The Privilege of being a “non-expert”: Akihiko Iketani, Mongolia GLP, 2012

Every year we add over a hundred participants to our alumni network. After an intense two weeks in Hong Kong and in the field, these participants return to their offices where (we hope) they apply what they’ve learned to their daily routines.

Every few months, we want to check in with one of our alumni to see how their professional lives have gone since their time with GIFT. Have they launched a new initiative in their office environment in an effort to improve communication and empathy? Did they take on a new responsibility in a new market, applying their new experience engaging with stakeholders? Or have they started something entirely unique, targeting the novel problems of the 21st Century? These are the stories we want to share with our audience.

And if you’re an alumnus with stories to tell, please get in touch. We’ll be happy to hear what’s new with you.

Akihiko Iketani, of NEC Corporation, joined the 2012 Global Young Leaders Programme, held over late July and early August of 2012. The participant cohort's objective was to outline and provide recoemmendations for Mongolia's first SME investment fund. Akihiko led the Fund Management team charged with creating a set of financial projections for the new fund.

When did you join the GIFT programme? What was most memorable about the project you were working on?

I joined the 28th Global Leaders Programme in Mongolia. The country at the time was enjoying the highest economic growth in its history, led by rapid growth in the mining sector. But the wealth was not well-distributed, leaving many people in poverty.

The objective of our programme was to develop a new social investment fund that could address the country’s social issues.

I was fortunate to have been designated the leader of the “Fund Management” team. I had no idea how I could lead the team: all the team members, except for me, had a strong background in finance! I thought I wasn’t qualified for the role. But I slowly got the hang of it, and was able to lead the team through to the end of the project. I was also honoured to be one of the presenters at the Public Forum that ended the Programme, where we presented our ideas to local investors and enterprises.

This experience helped me build confidence. Whenever I face a challenge, I try to remember the GIFT programme; whatever I’m currently dealing with is nothing compared to what I went through on the programme!

Can you tell us a little about your experience on the programme? What did you learn, either about the content, or about yourself and your own leadership skills? What was it like working with people from so many different places?

It was obvious that my team had a strong expertise in investment, and using that to its fullest was the key to success. The question was how someone like me, who didn’t have any knowledge on finance, could lead a team of experts who knew the subject far better than I did. One thing I decided early was not to pretend that I knew what they were talking about. I asked questions whenever there was something I did not understand or was not convinced about. Another thing I did – which was something Japanese are used to – was to keep the discussion going until all parties reached an agreement. How could we go wrong with an idea that all the experts had agreed on?

Looking back on my experience, I believe I fully leveraged the privilege of being the only “non-expert” on the team. This meant I could ask “dumb” questions that no other person would dare to ask. Those questions sometimes shed light on something the experts had overlooked. Because I wasn’t an expert, I could stay neutral throughout the discussion, which prevented me from quickly latching on to any specific idea.

During the programme, I was fortunate to meet some of the brightest people in the world, many of them from developing countries. It made me realise that the wealth of a country or its level of development says nothing about how intelligent their people are. Unfortunately, many people from developed countries – including Japan – fail to understand this point.

I was also impressed by the other participants’ passion to shape the future of their own countries by themselves. I think this is something we Japanese may have lost.

Where has your professional development taken you since you took part on our programme?

Before the programme, I was a typical computer science researcher, spending every day in an office writing code. But after the programme, I grew more interested in tackling real social problems, and working with people from diverse backgrounds. After working on several overseas projects in Argentina, Hong Kong and elsewhere, I moved to Singapore in 2013 to be one of the founding members of NEC Laboratories Singapore. It was a so-called “solution-oriented lab”, which focuses on developing social solutions that use technology, rather than developing technology for its own sake. In Singapore, I led several projects on public transportation. In 2015, I returned to Japan to head a department under NEC Central Research Laboratories. In July 2018, I moved to Mumbai to head a newly-established R&D centre: NEC Laboratories India.

You’ve had the chance now to work in several different countries and working environments. What are some of the differences you noticed? Is there anything you learned from the programme that you could apply to these new situations?

Different countries present different challenges. A common mistake we make is to simply bring over solutions that were successful abroad. But this wouldn’t work. What important is getting out of your comfort zone and putting yourself in the center of the social problem. Then you will see what is essential and what is not. I think this thought process is something I learned from the GIFT programme.

Tell us a little about your new role in India. What has that experience been like? And what do you hope to achieve as the head of the new NEC Labs in India?

Create solutions that address social challenges in India and other emerging countries. India faces numerous social problems and lacks basic infrastructure. Many people see this as a disadvantage, but I see it as an advantage. You can come up with a new idea for a solution every day in India. Because of the country’s lack of infrastructure, India can leapfrog beyond developed countries. I hope we can create as many leapfrog solutions as possible, and make reverse innovation – creating solutions in an emerging market and transferring it to a developed one – happen.

If you had any advice for someone about to join one of our programmes, what would you tell them?

I hope they would have a once-in-a-lifetime experience that would change their entire career, just like how it did for me.

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