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Kyoko Matsushita: diversity must come from the top

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“I don’t want to be a bystander, I want to take up the responsibility to drive change,” says the global CEO of data and measurement-driven media agency Essence.

Two key qualities have made Kyoko Matsushita one of the industry’s great champions of diversity: pragmatism and humility. 

Born in Japan, the global CEO of Essence moved with her family to the United States at the age of nine, where she experienced her first moment of cultural shock. She has had an equally peripatetic career, having worked in APAC, EMEA and North America. 

In 2014, she joined Essence to lead the agency’s rapid expansion in APAC. In May 2019, she was promoted from APAC CEO to the agency’s first global chief client officer, before rising to the current role of global CEO last October. 

It’s been a tumultuous 10 months for the industry - with the pandemic and Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement leading companies to self-reflect on what it means to be empathetic, what it means to be inclusive, and what it means to take care of your staff and the community. 

All of which Matsushita seems to be taking in stride. After all, diversity and inclusion (D&I) is something close to her heart. 

“I don’t want to be a bystander, I want to take up the responsibility to drive change,” says the CEO in a video interview with Campaign. “There are many things you can rely on your people, your leadership team, to get done, but when it comes to changing the mindset and make-up of an organisation, it’s only possible when it’s the personal priority of the CEO.”

KPIs matter

For the CEO, achieving D&I can’t just be talk and no action - it means getting into the details of “what are the KPIs, what is required to drive change, and when we’re going to deliver on that”.

And it can’t just be one set of numbers either. “Achieving one KPI doesn’t mean you have delivered on something. There are KPIs such as gender diversity and ethnic diversity. But you also have to ask, are these people coming from different backgrounds? For example, if you have half the leadership team made up of women, but if they are from similar backgrounds with similar points-of-view, that’s not really driving diversity.”

The issue gets more complicated at the level of local execution. After all, each region and country has its own history and context to deal with. The BLM movement, for example, might have stronger resonance in the US and UK than it does in APAC. 

Sometimes, there might also be surprising findings. 

“You’d think that in Asia, because you have vastly different markets, [you already have that diversity], so the issue is less about race than gender diversity. But for example, according to a study by Campaign and Kantar, more than 50% of those who identified as Southeast Asian said they felt they had missed out on an opportunity because of their race, and people across the APAC region feel they are overlooked because their viewpoint doesn’t tie with the ‘white-dominated business world’. We have to accelerate the process of nurturing local leadership.” 

Walking the talk

It is something that Matsushita is invested in as global CEO of one of the world’s most powerful data-driven organisations. 

Globally, 55% of Essence’s workforce is female, versus 45% male. At the leadership level, 43% is female, with that number hitting 48% among senior vice presidents. 

Yet, the refrain during our conversation is “there is still a lot that remains to be done”.  

Essence has a set of Essential Behaviours, which serves to guide employees in day-to-day interactions and decision-making, and is integrated within the performance review framework. 

There are currently several D&I programmes at the company. 

For example, while ASCEND helps employees go beyond unconscious bias through facilitated workshops, self-directed learning and mindfulness practice, (Un)Covering in the Workplace raises awareness of covering - when employees feel pressure to hide parts of their identity to fit in at work. Courageous Conversations is a reverse mentoring programme of sorts, where leaders are “mentored” by employees about the challenges they face in the workplace. All three aim to provide a safe environment for employees to share their own experiences. 

“Nobody is perfect but we need to acknowledge that there are systemic issues. That is the beginning,” notes Matsushita. “After that, managers will take learnings and rethink how they’re engaging with their teams.” 

“They could start with simple things like “How are you feeling?”. We’re all so busy, sometimes, even if you care about that person, you don’t always express it. By asking that question, you show that you care and help to establish a connection with that person.”

D&I is good for business

At the core of building that connection is perhaps a recognition that diversity is the need to move a society, a company forward.

Just as people from different backgrounds are dealing with the pandemic differently or might have different views of BLM, they could also bring fresh perspectives to the business table. 

Diversity, once on the back-burner of HR teams, has been proven to drive innovation and business growth.

According to a Gartner study, 75% of organisations with frontline decision-making teams reflecting a diverse and inclusive culture will exceed their financial targets. And gender-diverse and inclusive teams outperformed gender-homogeneous, less inclusive teams by 50%, on average. 

“For Essence, which is in the creative and communications industry, diversity is not a theoretical nice-to-have. Our success and growth come from our ability to find new ways to solve clients’ business problems, and that means we need to have diverse perspectives. That is a necessity and not optional.”

But it is also a moral imperative 

And yet, what does it mean when a company’s D&I policy might be contrary to the values of a partner or government? After all, we live in a world that appears to be more divided day by day. What should companies do if diversity becomes inconvenient? 

“Let’s face it. Systemic racism and exclusion are far more inconvenient for far more people than pushing for change.”

She emphasises that it’s important for companies to provide a safe platform to have difficult conversations, and create a workplace where everyone feels secure and a sense of belonging.

“What should be clear is prioritising D&I is important because it is the right ethical and moral thing to do, and it is imperative for driving innovation and business growth.”

This article was originally published in Campaign Asia-Pacific. This is part of an article series for Women to Watch 2020, created in partnership with Campaign Asia-Pacific as part of Essence's diversity and inclusion initiatives.