The Power of Conversation

Mickey Mikitani, Chairman and CEO, Rakuten, Inc.

Who did you talk to today?

I don’t mean via email or social media or even on the phone. I’m thinking about face-to-face conversations: You can look into the other person’s eyes, hear the tone of their voice and see their body language. Conversations that took some time and space in your busy day.

Whatever that conversation was — with a colleague or family member or new acquaintance — there’s a good chance that it was one of the most important parts of your day.

This is not to say that I don’t like phone calls, messaging apps or email. Indeed, I’m a passionate fan of technology that can help us connect with others; these technologies are at the core of my company. But I believe it is important to recognize the vital role face-to-face conversation has in our lives. While technology can allow us to communicate at any time, it is often conversation that drives the most profound change.

I’ve experienced this again and again in my life. Rakuten’s partnerships with the Golden State Warriors and the NBA began thanks to conversation. I met Adam Silver, commissioner of the NBA, at a business conference in the U.S. It was our conversation that opened the doors to new business opportunities, including partnerships with the Golden State Warriors and the NBA.

I had a similar experience with AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes. We first met at a soccer game. It was that initial conversation that led us to do business together and create new transportation solutions for Japan. It’s the give-and-take of a conversation that allows us to move beyond pleasantries and the standard templates of business emails — to new ideas and true innovation.

Rakuten CEO Mickey Mikitani speaks with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver at an opening reception before the NBA Japan Games Presented by Rakuten in Japan last year.
Rakuten CEO Mickey Mikitani speaks with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver at a reception before the NBA Japan Games 2019 Presented by Rakuten.

More than just for dealmaking, conversation allows us to push past our preconceived notions and think differently about who we are and what we are doing in life. I’ve had many important conversations with family members that have caused me to think hard about my life.

A conversation I had with my late father evolved into the basis of a book we co-authored, “The Power to Compete.” In it, my father, who was a renowned economist, discusses with me the issues facing Japan. We covered topics from education to government regulation and international relations. Certainly, we could have written it in traditional prose. But the dialogue that rises from the pages shows how we worked through our debates, how we raised and discussed issues. The conversation was a much fuller exploration of the topics than straight prose would have allowed.

Conversations in my life and work have influenced so many of my choices that I am always looking for ways to help others create those opportunities. At Rakuten, I am a firm believer in the value of physical office spaces, versus fully remote work. Of course, there are times when we can’t physically be in the same space as our colleagues. As Rakuten spans the globe, we continue to improve our video conferencing tools so employees around the world can enjoy the benefits of face-to-face communication. At the same time, I encourage colleagues to come together in every way possible. In fact, we’ve made it a KPI for managers to conduct regular one-on-ones with all their direct reports.

When I’m in Tokyo, I like to take walks with different members of my leadership team along the Tama River that traces a path just a short distance from our headquarters. We talk not just about business, but also about life ⁠— the kind of talks that stick with you for days, weeks, even years. I’ve found that the sparks that fly from face-to-face conversations like these are what kindle true change.

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