As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Shinichi “Sam” Yoshida. He is the Executive Vice President and General Manager of the Business Information Communications Group of Canon U.S.A., Inc., and Chairman and CEO of Canon Solutions America, Inc. During his 38-year career working at Canon, Mr. Yoshida has worked at offices both inside and outside of the United States. Showcasing the strength of his leadership, Mr. Yoshida is also one of three people who helped launch Canon Virginia in 1986.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My story is a little unique because I was born in Japan and raised in Jamaica, Queens, N.Y., from one to seven years old. I returned to Tokyo, but came back to the U.S. while in middle school. Then I went back to Japan for high school and college, before graduating and joining Canon. Early in my career, I played a role in Canon’s history when I was one of three people who helped launch Canon Virginia in 1986. The three of us secured the site in Newport News and oversaw the building of the factory, and within three years the number of employees increased to 1,500.
In a factory, you can see the growth visually. Every day you see that the factory is expanding, head count is growing and we are shipping out more goods to customers. You can sense the excitement. Coming to work every day was a joy because you wanted to see what was new and what we could do. Sales and marketing is a different type of excitement but a lot of it is growth in numbers. You don’t see that visually. In a manufacturing environment it is all about the people, the quality of the products that you build and the pride of the people delivering those products to end customers. It was a special experience for me and I learned a lot about teamwork and management at an early time in my career.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I believe I am where I am today because I have been fortunate to have many talented people who supported me during my career. I also have been blessed with many mentors who taught me about our business and how to go about running small to mid-sized and large teams, so I am very grateful for that.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When Canon was started more than 80 years ago, it was a small camera company in Japan. The vision was to invest in technology and innovate the industry. Thanks to their success we have grown to become a global imaging leader. Our leaders also had the foresight to diversify and invest in new business which was office machines next. The company continued with the journey and today, we have a diverse range of products ranging from healthcare to semiconductor and even satellites in space. Through the years, our purpose remains the same — to have a positive impact on people’s lives and on society. Everything we do revolves around our corporate philosophy of Kyosei, which we define as “All people, regardless of race, religion or culture, harmoniously living and working together.’’
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
These past few months have brought about several challenges, as well as opportunities. During these times, it’s been especially important to lead with integrity, prioritize communication between internal employees and outside channel partners, and be open to new ideas. Working with my fellow colleagues at Canon, together, we made several necessary shifts that embraced new opportunities, ideas and technologies to help us stay efficient during the COVID-19 pandemic and support our multiple channel partners.
We look forward to continue learning, reacting swiftly, and remaining creative so that we can overcome future obstacles that may be uncertain or difficult.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I have never considered giving up and I do not back down from challenges. They are part of business and life. I am motivated by having the opportunity to lead a team of great people and to work for a company like Canon that is respected around the world.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Providing communication and direction. The first thing I want to do is listen to everyone, both internal and external, and ensure everyone’s voice is heard. My goal is to make certain that Canon will continue to enjoy the great reputation we have built over the years thanks to many of our past leaders. I also consider it my obligation to take the organization to the next level so that someday I can pass the baton to those who will carry on the torch.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
I believe in transparency and trust, principles that I learned from my mentors and colleagues in Japan, the U.S. and Canada. I try to create a culture in which everyone has each other’s back. That is when the team is most powerful and everyone’s effort is valued. When the entire team feels that way, you can beat the competition. I don’t believe in a small group of superstars carrying all the weight. I think the entire organization makes a difference in this very competitive world that we compete in.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
I always try to be open. Sincerity is something that I value highly. As long as I let everybody know what is happening in our business — good and bad — and where we are going in terms of our next step, then I think everyone will want to contribute. In bad times, people become more creative because they want to make things better. We’re at the stage where everyone has that stronger desire. You don’t need 100 superstars to succeed. It really is about the aggregate of every individual wanting to win and wanting to contribute.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
The past few months have been unpredictable, but they have taught many businesses how important it is to appreciate the team that you have, and the great success you have accomplished together. During these unprecedented times, we cannot assume what happens next, but we must be ready to accept change and learn how to overcome any obstacles that may be in the way. It’s important for leaders to be flexible, but also prioritize what will be consistent despite an unpredictable future, and that is delivering high-quality customer service and support.
At Canon, we take pride in the high-quality customer and support our Customer Solutions Center provides, especially now as our team of technicians continue to enhance our technology to support customers from afar, as well as the extraordinary service delivered by our sales channel, Canon Solutions America, and our world-class dealers and channel partners. Additionally, as we look to the unpredictable road ahead, we continue to act swiftly and listen to our customer demands so that we can develop solutions that are designed specifically to meet current market and business needs.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I believe sometimes the industry is at fault by giving too much of a pessimistic outlook about print — that it is going away and there is no future. But I believe the key is not only print itself but the content — what you put on paper. We are helping customers manage what kind of information they want to communicate, whether on paper or any kind of format. As long as our customer base relies on us for service to keep them up and running, or consultation for technology upgrade and better management of their fleet of devices, I believe we have a strong, viable business. We have a sound business model with onsite access to customers, whose appetite for investing in technology and improving how they want to work always exists.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
We live in a fast-paced world. The business that we are all engaged in is competitive. It can be tough and messy. It is a mature space and we are competing head to head. I think it is important that we always keep in mind that we can’t shift this tide because the whole industry is going that way. We must work together and focus on what we can control. It is about changing our mindset and always having a positive attitude about where we need to go and what we need to do to help our customers. We have to refuse to accept things as they are and try to push the creative boundaries of our work every day.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Be nimble in the face of challenge. As a leader, our fellow employees and co-workers observe how we face challenges. The outlook of a leader can also set the tone for how others react to challenges as well, so it’s important to think quickly and be nimble during times like these. By being open to shifting business focuses and priorities, Canon’s executive leadership team helped drive efficiency throughout 2020, and looks forward to continuing to innovate and drive success for our channel partners by supporting them now, and for years to come.
- Remain optimistic for the future ahead — even if it’s uncertain. Despite the obstacles, it’s important to remain optimistic so that we can come together to build a brighter future. Although a time of uncertainty, we’ve also seen a lot of creative strides. Over the past few months, businesses across the globe have embraced new opportunities, technologies and ideas which have allowed them to optimize business growth and rethink what’s possible for the future — and that all has to be accomplished with a leader’s optimistic outlook.
- Listen to customer requirements. Two-way communication between businesses and their customers has never been more crucial. At Canon, when we look to develop new products, we take a close look at what there is a need for in the market and listen to feedback from our customers, taking into consideration what businesses demand. Implementing these needs into our solutions reflects our innovative spirit, which helped us to be successful in the past, and will continue to serve us well in the future.
- Prioritize customer service. Success in business goes beyond what you’re selling, and is influenced greatly by customer satisfaction with a company’s services, which is why it’s important for leaders to prioritize delivering high-quality and reliable customer service, especially during these unprecedented times when so much has changed and there are so many uncertainties.
- Maintain employee morale. Especially now as employees may be operating out of the hybrid work environment, where a portion are operating out of the physical office while others are working remotely, employee morale is more important than ever. While physical conversations in the cafeteria may be on hold for now, it’s important for leaders to stay connected with fellow employees during troubling times. This can be accomplished through simple virtual meetings and ceremonies so that employees know that their work is seen and appreciated. I am honored to lead a dedicated Canon team that is committed to working hard every day, and appreciate the moments when I am able to thank them for their extraordinary efforts.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
A quote that has resonated most with me recently is one by Eleanor Roosevelt, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
During times such as this, it’s normal to be suspicious of the unknown as the future can seem unpredictable. It is a good leader who takes these suspicions and challenges head on, and uses them as opportunities to grow and learn.
Despite the challenges, the COVID-19 pandemic has also allowed many businesses to rethink what is possible for the future, inspiring them to explore their creativity and develop new innovations not thought possible before. I’m proud to say Canon has forged great developments during these times by shifting business priorities to support customers and partners as they navigate through new working environments, and this wouldn’t be made possible without the strength, courage and confidence of our entire team.