NTT is one of the top 10 telecommunications companies worldwide, and yet diversity remains a challenge. GLOBIS lecturer Cristian Vlad interviewed HR Senior Vice President Kyoko Yamamoto on the company’s globalization efforts and how mindset is key in today’s everchanging world.
CV: With such a long history in Japan, when and why did NTT start making diversity a priority?
KY: This is actually a very good topic to start with. Like everyone else in the telecommunications industry, we are constantly concerned with how to attract top talent, retain and promote top performers, and drive results in all our markets.
To be honest, NTT still struggles with diversity management. It is not easy to introduce diversity into our corporate culture, let alone ensure that it sticks. When we decided to go global (more than ten years ago now), one of our main issues was figuring out how to make our own employees globalize. Japanese business culture is quite unique—we still have lifelong employment and seniority-based systems. It’s difficult to match those kinds of practices to global standards.
NTT’s approach was to bring diversity into our operations as quickly as possible by simply mixing people. We focused on non-Japanese hires, including those who don’t speak Japanese, and also developed exchange programs, such as those which brought trainees from overseas affiliates to our headquarters in Japan. Now almost 10% of our new graduate hires are non-Japanese, and roughly 15 to 20 international associates join our exchange program every year.
This proactive approach has helped our people see that we need to respect cultural differences. Our Japan team gradually came to understand that there is more than one way to be professional, or to be committed to growth and sustainable collaborations. It also helps both sides understand local business practices and needs, which ultimately helps our customers.
These days, meaningful diversity as an HR initiative is really more important than ever. Discussions with diverse members usually lead to better solutions.
CV: What do you mean by “meaningful diversity”?
KY: Well, diversity for diversity’s sake doesn’t mean much. Without a strong commitment to learning from diversity, we cannot talk about inclusion. It would merely be tolerance of differences, and that is not what we want at NTT. Therefore, our daily operations are engineered for inclusion and engagement. We strive to create an environment where diversity is celebrated and everyone, regardless of their level of seniority or executive authority, needs to understand the importance of learning.
CV: What advice would you give to companies or leaders who want to improve diversity in their organizations?
KY: The same advice I give my colleagues at NTT: think about the old mass manufacturing days, when simply developing quality products was enough because the market would always buy. Times have changed. We are now living in the age of the customer, an age of collaboration where people do not necessarily want a finished product. Rather, they are quite happy to participate in development, co-create realities, and co-author values. In a similar way, I believe that this is also the age of the employee.
Smart organizations know how to set realistic expectations of their human workers. They are agile, constantly in touch with employees all over the world, and ready to learn from everyone. What we all studied in business school 15 years ago is no longer relevant for the workforce today. Expecting employees to be motivated just because they have a job is already a concept of the past. People need more than just a paycheck – they need to be inspired, supported, and connected. Leaders who do not learn and who do not help others learn and grow will be left behind.
CV: Any advice for GLOBIS MBA students?
KY: Stay diverse and stay happy! You cannot make others happy if you are not genuinely happy yourself. Through my experiences at London Business School, I can say that I truly found myself. I identified what I am really good at and, of course, what I am not. I discovered when and where I am comfortable and where I am not. Intense discussions with other participants and cross-assignments with my classmates helped me appreciate that difference brings value. I realized that aggregation of capabilities is much more than just a gathering of people. That was something I really wanted to bring back to Japan and stay true to. So try to understand your strengths and passions, and bring your whole self to work.