Lessons In Leadership: One On One With Kevin Ogawa

I spoke to Kevin Ogawa, CEO of Canon USA, about his journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Kevin: I am an avid marathon runner. I’ve completed 14 marathons including Tokyo, Boston, Chicago and New York City. One of the reasons marathons appeal to me is that they have a lot in common with being a CEO. They require careful preparation and planning. For months leading up to race day, you have to have a detailed plan for everything from training to eating. When there are unexpected disruptions to your plan, you have to carefully adjust and make changes.

Another thing that might surprise people is that I am a music enthusiast. I really enjoy playing the guitar. Not only that, but I am not shy about performing in front of other people. While I am very serious about business, I think it is important to have fun and let people see my personality. I recently hosted a dinner for some of our executives after our mid-year meeting, and I brought my guitar and played some music when we finished eating. 

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth? 

Kevin: To explain how I got here, it would help to have a map of the world – a big one! Before I came to Canon U.S.A., I worked at Canon companies in Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Canada. To make it even more complicated, I worked in some of those places more than once. Despite all of my relocating, I would not trade those experiences for anything because they made me the person and the leader that I am today.

This is my third assignment as a CEO for Canon. Previously, I was the CEO of Canon Singapore and Canon Canada. Interestingly, when I was a trainee at Canon Inc. in Japan at the start of my career, I won a sales contest and received an overseas assignment at Canon Canada. At that time, I never dreamed that I would return there as President and CEO 25 years later. I take great pride in that. I believe it is an excellent example of how anything is possible for people who are willing to work hard and put in the effort. Of course, not everyone will become a CEO. However, there are many other ways people can grow in their careers and feel fulfilled.

Working in so many different places has given me many different kinds of experiences, and all of these have been instrumental in my growth. No one wants to face difficult challenges, but being in tough situations has helped me become a stronger leader. These include the Asian currency crisis in 1997, the SARS epidemic in Hong Kong in 2003, the boycott of Japanese goods in China in 2004 and the Great Recession of 2008. All of these helped me to become a stronger leader and taught me how to adapt and overcome problems. When I became CEO of Canon U.S.A. in April 2020, I took on the responsibility of leading our company through the COVID-19 crisis. Immediately, I made protecting the health and safety of our employees my top priority. Although this type of situation was unprecedented in our company’s history, I repeatedly communicated to our employees that we would get through it by working together. Fortunately, that is exactly what has happened.

Adam: Who are the greatest leaders you have been around and what did you learn from them? 

Kevin: I feel very fortunate to have been around some great leaders. The first one who comes to mind is Fujio Mitarai, the Chairman and CEO of Canon Inc. He is one of the most respected business leaders in the world. I have seen how his vision has transformed Canon and brought us into new business segments with great potential for growth. I also learned so much from former Canon U.S.A. Chairman and CEO Joe Adachi, who in many ways was a mentor to me. I met him when he was a marketing manager in the camera division at Canon Canada when I joined the company as a trainee 38 years ago. His support and guidance helped me greatly through the years. 

This next person might surprise you. It is Shinya Yamanaka, a Japanese stem cell researcher who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine in 2012 for his groundbreaking work producing iPS cells in a lab in Kyoto, Japan. Used in regenerative medicine, iPS cells hold great promise as a way to replace cells lost to damage or disease. When I visited the Nobel Prize Museum in Stockholm, I purchased a postcard of him and I always keep that photo near me as a reminder of his great contributions.  Mr. Yamanaka has not only achieved the highest level of professional recognition in winning a Nobel Prize but also sets a high level for personal achievement by running marathons, which is inspiring to me.  He seeks excellence in both his professional and personal life and does it well despite his huge responsibilities performing complex work to help improve human health.

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader?

Kevin: I am passionate about Canon and I believe that everything I do reflects that passion. I want to instill confidence in our people and in our company and put people in positions where they can grow and succeed.

Communication is extremely important to me. I am an outgoing person and I want our employees to feel that I am approachable. I communicate regularly with our employees through written and video messages, Town Hall meetings and our new “Coffee With the CEO’’ sessions where I meet informally with a small group of employees. Another key aspect of leadership is risk management. As the CEO, I am ultimately responsible for the well-being of the company. Taking risks is a part of business, but I need to use my best judgment to make smart decisions that protect our company.

Adam: How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level? 

Kevin: There is no substitute for hard work and leaders need to lead by example. Even experienced people can always learn new things. I have spent my career in the technology industry, and the changes in technology and in the needs of our customers are occurring faster than ever. Good leaders need to be able to anticipate what is coming next. I also encourage aspiring leaders to gain as many different types of experiences as they can. People that move around in the company, even in their own divisions, gain a broader perspective that helps them become better leaders.

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders? 

Kevin: The first is to put people above the business. If you do that, everything else should fall into place. That’s because business is really about people. I need to always be thinking about our employees, our customers and our business partners and how I can better work with them. The second would be adaptability. As a leader, you have to be willing and able to adjust to new circumstances. Business is always changing, so this is an ongoing process. The third is agility. This means having the ability to think clearly in order to understand a problem or situation and then to be able to act quickly. 

Adam: What is your best advice on building, leading and managing teams? 

Kevin: You have to choose the right people, put them in a position where they can succeed and empower them to do the work. Last year during the pandemic, we started considering ways that we could develop products, solutions and services that would meet our customers’ needs in the “new normal.’’ Once we agreed on the ideas most worth pursuing, we formed project teams that would be responsible for each idea. It would have been very easy for me to put senior executives in charge, but I decided to go in a different direction and put some of our talented younger staff in key positions to lead this initiative. They have enthusiastically embraced the opportunity and are bringing fresh ideas and energy. 

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received? 

Kevin: I have received so much helpful advice through the years, it would be difficult to single out just one thing. But there is an excellent book, “Remember Who You Are: Life Stories That Inspire the Heart and Mind’’ by Daisy Wademan, that I have taken to heart. The author interviewed faculty members at the Harvard Business School and it is very insightful. It talks about the human values that go into a successful leader. As the title suggests, it is about the heart and not just a person’s business intelligence. 

Adam: What is one thing everyone should be doing to pay it forward? 

Kevin: We all need to remember where we came from. No matter how smart or talented a person is, everyone received help along the way. I will never forget the opportunities I was given earlier in my career. I am grateful for all of them. One of the best ways I can show my appreciation is by doing the same for others. If I do this well, someday when my career is over my impact will continue through the next generation of leaders.

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