How a Japanese Martial Art Revived Godiva

Photo credit: iStock photo/Moncherie

Can modern management benefit from the wisdom of an ancient martial art? If Jérôme Chouchan’s impact at Godiva Japan is any indication, the answer is a resounding yes. In fact, the title of his book (available in Japanese) says it all: TARGET: How did Godiva manage to double its sales in five years?

On October 29, 2018, Chouchan gave a presentation at Tokyo’s Forum for Corporate Communications on his rather unusual approach to management and leadership.

When Chouchan became Godiva’s managing director for Japan, Korea, Australia, and New Zealand in 2010, the company was suffering its third consecutive year of sales losses. Staff blamed this on a declining chocolate market and sluggish overall economy. Faced with this seemingly insurmountable situation, Chouchan sought guidance in an unlikely place: kyudo, the way of the bow.

Kyudo first caught Chouchan’s interest when he was a young business professional in France. He came across the book Zen in the Art of Archery, written by a German philosophy professor named Eugen Herrigel who studied kyudo in Japan in the 1920s. When Chouchan later moved to Japan in 1986, he decided to take up kyudo himself. Initially, he says, this was only out of personal interest, a way to relax and get away from the pressures of work. Now, over 25 years later, Chouchan has achieved an instructor license and the respectful title of renshi.

The guidance Chouchan gleaned from kyudo philosophy and implemented at Godiva equated to an average 15% increase per year. Further, global staff feedback surveys within the Godiva Group revealed that Godiva Japan had moved from average staff engagement to top marks.

As it turned out, kyudo philosophy had a lot to offer Godiva’s management.

Photo credit: Jerome Chouchan

First came an adjusted mindset. According to Chouchan, European archery focuses on accurately hitting a target. As with the traditional approach to reaching business targets, how you get there is unimportant. Kyudo, on the other hand, focuses not on the target, but on achieving the best possible form of mind and body. It is the process of shooting that matters.

“The right form of shooting always results in a hit,” says Chouchan, paraphrasing a Japanese kyudo saying. Focus too much on the target, and form will suffer, resulting in a miss. In other words, get the process right, and the results will follow.

Chouchan, like any business leader, receives performance targets from his head office. Rather than chasing these head on, however, he and his team used kyudo philosophy as their guide to identify four critical areas of their business: products, channels, promotion, and customer service. Chouchan asks his managers and staff to be creative and open minded for continuous improvement in these areas. He engages his team not by demanding results toward a financial target, but by asking questions such as, “Do we have great products?” and “How is our customer service?” These are often followed by, “How can we do better?”

This kyudo-inspired management approach saw sales double in just five years, but that was hardly the end of the story. Such an assumption would, in fact, go against the second management teaching of kyudo: the importance of practice.

Photo credit: Jerome Chouchan

To ensure that the release of the arrow is as natural as possible—to achieve that perfect form—shooting is divided into eight steps: placing your feet, positioning your body, raising the bow, and so on. These eight steps are practiced over and over by beginners and masters alike. Chouchan was once wary of this repetition, but soon realized that the practice led to the gradual merging of mind and body, removing conscious control from the equation.

It’s often forgotten—though hardly groundbreaking—that practice makes perfect. Only by steady repetition can we condition ourselves to stop overthinking and ultimately achieve our goals.

The third teaching from kyudo was how to make decisions—one of the key tasks of any leader. The timing of an arrow’s release is just as crucial as the timing of a decision. In today's business environment, a slow response may mean a loss. Falling into the trap of seeking a perfect solution can slow down decision making. Effective leaders know when to wait and when to let fly—or rather, their careful practice of moving through the decision-making process has taught them not to overthink things when the moment is right.

Of course, even great leaders make mistakes. Here, kyudo provides its fourth point of guidance: take one shot at a time. Make a decision, observe the outcome, and improve step by step. Until you make a decision, there is no outcome to observe.

A French native, Chouchan finds it amusing that he was the one to remind a Japanese company of the value of kyudo philosophy. He is, however, proud of Godiva Japan’s unique business model of being both aspirational and accessible. Their products are always of the very highest quality—something all consumers can admire. At the same time, thanks to Godiva's multi-channel strategy, the products are available to anyone, not unlike the wisdom of an ancient martial art.

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