The first moment I truly understood empowerment, I was watching an early Rakuten team member start his day.
We were young entrepreneurs and this was the late 90s. I was most likely wearing an oversized shirt of some kind (as was the look at the time). He was at his desk, reading the Wall Street Journal — not the paper copy he used to have to wait to have delivered from the Tokyo airport, a day after people in the U.S. got it. He was reading online.
No longer was he forced to wait for someone else’s assistance. He could seek information and act on it in real time. In short, he was empowered.
Small as this moment was, it was a compelling realization for me and one that fueled my driving passion as a business leader. The most impactful thing I can do in my life is not sell a product or service. The most meaningful thing I can deliver is empowerment.
Empowerment in action
This is a theme that runs through everything I do. Whatever we pursue as a company is grounded in the empowerment of our customers in real and concrete ways. Our marketplace was designed to empower small merchants to reach a global market. Our biotech business empowers scientists to seek new, innovative solutions to critical health issues.
Our drone delivery program empowers shoppers by saving them time, but also holds the potential to deliver vital supplies to remote and disaster struck areas. Our new mobile network was conceived with the goal of providing greater connectivity around the world. Even our sponsorship deals are forged with a promise that both sides will be elevated by the partnership.
Empowerment is also a guiding force for me personally. When I have to make a decision, I will often turn to it to help me gauge the best path forward. When I considered making English the official language of our Japan-based company, I engaged in this exercise: Will adopting English empower our people to perform better in their jobs? And the answer was yes. Painful though it may have been to some employees at first, there is no question that making English our corporate language allowed us to engage with the best possible talent all over the world. We are better — more creative, productive and efficient — today because of it.
When I’m faced with an opportunity in which empowerment is absent, it’s often a sign that the opportunity is not for me. Many years ago, I was approached to be part of a video game project. No question it would be profitable — video games are very popular. But where was the empowerment element? While gaming has evolved over time, I didn’t see it for this particular project and I ultimately declined to participate. A project that does not empower isn’t going to improve me, our company or society.
A metric we should all follow
Creating a better society should be the metric we all follow. It seems so big a task that many of us do not try, but empowerment can act as a guiding principle to that end. Look at what you are doing, what you want to do, what you hope to do. Does that path empower you to be your best self? Does it empower others to do their best work?
When empowerment is your goal, the best possible business results follow. Without empowerment, it’s just another transaction.