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1 Year, 1,000 CEOs: How to Dramatically Improve Your Culture in 365 Days

How a Japanese CEO used the wisdom of his homeland, and lots of visits with corporate leaders to transform his company's failing culture.

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"It’s the otaku [computer nerds] who have built up Japan!" my father shouted at me. I was just a boy when I heard those words, but I remember that day as though it was yesterday: I had been telling my brother to get off the computer and go play outside. Dad didn't approve. 

Getty Images | Johnny Greig

After all, we were growing up in Osaka, Japan, in a culture that placed a high value on Japanese tech culture.

So, that was the lesson I absorbed: discipline. And, when I became an adult and launched my own tech company, Chatwork, in 2004, I naturally wanted a culture that conformed to that Japanese tradition. Accordingly, I led my team with a strict, military-style mentality. But I soon started witnessing employees complaining of headaches and stomachaches, and not coming to work.

Related: 5 Signs Your Corporate Culture is Doomed

Four months in to my launch, staffers actually began quitting. My initial reaction was to blame the team members themselves. But after reflection, I realized that the blame was mine; I determined to seize the opportunity to improve the culture.

That's how, in 2005, at 25 years of age, I embarked on a journey to meet 1,000 CEOs, in a single year. I met several each day and asked for advice for perfecting my management style. I spoke with CEOs of non-tech startup SMBs, including the three that influenced me most: Tadashi Kajitani of Shibazushi Inc.; Tomitaro Tamai of Nihon Souzou Kyouiku Kenkyujo; and Misturu Sato of International Management and Agriculture Labs, among others.

And when I spoke with these successful CEOs, common traits emerged. They included these men's enjoyment of their work and their trust of their employees.

Related: How to Protect Corporate Culture in a Telecommuting World

Here are the lessons I found the most inspirational (with the corresponding Japanese cultural phrase reproduced phonetically):

Gen-in jibunron: This means “Blame yourself, not others.” When things go wrong, taking accountability is important because blaming others doesn’t improve yourself. When you take accountability for something it causes you to think before you implement changes to prevent future problems. If you blame others, sure, it’s easier for you at the moment but over time you could find yourself in a similar situation attempting to fix a problem that should have already been remedied.  

Mochi wa mochiya: As an entrepreneur, the advice I share with fellow entrepreneurs for success is my personal motto, “Mochi [Japan's sticky rice cake] should only be made at Mochi shops," or, in Japanese, "Leave it to the specialists." Let your employees do what they do best and delegate tasks where they don’t excel to others who specialize in them. Much of my success has come from knowing how important it is to meet one-on-one with employees and delineating their specializations, appropriately delegating them, and aligning the company's organizational structure to reflect it.

Kekki ni rousho arite shiki ni rousho nashi: This means, "Excessive urge declines with age; motivation with vision will be maintained all your life." In Star Wars, Anakin Skywalker started out as a man focused on building power instead of figuring out what he needed to achieve. That led him to “the dark side.” As a young man, I wanted to build my own powerful company and make money. My goals changed with age; and, through talking with the CEOs, [I found that] [their goals] changed into more of a motivation with vision, which is something much greater. 

Makasete makasazu: This loosely translates to “management.” The founder of Panasonic coined this term for delegating or telling employees to do something. This responsibility falls to a CEO, and it must be more than assigning tasks. Managers need to follow up with employees and give specific guidance and context, as well as make sure employees have what they need to complete projects successfully.

Sha-in daiichi shugi: This translates as "employees first." A typical U.S. public company always prioritizes the shareholders; but at my company, the employees come first. Happy employees bring customer satisfaction, customer satisfaction brings profit, and profit pleases shareholders. It’s cyclical, but it must start with making employees a top priority.

Tarai no hosoku: In Japanese this means, “Generosity tends to be reciprocal.” I call it "the law of the wooden tub, or tarai." When you push water with your hands extended, the water on each side circles back to you. If you pull, the water splashes around every which way. So: It’s better to push, (“give”) than to pull (“take away”).

Shiawase ni shitanya! The literal meaning of this phrase is, “I made myself happy.” An interviewer once met with the CEO of the leading bento box company in Japan, commenting that he was lucky to have had such a successful life. But the CEO refuted this statement, asserting that it was his intrinsic will that had created the success – not external luck.

I immediately began implementing what I’d learned. I brought some of the CEOs I’d met into the office to present to the staff, so the employees would have visibility into the changes ahead.

In addition to changes in management philosophy, I implemented internal policies to improve employee satisfaction, including:

  • Paternity-leave benefits
  • Referral hiring bonuses
  • Relocation assistance
  • Compensation for Silicon Valley work trips
  • Adjusted work hours to help employees avoid rush hour
  • Travel compensation for employees and their spouses to visit family

Related: 10 Examples of Companies With Fantastic Cultures

Employees had earlier called ChatWork a “zoo,” but I knew these changes were working because I could feel how happy our employees were becoming. Consequently, our revenue and profit started increasing; and in addition to a formal “check-up survey,” my company went on to win best workplace [in Japan] awards twice during the subsequent five years.