Leaders go first

“That will never work. It’s crazy!”

I hear it a lot.

Even as CEO, there are plenty of times when someone looked at me and told me that the thing I’ve just said — a deadline, a goal, a new idea — is simply nuts.

I’m used to it. What’s more, I have a tried-and-true plan to combat it. Whenever I propose an outlandish idea, I volunteer to go first.

So when I announced to my Tokyo-based company in 2010 that from this point on, the official language of Rakuten would be English, I listened while everyone said I was making a huge mistake and it wouldn’t work. And then I went first.

All my meetings, all my interactions in the company, were conducted in English. This was not easy. In the early years of using English there was quite a variance in language skills within the company. Many times in the middle of senior level meetings someone would turn to me and say: “This next part is difficult so can I just say it in Japanese?”

Certainly I wanted to hear what my team had to say. But I stayed firm. What good is a bold new idea if I’m not willing to do it myself? If we want everyone in this company to speak English, then that means me, too. Even with my senior leadership team. Even when it is difficult. I gave the “crazy” order and I was willing to go first.

Last year, when we introduced mandatory programming training for all new grads, some of our young recruits were undoubtedly nervous. However, they embraced the challenge head-on with the knowledge that I myself had learned to code during the early days of the company.

“Willingness to go first — to do the work you ask others to do — is a critical element of leadership.”

This is my standard practice. When I decided it would be a good team bonding exercise to climb Mount Tanigawa (local nickname: Mountain of Death), I went up in the first group. When, some years ago, I decided it would be a good idea for Rakuten to adopt a formal dress code until we improved our e-commerce performance, I was the first to show up in a suit. As Rakuten Mobile began to rollout the radio antenna base stations crucial to the new network launch, I made sure to be on the ground checking new installations at locations across the country.

This willingness to go first — to do the work you ask others to do — is a critical element of leadership. And it is particularly important when you’re asking people to do something that has never been done before. Often, people are apprehensive when faced with a new idea or direction. It’s scary to think that the boss may be leading the company into uncharted territory. So it’s an important inspiration to be willing to get out in front and go first.

This doesn’t only apply to those in the corner office. When new recruits join Rakuten, they are treated to an early lesson on this topic. One which many refer to by an old advertising adage: Eat your own dog food. That means, when you are a part of Rakuten, you should be comfortable using all the services in the Rakuten ecosystem. By playing around with our digital content services like Rakuten TV or our global messaging app Viber, new discoveries can be made. If we want customers to follow us, we must be willing to go first.

“There are plenty of times when someone will look at me and tell me that the thing I’ve just said — a deadline, a goal, a new idea — is simply nuts.”

Going first is an important inspirational process, but it is also an important yardstick for my own creative process. I have new ideas all the time. As I turn them around in my head, I think of many things. Will this be profitable? Will this provide a benefit to society? Will this reflect positively on the Rakuten brand? But in my process I must also consider: Would I do this myself? Am I willing to be Customer No. 1? Next time you have a business idea, perhaps you can ask yourself the same questions.

There are many benefits to going first. It allows me to gain critical firsthand intelligence. It helps inspire others in the company to embrace something different and challenging, regardless of how unusual it can initially seem. And of course, when the idea is successful, it allows me to be the first to say: I told you so.

Show More
Back to top button