Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO, Rakuten, Inc.

After the publication of her book on the language of global success, Harvard Business School professor Tsedal Neeley came to visit us at Rakuten Crimson House in Tokyo and share her thoughts on helping to chart the early success of our Englishnization Project. At our all-hands meeting, she highlighted several reasons for our success in the process of adopting English as our corporate language. One that stood out to me, and one that applies to far more than just this specific project, was “buy-in.”

Almost a decade earlier, I stood in front of thousands of Rakutenians and shared my vision for Englishnization. As we started our journey of making English our official corporate language, it was critical that everyone commit to the mission. People needed to understand how achieving the mission would be as good for them as individuals as it would be for the company as a whole. They also needed to understand that it was achievable.

This is buy-in: When everyone understands what we are doing, why we are doing it and how our goal is achievable — and through that understanding, gains the confidence to succeed.  

As we’ve grown from a small team around a table to a global organization, I’ve felt time and time again that buy-in from everyone is crucial to successful transformation. It keeps the team focused and moving steadily towards a shared goal. Buy-in is the ingredient that fuels us through the most difficult stages of the journey, and without it, any long-term project is severely threatened.

Mickey Mikitani (left) with Harvard Business School Professor Tsedal Neeley during a recent visit to Tokyo, where she spoke to Rakuten employees and highlighted the importance of securing buy-in when driving any large-scale transformative change within an organization.
Mickey Mikitani (left) with Harvard Business School Professor Tsedal Neeley during a recent visit to Tokyo.

Like trust, buy-in is something that must be earned

To get an entire organization moving in the same direction, leaders must clearly communicate their vision and show their dedication to reaching the goal line.

Here are just a few examples of working to achieve buy-in from our experiences at Rakuten:

Tools and training: In the early days of Rakuten, we worked hard to generate buy-in from the merchants on our platform. We gave our first Rakuten Ichiba merchants the tools and training to tell their stories online to create connections with their customers.

The merchants, new to internet shopping, were skeptical at first, but as they learned to use the tools and found online followings, they began to see how putting their shops and their stories online would help them. They were able to create new bonds with their customers and became committed to the Rakuten platform.

Leading by example: My behavior as a CEO is important to getting staff to buy in. When we began Englishnization, I switched to English in my office activities. I conducted my senior staff reviews in English, even when both of us were native Japanese speakers. I committed.

I did this to demonstrate my commitment to other mandates as well. For example, once a week everyone at Rakuten cleans up their personal workspace. Everyone. That includes me.

Speaking directly with team members: Direct communication with the team is also critical to getting – and maintaining – buy-in.

As Neeley explained, leaders typically don’t message as frequently or in as much depth as they should — a mistake in a radical change situation. We use tactics, such as our weekly all-company meeting called Asakai, to ensure we are always sending the necessary messages out into the company, and include time for employees to ask questions. After all, you can’t expect employees to “buy-in” if your message isn’t clear or compelling.

Radical change is challenging. It can’t be achieved simply by issuing orders from on high. If you want to see change, your team members must feel that they have the tools and understanding to make it happen, they can see the leaders taking action, and that ultimately it is in their best interest too. When there is genuine buy-in, great things can happen.