Until my recent job, I have had unimaginable good luck when it comes to having a great boss. My prior bosses weren’t just amazing — they were all female, Asian, and extremely badass. Working so closely with such amazing role models on a daily basis not only inspired me to succeed, but also made me realize what good leadership truly looks like.
Takada-San: The Ad Executive
I remember when I first met Takada-san during my interview. She had a black suit on and a stone-faced expression. She questioned all of my credentials. She was hesitant and suspicious of this foreigner from left-field being offered a high paying position at a Japanese company. As I faced her at the interview table, I could feel her ice cold stare diving head first into my soul.
And I was scared shitless.
When the CEO hired me, I found out I was to work with Takada-san on a daily basis. I came in on the first day of work bowing and apologizing like the Japanese-wannabe I was. Takada-san was wearing a leather jacket, white button up shirt and jeans. She handed me a file of documents to translate. I immediately translated said documents without complaint.
Although Takada-san intimidated the shit out of me in the beginning, I slowly began to realize that she wasn’t a hardass at all. She was kind and helpful. She corrected my mistakes and gave me specialized training sessions to better understand the advertising industry. She took me out for secret coffee and lunch breaks when no one was looking. The sound of our laughter and conversation soon became an everyday occurence at the office. We were inseparable.
As I worked with Takada-san, I realized that everyone came to her for advice — and I’m not talking about advice on relationships, family, childcare or other “female” issues. Takada-san was no administrative assistant. In fact, she was second in line to the CEO. Everyone in the office, including the CEO, came to her about high level strategy concerning the future of the company.
Takada-san attended all leadership meetings and was regarded as ad-agency royalty. After all, she managed the Guangzhou branch as CEO for 20 years and molded it into one of the most successful ad-agencies in China.
“Why don’t you become the CEO for the Shanghai branch?” I asked her one day over coffee.
“Oh god Mary,” she took a sip of her black coffee. “I’m too old for that shit. I’ve done enough.”
Takada-san was forceful and respectable, yet she wasn’t a conniving bitch like many imagine high-ranking women tend to be. She was kind, supportive and patient.
“Takada san can read my mind, Mary” my good friend K said to me once. “She can evaluate me with one look alone. It’s frightening.”
And it’s true. She has an eye for talent with the ability to mold someone into success (one of her proteges became a CEO later on). Despite her soft and easygoing demeanor, she is steadfast and resolute.
To this day, she remains my role model. Not only because she is a Japanese female who commands respect from the entire company, but also because she knew when to stop. She now operates as a consultant (and repeatedly turns down pleads to be CEO) so that she can enjoy her old(er) age and travel the world.
Ayaka, the self-made CEO
Ayaka started her career as a flight attendant for Japan Airlines. She worked there for a few years, became fluent in English, and realized one day she wanted to go to China and learn Mandarin.
After learning Mandarin for a year, she wanted to expand her career in China. That’s when she started to work for Takada-san as an intern in Guangzhou. She learned the tricks of the trade in advertising from Takada-san, and eventually she realized that Japanese clients in China were in desperate need of a public relations agency. She was there to fill that void.
Ayaka launched a public relations company in Shanghai. Life was hard. She pulled all-nighters. She paid her Chinese employees with her personal savings. Yet even during moments of financial difficulty, she held strong to the belief that her company would succeed.
Her company began to grow. It grew from a small team of 20 employees into a 100+ staffed company that ranks as the #1 public relations firm for Japanese clients in China.
Then, she did it. She sold her company to the largest PR firm in Japan and made a shit ton of money. She is still acting CEO of her company, which is now the largest China subsidiary for a very prominent Japanese PR firm.
I met Ayaka by fluke accident. She was a friend of Takada-sans, but she was also the protege of K’s father (the Japanese world in Shanghai is small). When I met her she already knew about me from K and Takada-san, and we hit it off instantly.
Ayaka is gorgeous. She’s tall, skinny, has long hair and an infectious smile. She is not a back-stabbing CEO bitch ready to gut you for all your worth. Ayaka is professional, confident, trustworthy and kind. She invited me to her house multiple times for dinner not just to provide me with informal mentoring, but also because she wanted to create friendships. She mentors K once per week.
A woman who can create her own successful business in a foreign country–especially as a Japanese woman — demands respect.
Takada-san and Ayaka both prove that women don’t need to be ‘tough’ or ‘mean’ to make it in the business world. Sure, you need to have thick-skin, but most of all you need the smarts. The intelligence. The human connection.
Ayaka has worked with Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber to do media launches in Shanghai. She is wildly successful, yet so down-to-Earth. If she invited you to her house for dinner, you wouldn’t even realize just how amazing and praise-worthy she really is. Humility truly is a virtue.
Mrs. Kim – The Loyal Warrior
While Mrs. Kim was not a hot-shot CEO at a world renowned organization like Takada-san or Ayaka-san, she definitely commanded respect and authority as a program manager at a high ranking university. In fact, all of us went to “Mamma Kim” when we needed advice on any level: difficult students, negotiating with other university partners, dating issues, or even knitting advice.
Mrs. Kim was a Korean mom in her 40s who achieved the American dream of immigrating to the US, getting a high ranking job at the very university she did her international exchange at, and raising a bilingual and multicultural family.
I cannot express the amount of gratitude I have for landing a boss as kind and talented as Mrs. Kim. Not only was she a fantastic mentor who taught me all the tips and tricks at the university, but she also gave me full autonomy over the office and entrusted me with high level management. In the off hours we would talk about our shared experience living in Japan, how we found our significant others, and our personal family issues. In my short year there, Mrs. Kim truly became like a mother figure to me.
We were at her desk laughing and talking over a cup of coffee on a slow afternoon when, out of nowhere, she looked me in the eyes and said:
“Mary, you’re too talented for this job. You need to aim higher. You’re capable of accomplishing greater things.”
I was moved and motivated by her words. After that day I diligently researched graduate schools and took the leap of faith to obtain a masters degree in international affairs. Mrs. Kim, despite her sadness at losing me on her team, supported me whole-heartedly.
Even to this day I still talk to Mamma Kim at least once per year. In that short time I worked at the university, she taught me so much about life and love that I don’t know how I will ever repay her.
Working under “the Man”
Unfortunately, my streak of good bosses has come to an end with my current job. My new boss is neither female or Asian, and it has been extremely difficult and demoralizing working under him.
I know women can be just as cruel as men when they take leadership roles, but my own personal experience has shown that, in general, women tend to lead with more empathy and foresight. My prior female bosses didn’t think about the short term gains: in me, they saw the long-term return on a good employee in the workforce.
My ladies in leadership showed me that you don’t need to be an asshole to be a strong leader. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to lead with kindness.
When the going gets tough at my job, I think back to these badass ladies in leadership and I have hope. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll get a boss like Takada-san or Mrs. Kim again. Or even better — perhaps I’ll be that boss.
Have you ever worked with female leadership? What has been your experience?