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Rikky Takahara, MBA Japan 2011

On July 1, 2013, McGill MBA Japan Program graduate, Class of 2011, Ms. Rikky Takahara was appointed manager and technical assistant to the CEO of Nissan Motor Company and Renault-Nissan Alliance, Carlos Ghosn, based in Yokohama. Congratulations, Ms Takahara.

Philip O’Neill interviewed Rikky Takahara in September. Here are the highlights:

Q. What can you tell us about your work?
A. technical assistant to a CEO needs to support and solve problems related to him or her. In my case, I need to make sure that he speaks to the right people, at the right time, and to prepare the right information he needs, with the right figures, message, and content. Before he has an interview or makes a speech, I need to give him enough background to face any question that he might be asked. In simple terms, my job is to make sure his time is used valuably. I must also have ample knowledge of the company’s operations and make sure the CEO’s orders are correctly executed.

Q. What can you tell us about CEO Ghosn and Nissan?
A. Nissan is a global automotive company with 157,365 employees and about $100 billion in revenue. Mr. Ghosn is also CEO of Renault SA and the Renault-Nissan Alliance. I am responsible for Nissan and the Renault-Nissan Alliance. The company also has alliances with Dongfeng Motor Corporation in China, AvtoVAZ in Russia, and Daimler AG for the Infiniti brand.

Q. Who do you work with?
A. I am the only technical assistant for Mr Ghosn, but I work closely with his personal assistant. I also work with technical assistants to the other executives, and sometimes directly with those executives. My job is to understand their problems and concerns, and be the pipeline between functions, regions, and Mr Ghosn.

Q. So your role involves working with the CEO and Nissan’s other functions. And you do it all by yourself?
A. Well, many other people deliver our services and products. I just support them.

Q. What qualities do you need to perform this role?
A. There is a lot of interaction with many different people. I try to keep things simple, clear, and to the point.

Q. You have changed roles a few times over the past year or so. How did your current role come about?
A. I entered Nissan as a manufacturing engineer in 2004, after graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from Sophia University, in Tokyo. I transferred to the Control and Corporate Planning Department of the Infiniti Business Unit in 2008, through an internal recruitment process that allows employees to get work experience in other departments. It is very good that Nissan provides opportunities for employees who want a change, or who expect something new in their career.

After I graduated from the McGill MBA Japan Program in 2011, I moved to Nissan’s Global Marketing and Communication Division. By using my strengths in math and analysis, my past experience in the company and, of course, my knowledge from the McGill MBA, I was put in charge of a global project for establishing and implementing fixed marketing investment management. The project was successful and I was promoted to manager. It is very unusual to be promoted like this in a Japanese company at my age. It was a skip-level promotion, which is very rare at Nissan. That Nissan is so keen on talent management made me more confident. Three months later, I was transferred to the CEO’s office.

Q. I understand you travel a lot. Where do you go and how much travel do you do?
A. I fly with Mr Ghosn on business almost all the time, and I usually attend his meetings.

Q. “Diversity is our Strength” is a Nissan slogan. Do you see yourself as representing diversity? How does this play out in the work you do?
A. Yes, Nissan is really promoting diversity in the company. Japan is a very different country compared to the rest of the world. The percentage of female workers drops after they reach 30 to 40 years of age, mainly due to marriage and giving birth. In other countries, the number goes back up again [after these life events]. Nissan is promoting diversity very much to keep pace with other countries. We are not only competing in Japan, but we are looking to the world; we need to have the same percentage of female workers as in other countries.
We have found out that decisions made by females are really important. For example, women influence about 50 to 70% of car purchase decisions, so we really need to understand how they think. I think Nissan is doing really well in this regard, compared to other car companies in Japan. I think Nissan gives a great deal of opportunities to female workers. They are really looking forward to training women to become managers and directors in the company.

Q. Is there a target for employing female managers at Nissan?
A. We are aiming for women to make up 10% or more of manager positions in [the Japan business] by 2016. This year, females comprise 6.7% of management, which is way higher than other automotive companies in Japan.

Q. You have been with Nissan for 10 years or so, but are still growing in your career. What would you like to do in the future?
A. I’d like to become a regional managing director in the midterm. I started my career at company headquarters, but I haven’t been to any regional offices. I still haven’t seen the place where we actually sell cars. Headquarters is the brain; it sets the strategy and everything. But I want to understand how to make and sell cars, and how to act with dealers. Without understanding [how things work on the ground], strategy ends up being just pie in the sky. I believe this should be part of the process to train me to go on to the next step. I see me back at Global Headquarters in a decision-making position to deal with business strategies and management.

Q. Those are big goals. I hope you can achieve them. I am pretty sure you can do whatever you want from what I’ve seen of you so far.
A. Thank you!

Q. What advice would you give to young women with big dreams for their careers?
A. The McGill MBA Japan Program was a big turning point for me. I have a background as a mechanical engineer so, to be honest, I didn’t have any knowledge about business or economics. I didn’t even know what P&L [profit and loss] stood for before I moved to a
business unit.

I struggled a lot after I transferred from the engineering field to the business side. But doing the MBA course gave me a lot of confidence, not only via the academic component but also the whole course. It helped me deal with people, think about business, and work in a group. We made presentations almost every day. All these small things happened in the MBA, and gave me a lot of confidence to go out and say my own opinions.

Most Japanese people don’t voice their opinions. At the lower level, people just obey and listen to orders from the top. But in order to get into the global business world—and, I believe, even the manufacturing world these days—and to compete against global competition, it’s necessary to express your opinions and ideas clearly and logically, using good presentation skills.

The whole McGill course gave me a lot of confidence. It trained me on how to think from a logical and bird’s eye point-of-view—from a high-level business point-of-view. You must be brave to challenge yourself. If you want to change, you need to go for it, and not wait for the opportunity to come to you.

Q. It seems to me that confidence is one of your strong points. Were you always confident?
A. No. When I moved to the CEO’s office, I didn’t know what an executive lifestyle was. I believed that I needed to have confidence in myself to do the job. You should act confidently with people. It should not be embarrassing to ask for help or to ask questions about something you don’t know, even things that would be common sense to people in that area.

Make sure you understand everything well. Then you can be confident in yourself, especially when you are senior, and if you want to become a manager. We need to take responsibility for every single decision we make. That is how you show your confidence to staff. If you are not sure what you are talking about or what you are asking people to do, they will never follow you.

Q. What can you learn from this position?
A. Now that I am attending most of Mr, Ghosn’s meetings, including executive ones, I can see how fast the company is moving. I have learned how strongly the instructions and the decisions made at meetings impact on the company.

Of course, I need to be very confidential and discreet working at the operations level. Confidentiality is really the key. All decisions are so important; decisions and comments have a great impact on the company. And when decisions are made, we need to check everything is followed up.

Q. You see yourself in the future as a regional managing director. Your present role is helping you understand this job, so you are really in a unique position.
A. I gain an advantage by networking. I think I can benefit from this position by developing a huge network, both inside and outside the company.

Q. What does it mean to be managing director of a region?
A. It can be said that the person in this position is the head of a market. I see myself going overseas to lead and manage a market by using the experience I got as a technical assistant, which is a post for high-potential people to work really closely with executives, and to see and learn how they make business decisions.

Q. Do you run into cultural issues in your work at the Renault-Nissan Alliance?
A. Not really, as a cross-functional and cross-cultural mindset is the first item listed in the “Nissan Way” company recruitment document. Under the alliance, some Nissan managers work for Renault and some Renault managers work for Nissan, so we work together and understand the DNA or the process of both companies. They understand the culture of the other party and try to create value.

Q. There are not many female mechanical engineers in Japan. Is this changing?
A. No, but I hope this will change in the near future.

Q. To become an executive in an automobile company, is it necessary to be an engineer or to have a scientific or technical background?
A. No, I don’t think it’s a mandatory. I see a lot of executives who are not from an engineering background; some are from purchasing, others are from sales. It is good to have logical thinking, so having an engineering background is a benefit. But I don’t think it is a must-have skill to become an executive.