COACH A’s CEO on enjoying life, building cathedrals, and Ultraman.
Yoshiyuki Suzuki is CEO of COACH A – one of the world’s largest coaching consultancies. Born and raised in Shizuoka, he started his career with global ad agency McCann Erickson before studying for a master’s degree at Middle Tennessee State University, and serving as a therapist for Tennessee State. He played a pivotal role pioneering coaching services and coach training in Japan in the late 1990’s, and was one of the founding members of COACH A, becoming the firm's President in 2007. He has coached over 200 business leaders at both Japanese and international companies, and written numerous books and articles on effective coaching and business practices.
How would you summarise yourself in one sentence?
I’d describe myself as honest and straightforward. I just try to be myself – nothing more, and nothing less.
What's the most exciting thing happening in your life right now?
We now have 110 coaches at COACH A, 40 of whom are currently executive coaches. Last year I created a training program for coaches, to help them become executive coaches. Anyone interested in becoming an executive coach is welcome to sign up. I’m currently investing a lot of my time into this personally. It’s really exciting for me to see our coaches growing, and I’m also learning a lot for myself as well. I’m going through the program for the third time now – and each time, I feel it’s getting better and better.
Which figures (historic or present, public or private) have played the most important influence in your life so far?
COACH A’s founder, Itoh-san. I’ve learned so much from him – not only about coaching and business, but about living life in general. One of the most important things he helped me to understand early on is that it’s okay to enjoy your life! Many people from my generation who were born and raised in Japan were taught that the most important thing in life is to study hard, to work as hard as you can, and to do things the right way. No one talks about actually enjoying what you do. Life is there to enjoy, and to have fun!
What's been the biggest failure/mistake you've experienced in life or work so far? What did you learn?
I’m pretty positive and optimistic in general, and tend not view things from the past as mistakes. There are times, though, when I wish I had studied for a PhD. After I completed my Master’s degree many years ago, I had a chance to join a PhD program, but decided against it as I wanted to start working as quickly as I could. During my career, I have often felt it would be interesting to go more deeply into the science of coaching, and to discuss coaching more from this academic point of view. Since then, whenever there’s something I feel might be worth doing in life, I make a conscious choice to just go for it and see what happens. I rarely choose the path of not doing so.
Looking back, what key pieces of advice would you give to your 21-year-old self?
I studied literature at university because I had initially wanted to become an actor. Acting had been a dream since my teens, and I wanted to study something that would help me in an acting career. Eventually though, my career took a very different path. Looking back, I would advise myself to get a solid grounding in business-related areas such as finance, economics, management, and marketing earlier on in life. All the things I had to learn on the job which, if I had studied beforehand, would have made things a lot easier!
What key values do you live by?
In Japanese, “Toraekata shidai”, or in English, “How you look at things changes everything”. The well-known story about the manual labourers helping to build Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in late 19th century Barcelona is a great illustration of this. One man’s laborious and mundane task of shaping and laying stones was, to another man, a labour of love: the dream of building a beautiful cathedral. If you can change your perspective, you can change everything.
What keeps you up at night?
How to optimize our corporate culture at COACH A is something that’s constantly on my mind. Every Monday we have a culture discussion with our board and directors. We think about our where our culture is right now, how people are interacting, how much they talk to each other, what they are talking about, what they appreciate about each other, whether they feel safe, comfortable, and excited to be here. If I go out for a drink with colleagues and learn there’s someone in our company having a tough time, that keeps me up at night. Thinking about what I can do to shift the atmosphere of the team in a more positive direction.
What keeps you motivated when the going gets tough?
My desire to make our company bigger, better, and successful globally. A few years from now, people might not necessary see COACH A as a Japanese company anymore – and our headquarters may not even be in Japan. It’s this future vision that keeps me going!
What are your morning rituals for getting a great day going?
I get up every morning at 5:40am, do some stretching, and then 30 push-ups and sit-ups in order to get the blood flowing. I then take a bath, and have a light breakfast (yoghurt, vegetables, eggs, and bread). I head to the office early, and meditate for 15 minutes. Once I’m done, I am very ready for a full day ahead!
Where/when do you have your most "A-ha" or "lightbulb" moments?
I usually enjoy writing at cafés where you have lots of different people around. Somewhere atmospheric, with good energy. Ueshima Coffee in Azabu, or the Starbucks in Daikanyama’s T-Site are two of my favourite spots.
How do you energize outside of your work?
I like getting together with colleagues or friends at restaurants with a unique ambiance. I appreciate nice cuisine, but for me, the company and atmosphere is even more important than the food. Other than that, I go to the gym at least once a week, and love watching rugby. I also have a weekly ritual of going to the cinema with my wife to catch up on the latest movies.
What's your biggest vice?
A chilled glass of Suntory Premium Malts beer in the evening to end the day!
What are the top: Business, Fictional, and Biographical books you've read lately?
“一緒にいたい”と思われるリーダーになる” (rough translation into English: “Become a leader whom people actually want to be around”) by Simon Sinek. Sinek is the creator of the “Golden Circle” (a strategic management and leadership tool), the author of bestseller “Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action”, and presenter of one of the most viewed Ted Talks of all time (his talk has been viewed over 40 million times). I was lucky enough to supervise the overall translation for this book into Japanese earlier this year.
Top movie of all time?
Saint Elmo’s Fire – the story of five graduates from Georgetown University, and their transition into young adulthood. I first saw this movie when I was twenty years old, and it inspired me to go and study in the US.
Favourite cartoon character growing up?
Ultraman – a hero who defends humanity against monsters and aliens with a time limit of 3 minutes per fight. It taught me the thrill of having to achieve something under pressure within a short timeframe! I’m now enjoying watching the remake on Netflix Originals.
What's on heavy rotation at home right now?
I usually have the week’s most played US hits streaming on Amazon Music at home. Knowing what’s trending keeps me from feeling old, and also helps raise my credibility with my son!
Favourite travel destination?
Seattle. I love Seattle. In general, I’m drawn towards places surrounded by either ocean or lakes, as well as trees, nature, and greenery. My favourite spot in Seattle is in and around the University of Washington.
Top bucket list travel destinations?
I would love to explore European cities more. I recently went to Barcelona, and would love to see more of places like Paris and Saint Petersburg.
What will you be doing post-retirement?
Writing fiction novels.
And to close with, your favourite quote?
My Indian Yoga teacher always used to tell me, “What’s happening now is always for the best”. It helps remind me that whatever happens, life is really up to you, and what you choose to make of it.