A high-powered female executive positioned in the lead role of BT Japan, Haruno Yoshida talks about the lessons learned in the workforce overseas, and considers some of the best ways to inspire innovation in Japanese corporate culture.
By Alec Jordan
Haruno Yoshida, the President of BT (British Telecom) Japan, is a dynamic presence whose vision and energy can command the attention of a room with ease. But, as one of the rare female executives working in Japan, she sometimes found herself drawing unwanted attention when she returned home after 11 years of working in Canada and the United States.
She laughs brightly when she recalls one part of returning to Japanese corporate culture as an executive: walking the floor of the huge office cafeteria at NTT. “I came back as a kachō (section chief), and I had to wear this blue tie with the corporate ID. Most people would expect a woman to be a contract employee or an administrative worker, so they weren’t expecting me. There would be thousands of employees eating, and the chopsticks would stop every time I passed through. Even when I went to the ladies’ room, the female employees would fall silent because I was wearing a different color.”
“…even if you’re feeling pressure, at least you can say that you’re moving forward. That has always been one of my mottos.”
Yoshida looks at the awkward moments as a necessary part of being a pioneer in diversifying the upper echelons of the workforce in Japan. However, she has always been adamant about never trying to pretend to be “one of the guys” as a part of her managerial persona, and she advises the same thing for female executives-to-be: “We shouldn’t try to act like men. We should be ourselves; otherwise, people cannot follow us. From your own perspective, trying to hold up a false presentation of yourself is something that you can’t do.”
Putting on airs is not Yoshida’s style, and her honesty about the issues that Japanese business culture faces in modernizing is refreshing. You can chalk up some of that frankness to her experience overseas during very turbulent—and formative moments—in US economic history: “You had the boom in Silicon Valley, the dotcom bubble, the bubble bursts, and 9/11 happens. There was a great sense of urgency and criticality. In a good way and a bad way, it was all about chaos, but it was an environment that created energy and fed innovation.”
In Japan, she sees a similar environment for dramatic change in the aftermath of the March 11 disaster, and the wide-scale introspection that it has inspired: “This is the first time that I’ve seen in my life that—from the grandma and grandpa level to the prime minister—hundreds of millions of people share the consensus that Japan needs to change . . . But it won’t be an easy thing to do: there has to be intentional change, and a lot of effort. If the old guard says ‘shogannai,’ [it can’t be helped, or nothing can be done] then nothing happens.”
Yoshida knows from experience that globalization and contact with worldwide perspectives can be a driver of positive change and a unifying force, a spirit that informs BT’s catchphrase, “bringing it all together.” However, while helping to motivate this change, a multinational company in Japan has to tread carefully at the same time: she knows that Japanese businesses are wary of “black ship companies” (a reference to the American ships that forcibly opened Japan to the outside world in 1853) that fail to understand the sensibilities of the Japanese market. She believes that BT can provide an example to Japanese companies in the diversity and inclusiveness of its workforce, while also sharing the benefits of their experience in providing the stream of digital information that has become as much a part of our daily lives as gas, electricity, or water.
“We shouldn’t try to act like men. We should be ourselves; otherwise, people cannot follow us. From your own perspective, trying to hold up a false presentation of yourself is something that you can’t do.”
One opportunity for this kind of collaboration is the preparations for the 2020 Olympics. BT was responsible for providing a fully digital telecommunications environment for the 2012 Olympics in London, and they are looking forward to helping Japan’s tech companies get ready for the intense data needs that the Games bring with them. And with six years to come, there is little time to waste, Yoshida explains.
Given the number of barriers she has broken, the challenges involved in facing up to centuries of ingrained traditions, and the responsibilities of running a busy company, you’d think that keeping everything going would be a difficult task. But Haruno Yoshida is not one to shy away from pressure: “Whatever you do, the challenges will be there. One saying I remember hearing was that ‘an airplane can’t fly without air pressure.’ So even if you’re feeling pressure, at least you can say that you’re moving forward. That has always been one of my mottos.”