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Taking the best from the West back with him to Japan

During his stints as a young executive in Nashville and San Jose and later as the head of Deloitte's Japanese unit in New York, Mr Ogawa learnt to take challenges in his stride. These days, he applies that experience to show his staff how to work wit
During his stints as a young executive in Nashville and San Jose and later as the head of Deloitte's Japanese unit in New York, Mr Ogawa learnt to take challenges in his stride. These days, he applies that experience to show his staff how to work with top-tier clients and pinpoint just what they need. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Deloitte Japan CEO uses skills learnt early on in US to train staff and transform mindsets

For a young Japanese executive, landing smack in the middle of Nashville, Tennessee, and its famed country music industry was about as big a cultural shock as he could get.

But those days back in the 1980s were all about building a career for finance professional Yoichiro Ogawa, so he quickly learnt to take the twanging guitars in his stride.

The road to Nashville was a twisty one for Mr Ogawa, who joined the audit world after graduating from Keio University in 1978 with a degree in business administration.

His late tax accountant father had urged him to return to their hometown in Gifu to take over the family's small practice, but he decided to stay in Tokyo to work. His younger brother, by four years, took over the tax practice instead.

After working in Japan for a few years, Mr Ogawa went to the United States in 1985 under an 18-month training programme, one he had applied for twice before.

MORE WOMEN IN THE WORKPLACE

Japan is also behind, compared with other countries, and I'm working on that initiative now, to increase the number of women managing partners, and hire more women, provide support for them, to make it easier for them to work in our organisation.

DELOITTE JAPAN CEO YOICHIRO OGAWA, on achieving greater diversity at work by including more women and foreigners.

"I was told that I had passed the interview and would go to Nashville," he says.

"I asked where was that? They said in Tennessee. Immediately after the call, I went to the bookstore to find guidebooks about Nashville," recalls Mr Ogawa, now 60, with a laugh.

A culture shock was virtually assured as he had not travelled beyond Japan before and was the only Japanese person in the programme.

"The first time I went to Nashville, I got upset as the culture was so different. Take, for example, punctuality, which is very important to the Japanese," he notes.

"My first Christmas party was supposed to start at 7pm, so I arrived 10 minutes before that, and no one was there. They came close to 8 o'clock. Someone said, 'Oh you didn't know about being fashionably late.' I had to learn about those kinds of differences."

His colleagues were also curious about this Japanese man who had travelled halfway across the world, but their thick Southern accents did not help.

"I couldn't understand what they were saying," Mr Ogawa told The Straits Times on a recent visit to Singapore for the opening of Deloitte University Asia Pacific.

"And the first question to me from a peer was, 'Do you speak English in Japan?' The next question was about what I wore to business meetings in Japan. They were surprised when I said suits as well."

Mr Ogawa, who had picked up English on his own, laughed off the questions.

"That was good as it was a totally different experience, and people treated me well with their Southern hospitality."

It was, however, a different story at his next posting, to San Jose in 1987. He was sent there to work with the many Japanese companies making significant investments in Silicon Valley for Deloitte.

"On my first day, I was told that the San Jose office didn't want me to be there. They didn't see the value of having a Japanese expatriate, and it was the first time for them.

"I decided to take up the challenge and, instead of relying on my history, I decided to prove myself and was lucky to bring on new significant clients."

After about six months, his co-workers and supervisors changed their minds and took him on with open arms, and he ended up working there for three years.

He faced another challenge when he took over as the head of Deloitte's Japanese unit in New York from 1999 to 2003.

"My predecessor suddenly passed away at 53 because of cancer, and I was 43, younger by 10 years. People asked, 'What can this young guy do?' "

Mr Ogawa saw those hurdles as opportunities to prove his worth and fuel his passion.

New York was the most exciting city for him, and he was stunned by the staggering amount of talent in the office.

"I got to interact with leaders, especially the lead client service partners. They are the people who face the clients, and bring the capabilities of the firm to them.

"I learnt about the skill set to establish a relationship with the C-suite or top executives, which is very important; how to use industry knowledge and experience to get what the client is looking for."

Training staff in that area was one of the things he wanted to take back home so he returned to the practice in Japan.

Mr Ogawa - who enjoys fly fishing, a hobby he picked up just a few months before he was assigned to work in New York - has racked up more than 30 years as an audit professional and a lead client partner at Deloitte.

When he first returned from New York, one of his new ideas was to make the workplace in Japan more diverse.

"New York is the place for diversity. Walking in Central Park, you can hear all kinds of languages, but Japan is very homogeneous," says Mr Ogawa, who became Deloitte Japan's chief executive in October last year.

"We are behind in terms of diversity. In order to grow our business in Japan and the economy, we should be more accepting of diversity and let more foreign people work in Japan."

Diversity also extends to having more women in the workplace, adds Mr Ogawa. "Japan is also behind, compared with other countries, and I'm working on that initiative now, to increase the number of women managing partners, and hire more women, provide support for them, to make it easier for them to work in our organisation."

He is married but has no children, just two pet miniature schnauzers - one called Coo, which means sky in Japanese, and the other Tiggy.

It is clear that Mr Ogawa is not afraid of a challenge.

At one point during his stint in San Jose, he was told that, if he stayed, he would be considered for a promotion to partner in the future, but he declined as he had a greater purpose in mind.

"That was a very attractive proposal, but I wanted to use my experience to transform our practice in Japan. There were so many things I could import from my US experience. I was still young, but I had that passion," he says.

"I have this tendency... I don't like to stay still. Once you achieve something, you want to move on to something new."

Citing Professor Amy Wrzesniewski at the Yale School of Management, he notes that there are three kinds of work - a job required for you to live, a career with goals, and a calling, the highest on that level. "She says there is little difference between those three except for your mindset. Take a computer programmer in a company who is coding for a travel company - that could be a job or a career.

"But if he feels that he can provide a better experience for the traveller, he can turn his job into a calling. That's the same as our purpose statement, to make an impact that matters - for our clients, people and community.

"That's how I encourage our young people, to make an impact every day. And if they feel they can do so, they can see the value in their work instead of just making money or a career."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 25, 2016, with the headline 'Taking the best from the West back with him to Japan'. Print Edition | Subscribe