To achieve success both domestically and internationally, Japanese companies need to develop a strategic mind-set that allows employees from various backgrounds — regardless of gender, nationality or age — to build their skills and confidence and apply them to their jobs, according to speakers at a recent symposium in Tokyo.

Understanding of “diversity and inclusion” — a term that mostly refers to stronger use of women in the workforce — in Japan “has improved in recent years and corporations have started to use it as part of their strategic measures to foster global talent,” said Hiroko Tatebe, founder and executive director of Global Organization for Leadership and Diversity, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization.

During the Oct. 28 symposium organized by the NPO, Tatebe, a former executive vice president of Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank of California, cited examples of companies that have succeeded in beefing up their female talent through a program established by their female employees.

Kakutaro Kitashiro, former president of and now a senior advisor to IBM Japan, said the firm initiated such a program, dubbed the “women’s council,” in 1998 to facilitate networking opportunities among female employees.

IBM Japan says “diversity” — defined as an idea to utilize diverse human resources with different senses of value and cultural background — is the key to achieving its global success.

The company changed its mind-set and “established a program to achieve a numerical goal to improve the ratio of female employees to all employees and for the ratio of female managers to all managers,” Kitashiro said.

More women were recruited to join the company, and training programs were implemented for women who were already working there. As a result, Kitashiro said the ratio of female employees improved from 13 percent in 1998 to 20 percent in 2010.

“More importantly, the number of women in management increased from 1.8 percent to 11.6 percent” by 2010, and the number of female executive rose from one to 26, he said. “It may not be enough, but at least we’re making progress in diversity.”

Johnson & Johnson K.K. in Japan was cited as another company that has started a program with its female employees taking the initiative. It implemented a women’s leadership initiative in 2005, modeled after a program launched by its U.S. headquarters in 1995 and followed by about 250 affiliates worldwide.

According to Keiko Haga, a manager of the Japan unit and leader of the initiative in Japan, program participants hold regular networking sessions, workshops and lectures by outside speakers to empower and educate female employees.

“It’s important for the women employees to have more confidence in themselves and to take another step forward,” Haga said.

The symposium was the fourth of its kind organized by the NPO. It has been held alternately in Tokyo and Los Angeles.

At this year’s event, nearly 20 leaders from Japan and the United States in the corporate, nonprofit and academic fields gathered to give lectures and take part in panel discussions to share their views on the theme of “Turning strategy into action through creativity, collaboration and connection.”

It is important for any leader to have the skills of creativity and collaboration, but the most vital quality that a leader — either man or woman — should have is the ability to make connections, said the speakers at one of the panel discussions.

Leslie Grossman, cofounder of a U.S.-based social entrepreneurship organization called Women’s Leadership Exchange, noted that social capital, which she defined as “building relationships that enable each person in that relationship to achieve (their) goals,” is more vital than ever “with the economy in the shape it is around the world.”

“The most successful leaders everywhere are who they are, not because of their education or their other leadership skills. It’s because of who they know, who they have built strong relationships with,” she said, citing U.S. President Barack Obama as an example of such a leader.

“From the time he was in college to the time he was in law school, and then became a community organizer. Along the way, he grouped more and more people that believed in him, and ultimately wanted him to be president, and that’s how he did it — through social capital,” she said.

Merle Aiko Okawara, chairman of JC Comsa Corp., a company that makes, sells and delivers pizza and ethnic breads in Japan, said that for her company to survive, she “had to network like crazy and build up (my) social capital.”

“It’s not the number of name cards that one collects that is important. The important thing is to build a network of friends, acquaintances and colleagues that you can call upon for information, or to have a drink with, or even to do business with,” she said.

“There are no real secrets to developing a great network. It’s hard work. It’s extremely exhausting to go to another event after a hard day’s work, but I kept thinking, ‘Who knows? The next big opportunity could be just around the corner,’ ” she recalled.

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