level I myself was. Nevertheless, it was clear that my company was in need of transformation.

Day and night, I continued to think about what needed to be changed and how to do that. And then, one day, I suddenly recalled a scene involving my father. I was visiting our family home in Japan after having started my career, and was watching my father head off for work. He was wearing a threadbare suit and fake leather shoes, and I remember thinking that surely, he could buy himself slightly better things... and then it hit me: it wasn’t that my father didn’t have money. But he had spent tens of thousands of dollars on my American education, as well as sending my younger brother to university. All the money he made, he had spent on his children. He never complained about that to us; he went to work every day, serious-minded about his job, sending money off to his children. His professional ability might have been limited in comparison with his peers who earned promotions, but he did the most he could to the greatest extent possible for the benefit of his children. In that moment of remembrance, I realized that even without being blessed with talent, maybe a leader is that person who doesn’t give up or give in, but instead does whatever they can to the best of their ability.

The day that I came to that understanding, I completely changed my way of thinking. Prior to that point, I had taken it for granted in life that if I gave something, I would expect something in return, and I believed that to be fair for both sides. At that point, though, I decided that I no longer cared about that, and that I would work simply for the growth and development of our staff and our clients, and that would be my approach to life. As that determination solidified, I could naturally start to see the direction that the management of the company needed to take.

Dr. Inamori said that a company culture and a philosophy were needed in order to keep a company’s employees moving together in the same direction. However, I didn’t know how to create a philosophy. I talked to other top managers that I knew, but nobody had any clear answers. As a result of continually thinking about what a company needs, I came to the conclusion that an enterprise’s form is determined by technology, service, teamwork, time, sales, and ownership; and that enhancing each of these together as an axis would lead a company towards growth. Next, I decided that a concrete philosophy of action would be required to stabilize this axis, but I also felt that my own ability wouldn’t possibly be sufficient for that purpose. So I let all the staff know that “We’re going to create the axis for the company!” and invited them out drinking to what I called the Beer Bash. At first, hardly anybody came. Just one or two people showed up who thought there might be a free meal. But every week, I would keep plugging it enthusiastically, saying that today we’re going to talk about skills; today we’re talking about service; how it’s going to be really compelling. We knocked back a lot of beer, and people started sharing their true feelings. When someone would say something significant, someone else would say, “That’s really interesting!” and start taking notes, and by the end of the evening, they’d have written down several pages worth. They would go home and write up their notes over the weekend, and then send them out to everyone in a general email. After that had happened a few times, even those who had been resistant to the idea naturally began to attend, and good ideas started flowing one after another.

So that’s how everyone in our company began thinking about our philosophy, deciding on it after talking it over and considering whether it was actually right or not. The axis that was formulated from the ideas that everyone put together far exceeded my personal perspective in its professionalism, and I’m also very pleased to say that all of our staff members have come to share in the belief that it is indeed right. Today, this is reflected in our company-wide TOPC Axis, which forms the basis for the work that each member of the company performs. And we still have the Beer Bash every week, with everyone participating and talking together.

Speaking as someone who has experienced recovery from the very bottom, in terms of management, I would say that the president needs to be a person who considers each staff member’s concerns on a personal level and who, possibly without remuneration, continues to pursue the growth and happiness of the staff. Basically, the president of any company is someone who is professionally capable, and who excels at their job (sales, for example), but there are limits to what the president can accomplish on their own. As the person responsible for the company, they should recognize that. I believe that the president’s role is to prepare the ground on which each individual employee can demonstrate their ability, creating the environment in which staff members can grow and develop by building up their personal strength. Things are still not perfect, and we are continuing to make improvements, but our staff enjoy themselves much more than before and are able to take more initiative in their work. I definitely feel that our staff have been better able to grow and develop through their own efforts.

As a young man, I was constantly dissatisfied with my father. However, the transposition in my mind of what he had given his children, together with the actions of a renowned businessman, led me to realize what my father had been teaching me throughout his life: “A leader is someone who unreservedly continues to bestow all of their abilities on those around them.” It took me nearly 30 years to recognize his greatness. If such a thing can take 30 years between parent and child, it might not happen in the lifetime of a staff member and the top manager even with all the effort in the world. That is why I don’t have an answer to the question of what I should do to motivate our employees. Even so, as president, my commitment to do all that I can for our staff is the philosophy that my father left to me as his legacy, and stems from my belief that that is the best possible life I can lead.


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