Merging best of East and West
Takanobu Maeda became president and chief executive of NTT Com Asia in mid-2009, assuming responsibility for a team of 300-plus telecom professionals. They provide network services and internet connections for a fast-growing customer base in Hong Kong and South China. His aim is relatively clear-cut: to extend services throughout the region and build on the company’s current position handling over 40 per cent of Asia’s internet traffic. Maeda-san joined NTT in Japan in 1988 after studying mechanical engineering to master’s level at Tokyo’s Meiji University. He went on to hold increasingly prominent roles developing the group’s international business in the United States and then establishing a global network division. This entailed coming up with strategies for infrastructure development, pricing, sales and creating the necessary “footprint” around the world. He talks to John Cremer.
What is distinctive about your style of management?
Before coming to Hong Kong, I was already familiar with two different approaches. In Japan, there is the nimawashi style - building consensus within the team and asking everyone’s view before making a decision, which takes time. And when I worked in the US, I saw the western style, how a very powerful leader can decide the direction of the company and everyone has to follow. Things happen faster, but if the leader makes some mistakes, then everyone can quickly fail. In Hong Kong, I want to combine the best of different systems because people here understand Chinese, western and Asian approaches to management strategy and are open to new ideas.
How do you consistently get the best out of your team?
Sometimes, I am very, very demanding because I understand that the key in business is to meet financial targets and provide the level of services that customers request. In the office, I’m tough but open-minded, asking team leaders to keep to the schedule or provide necessary data. But at other times, having a drink with staff after work, I become a different type of person, more friendly and talkative. Managers need to have an on/off mode and before a meeting or a party, I get into character to be the kind of boss the situation demands.
What measures do you use to guide the business?
I check the monthly numbers very carefully, in particular the revenue and profitability, but I don’t make decisions based on just one month’s figures. I’m looking at trends over a quarter or a half-year, and if something is not right, I ask the team leaders to go into the details. Running a company is almost the same as flying an airplane. You have to check the height, the direction and the speed, but you don’t need to keep making small changes.
Which period in your career have you enjoyed most?
I’ve been with the NTT Group for over 20 years, and every time I got a new assignment I thought this is what I was born to do. Every new job has given me the chance to keep learning, and I still strongly believe that the ICT industry can help to “save the world” by making it easier to communicate about the environment and other important issues. After graduation, I considered working for Toyota or Honda, or one of the finance companies that were offering very high salaries at that time. But I thought about who could do more good for humankind and that was NTT.
What changes would you like to bring to the company?
We recently held a first event in Hong Kong to highlight and explain the company’s R&D initiatives in Japan. This was a big success, but it took some time to get agreement from headquarters and make them understand our reasons. I believe, though, that as the company keeps growing, the public should know more about what we do and, with so many experienced people in Hong Kong, it should be possible for us to influence the group’s culture and research from here.
Where do you find your inspiration and ideas?
Almost anything can be a source of ideas – books, movies or just walking around town. For example, I remember watching Independence Day a few years ago and asking myself how the mothership could control the UFOs. That led to an idea for something in our global network division. If there are some specific business issues, intentionally I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them. Instead, I consider the problem just before going to sleep and the brain then works automatically to find the answer by the time I wake up.
What general advice would you offer to other senior managers?
The most important thing for leaders is not to think always about their own promotion and salary. Their priority should be to consider the people working for the company and to take to action to make sure they are productive and happy.
Man of trust
- Maeda has no inclination to micromanage, believing that good staff should be trusted to handle their jobs
- He thinks that managers must find their own way, which comes from deciding what kind of person they want to be
- He plans to write a book after retirement, focusing on his management experience in Hong Kong