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By Shingo Nomura, Vice President, North Asia for The Hoffman Agency

 

I joined The Hoffman Agency to lead its Japan office in 2002.

After roughly four years at a traditional local PR company in Japan, I found the idea of blending a Silicon Valley mentality with the Japanese way quite appealing. While I didn’t understand exactly what constituted a Silicon Valley mentality, I knew it would expand the boundaries in how we built the culture, the team and overall business in Japan.

At least that was the theory.

Looking back on my early years as GM of Hoffman Japan and learning what it means to be a leader, I was reluctant to make huge changes that differed from the status quo in Japan. Still, this approach ended up serving us well. We grew for seven consecutive years.

But we stagnated in 2009, a situation that continued for several years. During this period, I continually asked myself a simple question, “How am I doing?” In answering this question (many times), I came to realize that we needed to change as a company and I needed to change as a leader. With this in mind, we embraced one overarching principle:

  • While we are a Japanese company, we shouldn’t feel required to do things “the Japanese way.”

As noted earlier, a Silicon Valley heritage had always been part of our culture. But embracing this guiding principle was the catalyst for evolving into our own style of the company. As you can see below, the trajectory of our revenue is once again in growth mode.

 

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Our culture has always had an egalitarian bent. Everyone counts. Each individual matters. This ends up shaping our physical office environment. Each staff member in our Japan office has the same sized desk. Each staff member has the same sized cubicle. Our entire office space is open with no hard-wall offices. None of the senior leaders including me has an assistant. We keep our own schedules. We get our own tea and coffee. Speaking from experience, it’s not difficult.

In recent years, we’ve developed ways to leverage this environment into what I consider to be one of our competitive advantages. You might ask, how can an environment provide an advantage? Let me explain. This type of open environment cultivates greater collaboration and mentoring.

In a typical Japanese company, the boss calls you and you then proceed to your boss’s desk to discuss what’s on the boss’s mind. It’s difficult and sometimes impossible for a staff member to initiate a discussion with the boss.

We do just the opposite. Our senior leaders proactively go to the desks of staff members with questions or status checks. We encourage a two-way conversation, which in turn strengthens the services we deliver to clients.

To intensify the bonds among the staff, we started the tradition of taking an annual company trip, with the first one in 2014 to Beppu and Yufuin, famous hot springs resorts located on Kyushu Island. Last year the team traveled to Hokkaido.

.The camaraderie among the senior staff, the junior staff and those in between comes out in different ways. For example, we put together a video a few years back based on the Pharrell song “Happy.” While our dance moves aren’t ready for MTV, we enjoyed the experience as a team.

 

 

Flexibility represents another key characteristic of our culture. This is especially appealing to working moms. They can choose how many hours to work each day and then split the time between working from home and working from the office. If a child is ill, the mom can work from home that day without taking leave (unheard of in Japanese companies). Five of our staff members are working moms who contribute just as much to our success as other staff members.

We’ve also borrowed from Silicon Valley to create a benefits package that’s differentiated in Japan. For example, we offer a sabbatical program called “Four Strikes and You’re Out,” meaning after four years of employment, a staff member qualifies for a four-week leave in addition to normal vacation time. I took a sabbatical last year, traveling to Cuba.

Back to the big picture, I wouldn’t call us the typical Japanese company. I wouldn’t call us the typical Silicon Valley company. We’ve adopted characteristics from both worlds.

And we’ll continue to evolve by again asking the simple question, “How am I doing?”

Side note: If you enjoyed this post, you might check out “Quantifying A Company’s International Mentality.”


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