Interviews

Rakuten's Chief People Officer Masatada “Seichu” Kobayashi on working culture around the world

  • Since it was founded over 20 years ago, Japanese e-commerce firm Rakuten has grown to become a truly global powerhouse of the digital industries. Often referred to the "Amazon of Japan," Rakuten is now valued at $14.5b US and employs over 17,000 people in various roles around the world.

    The company made an investment in emerging tech for the e-commerce industry with the opening of the Rakuten Blockchain Lab in Belfast back in 2016, and today is a well-recognised name in the Northern Ireland tech landscape. Rakuten co-founder and Chief People Officer Masatada “Seichu” Kobayashi visited Belfast recently as part of a tour promoting Rakuten's working culture, which is strongly based on Japanese working values. Sync NI caught up with him to find out what he thought about the culture of work in Belfast and beyond.

    Sync NI: You’ve been part of Rakuten since the beginning, and now it’s a global company worth around $14.5 billion. What has it been like to be part of that journey with Rakuten?

    Masatada “Seichu” Kobayashi: I would say that it was the journey of JIGASAKKO in Japanese word. “JIGASAKKO” means that we can create our history by ourselves. Through the journey of Rakuten, we proved that “Nothing is impossible”. One of the biggest challenges for Rakuten and me was “Englishization”.

    In 2010, we had started to change our office language from Japanese to English even the HQ is located in Tokyo, Japan. When our CEO made an announcement about the Englishnization at Aasakai (all employee meeting), I wondered that I have to quit Rakuten because I couldn’t speak English at all at that time. However, our CEO didn’t give up to believe in our employees’ abilities to develop their English skills including me.

    After the announcement, I was sent to language school for a couple of months in the US, then was promoted as head of Americas region headquarters, then was transferred head of APAC region headquarters. Thanks to Englishnization, I got many opportunities to work with global talents at Rakuten Group. I’d never imaged this global expansion in our early days.

    Can you tell me a bit about your role as Chief People Officer?

    Generally speaking, Chief People Officer is a similar role and responsibility to Chief HR Officer in the Bay Area. They handle talent acquisition, talent management, total rewards, payroll, and so on. However, my role is different from them, and Rakuten has a head of HR.

    My main role is to make stakeholders happy and smile externally and internally with my experience as head of main business and head of regional HQs in Rakuten, and characterised as one of the co-founders as well. My performance might be evaluated by whether Rakuten’s corporate value is maximized or not. It means enhancement of employees’ engagement, raising ESG rates, decreasing turnover rate, and so on.

    I also cover some other themes such as well-being, sustainability, and corporate culture. I visit local offices world-wide and hold a workshop to tell the Rakuten history and corporate culture. Every quarter, I report the results of our initiatives at the board of directors meetings.

    How important do you think Rakuten’s company culture has been to its success?

    I do believe corporate culture is really crucial for us. We’ve got over many tough challenges since day 1, and our culture has been getting stronger and stronger. We could not overcome any challenges without our corporate culture, Rakuten Shugi. After many acquisitions, we’ve been trying to unite as One Rakuten based on Rakuten Shugi.

    Japan has a very strong working culture. What are the biggest differences you’ve seen between the work culture in Japan and in offices in other locations such as Belfast?

    The biggest difference between Japan and other places such as Belfast is work balance. The Belfast team keeps work hard, but they also respect work balance for their family, friends, their hobbies and so on. In the case of Japan, performance is evaluated based on the aspect of workload, but in most other countries the measurement of their performance is based on output.

    Do you think there are lessons that the tech industry in countries like the UK could learn from Japan’s culture of work?

    One of the lessons from Japan is [that it's] very process oriented. Of course there are pros and cons, but in some industries such as Fintech, process or documentation is a key element to move business forward. Also, deep understanding before moving forward is one of big difference from other countries. Sometime we can get consensus with only ideas based in other counties, but most of Japanese is keeping in mind to understand in depth before moving forward.

    Many tech firms around the world are competing for the same talent, and offering different perks to help retain staff. What do you think are the most important steps a company can take to keep talent in the company?

    I do believe the high level purpose alignment between the company and individual is important to retain talent, because I feel the talented people are keen to contribute society as social good initiatives. Most of them don’t care about expanding the business, they want to contribute to society and get good feedback. In Rakuten, we have the mission “empower people and society through our entrepreneurship and innovation”, that’s why we continuously share the mission to prospective employees and existing employees.

    Technology changes so quickly every year now. How does Rakuten stay on top of emerging technologies, and keep staff trained in the latest technologies?

    We have always kept our eyes on cutting edge technology and how it impacts society and businesses. Based on that information, we discuss and decide the amount of investment to each area. Also we have training for our engineers to develop their skillset and knowledge regardless of contribution to their business directly.

    Thanks for your time!

    About the author

    Brendan is a Sync NI writer with a special interest in the gaming sector, programming, emerging technology, and physics. To connect with Brendan, feel free to send him an email or follow him on Twitter.

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