Your Voice Matters

When women realize the power of their own voice, within a board setting or elsewhere, it allows for truly positive changes in our society.

Dear Women Leaders of Tomorrow:

First, a little background . . . My name is Claire Chino. I was born in the Netherlands, grew up in Japan, and later moved to Los Angeles. I credit the LA public high school system for teaching me English. My father was an auto company executive at a time when the U.S. and Japan were embroiled in a trade war.

I came to know that litigation in the U.S. is an everyday event. My father testified in several lawsuits as witness on behalf of the company for which he worked. This inspired me to pursue a legal degree and to become a lawyer. I initially worked for a law firm, but then I moved to a company in Tokyo to become its in-house lawyer. The company later offered me an assignment in New York to be President and CEO of the U.S. operation (ITOCHU International). This was my first time in a position outside of the legal world.

Transitioning from a lawyer to CEO

Initially, I was worried about this new position because I had never been trained as a businessperson. In order to be a good CEO, I thought I had to be a math wizard or an expert on Excel spreadsheets, neither of which I am good at. But to my pleasant surprise, I soon found out the skills required of a CEO are not just math. As CEO, you have to know the business and understand the people really well. You also have to spot issues, prioritize issues, and solve problems. I had been trained on this as a lawyer, and these skills are now serving me well in my decision-making as a CEO.

How a diverse environment can make you less self-conscious

Japan is a homogeneous country. Many people (especially non-Asian people) who traveled to Japan for the first time tell me how much they stood out in that environment. I am sure you can imagine how self conscious you might be if you are the only White person in a sea of Japanese people. When you are in
an environment where everybody else other than you is alike, you become more aware of the fact you (alone) are different.

New York City is the polar opposite of Japan, full of diversity. And I mean diversity not just in terms of race but ethnicity, language, religion, body type, and so much more. In that setting, it is impossible to compare yourself to others because everybody is so different! Here in NYC, I never think of my gender, race, or physical attributes because everybody is different. Here, I can focus on myself, my individuality. Here, I am just me.

The importance of focusing on the individual and the individual talent

You are an individual with different layers of identities. All of these make up who you are. In my case, I am a woman, Japanese, Asian, bi-cultural, etc. While I am all of these, any one of these is not the entire “me.” Most importantly for the purpose of this letter, my gender is not the only thing that defines me.

But in an environment where you are the only woman, it is easy for your gender to play a bigger role for you and for the others. This can happen, for example, in a Japanese company setting where you are the only woman in the business meeting. You may feel you need to represent the female view. Or the others may turn to you for the women’s perspective.

Because your gender is certainly an important aspect of who you are, this is understandable. But the crucial thing to remember is your voice is the voice of you as an individual. Your voice should matter to others because of who you are rather than because it represents the female voice.

How mentors can help you do better

I believe it is important for any person to have a “mentor.” A mentor is someone who can show you the way forward. She is somebody you aspire to be. Studies have shown one who has a mentor tends to do better in the organization than one who does not have a mentor. This is because one with a mentor learns from the mentor’s successes and failures, while one without a mentor has to learn from her own trial and error.

I frequently meet younger women who say they cannot find a mentor who has all the qualities they seek. I tell them they may never find that one person. You should look for qualities or skills you find important and combine them to create your own super mentor. For example, the barista I used to order from in Tokyo always remembered my order and would proactively ask:

“Same thing today?”

That kind of attitude was inspiring to me and taught me to proactively ask questions and remember details in my role as a lawyer. I think there are qualities in everybody from which you can learn.

It is important for women to have mentors and to become mentors themselves. You have so many qualities that younger women can learn from.

How sponsors can help with your promotion

A “sponsor” is different from a mentor, although it could be the same person. A sponsor is someone who can promote you up in an organization. I have had both mentors and sponsors, although more mentors than sponsors. My first sponsor promoted me to the position of General Counsel within the Legal Division. My second sponsor is another person who promoted me to the present position. I believe it is important to have both mentors and sponsors, but especially sponsors as you become more senior in an organization.

Why is diversity important for the board? 

There is a big movement in the U.S. as well as in Japan to see more board diversity. Traditionally in Japan, the board consisted of people who were “promoted” from within the company. Until recently, boards only consisted of these inside directors who were all men, Japanese, and above a certain age. In the U.S., it was historically men, Caucasian, and senior in age.

So why are investors and shareholders seeking more board diversity (including gender and race) in recent years? In order to answer this, let me turn to a book called Wisdom of Crowds by James Surowiecki. The book describes an incident whereby the U.S. Navy “lost” a submarine. It initially tasked its routine experts to come up with a hypothesis as to where the submarine might be. The experts came up with a hypothesis, but the submarine was not found. The Navy then gathered experts from different specialty areas. They came up with a different hypothesis, which ultimately led to the discovery of the submarine. The moral of the story is that experts in certain fields tend to think alike and have trouble thinking outside the box. On the other hand, people with different backgrounds(diversity) can shed new light on a matter.

In this day and age, where it is vital for companies to stay competitive, it is important their boards stay broad-minded and visionary. Because people with similar backgrounds tend to think more alike than those with different backgrounds, board diversity is crucial in order for companies to stay nimble and forward-looking, ahead of the game.

Networking is so important

There is an organization called the Women Corporate Directors (WCD). It is a group of women who are also members of the board. I have been a member of this organization for some years, and I find it important to have a network such as this. Through networking, you learn about current topics and best practices. You may also find out about new professional opportunities. But at the end of the day, it is nice to have a network where you feel safe bouncing off ideas in order to gain new perspectives from people who are in similar positions. As a board member, you have to broaden your horizon in order to fully contribute to the board.  

Be aware of unconscious bias

There is still unconscious bias against girls and women, and we have to work hard to eliminate bias and gender roles, which can be implanted in us at an early age. When I was attending kindergarten, a four year-old boy came up to me and snatched away the pair of scissors I was using. He said, “Boys first.” He could not have come up with that idea by himself at such a young age. Who instilled that notion in him? Is it society? Is it his parents? Are girls also conditioned in the same way to think of their “roles?” I truly hope our society can become free of gender bias (among other biases). In that respect, education plays a crucial role.

Your voice matters

Please remember how important your voice is. Your voice should never be given less value because of your gender. When women realize the power of their own voice, within a board setting or elsewhere, it allows for truly positive changes in our society. I am counting on you as the Leader of Tomorrow to not box yourself in (or have others box you in) in order to create a world where the focus is on individual talent – and where individuals shine because of who they are.

Yours truly,