Mental Health//

Why Naoko Kawabe Believes in Empathetic Leadership

The Head of Global Link, Asia Pacific, shares why diversity and resilience are essential traits within a team.

Resilience is the operational core of State Street’s business. In this series, we talk with State Street Role Models about how they — and their teams — stay resilient, and how they prioritize their mental and physical well-being in times of uncertainty. 

Thrive Global: As a female leader in a male-dominated industry, tell us about a challenge you’ve faced and how you overcame it? 

Naoko Kawabe: In Japanese culture, there are many unique business protocols and implicit understandings that implicate a person’s seniority: things like which chair they take, where they stand in the elevator, who exchanges their business card first. When I have external meetings with new prospective clients, it’s typical that they don’t see me as the highest seniority. So during that first meeting, I always take the middle chair and keep my arms outstretched as a signal of my senior presence. This isn’t to boost my own confidence, it’s a way to silently destroy other people’s unconscious bias. 

TG: What’s an outdated philosophy or misconception in your sector that you work to challenge? 

NK: When a woman gets married or has a child in Japan, people often ask whether the woman will continue to work — but they never ask those questions of male workers. These questions detract from the delightful moments of life and discourage women from pursuing career development. Instead of answering someone when they ask me these questions personally, I question why they would ask me in the first place. Some people become quiet when I do this, others express sympathy for my child who has a full-time busy, working mother. These unpleasant comments motivate me to be successful with my career development, maintenance of work-life balance, and enhanced family ties. 

TG: Do you think empathy is an important trait in business? Why or why not?

NK: I do, and managers have an opportunity to display empathy by listening to the voices of their clients, teams, and other colleagues. By demonstrating empathy as a leader, your people will be empowered to speak up, be creative and innovative, and challenge ideas. Empathy also helps develop an individual sense of ownership, and increase proactive engagement on whatever task or situation is at hand. 

TG: Share a quote that sheds light on your leadership philosophy.

NK: I love the quote “Indecision is often worse than wrong action.” You must make your own decisions to control your destiny — and yes, sometimes that means making the wrong decision. But failure isn’t something to fear; failure becomes the nutrition of life and career development. But you will not experience failure if you don’t make the hard, sometimes wrong choices. I think of this quote whenever I am faced with a challenge, and it helps me stay resilient.   

TG: Why is it important to champion diversity, equity and inclusion across racial and ethnic identities, genders, sexual orientations, abilities, etc. when building a team?

NK: Diversity generates innovation and creativity, and enhances the decision-making process. My team represents the full diversity of sales, tech team, help desk, and the COO group, with a mixture of genders, cultures, and nationalities. Our vision is the same but our approaches and priorities are different, which supports our sound decision-making process and allows us to understand and address pitfalls that a less diverse team might miss.    

TG: What helps you unleash your team’s peak performance?

NK: Recognition of not only the outcome of a project, but also of my team’s pertinent effort. By appreciating their contribution and sharing their success story with others, my team feels empowered, confident, and a sense of ownership for their work. In addition, I encourage my team to articulate their own objective when starting a project, which helps them understand their to-do actions, and the direction they need to take ahead. 

TG: In your experience, how has the resilience of a team led to its success?

NK: When I was the salesperson of an electronic platform, I encountered several major system catastrophes. In that challenging moment, all global key stakeholders, regardless of time zone, jumped on a call to discuss the best remedies. Of course, it’s better not to have such system incidents, but our team’s resilience and united front enhanced our trusting relationship, which was a positive outcome for our work. The experience also made me feel more confident in the organization’s ability to be resilient and resolve crises. Resilient teams are often the teams that grow the most. Life without challenges would bore you. I encourage my team to treat challenges as opportunities to develop themselves. 

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