LavaNet president focuses on high-end business
Interviewed by David Butts
Advertiser Staff Writer
|Gregory Yamamoto The Honolulu Advertiser|
Company: LavaNet Inc.
Almost before she says hello, Yuka Nagashima hands her business card to visitors as they arrive at her office. She doesn't want them to get the wrong impression. "I'm a petite Japanese woman. They usually assume I'm the receptionist and ask me to get the coffee. It's not that I'm bothered by them asking me to get coffee. It's just they don't realize I'm the president and when they speak to me they are either talking down to me or saving it for when they meet the president."
That's also one reason she uses firstname.lastname@example.org as her e-mail address.
Nagashima broke early from the traditional Japanese role for women. As a child in Kobe, Japan, she attended a private international school. Her parents raised her to be independent and did such a good job that at age 11 she asked to be sent abroad. From eighth grade to 12th, she attended an all-girls boarding school in Vancouver, British Columbia. She got a bachelor's degree in physics from Reed College and came to Hawai'i to teach math and physics at Punahou School.
"Everything I learned about being a leader, I learned from teaching. The best teachers make themselves obsolete by teaching students how to teach themselves. The best managers help others make the hard decisions."
She joined LavaNet, an Internet service provider, in 1996 as a sales representative and two years later was named president. She successfully steered the company from its origins as a consumer Internet service provider to its current focus as a high-end business service. She did that (and survived the recent downturn in the industry) without laying off a single employee.
Favorite book: "Many of my favorite books from childhood and college now help me deal with business situations: 'Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window,' by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi, about a spirited girl who attends a special school led by an inspiring principal, whose actions empower the students and the community. 'The Little Prince,' by Antoine de Saint Exupery. 'The Aeneid,' by Virgil. 'New and Selected Poems,' by Mary Oliver."
Most remembered mentor: "Integrity, respect and independence are values I learned from my parents that serve me well as a leader of a company and as a community member. Robert Brewer, my husband, continues to be my sounding board and my sanity check. I've been able to get business and leadership advice from other leaders in the community, including LavaNet's directors, Philip Johnson of UH-Manoa and Paul Lemcke of City Bank."
Best part of the job: "Other people have to do things they don't believe in. I don't have to do that. We get to do the right thing. I grow from it." To Nagashima, honesty is the cornerstone of her business philosophy. "I get to exercise, every day, my integrity."
Worst part of the job: "When we are not able to meet challenges or solve problems despite our best efforts."
Most difficult challenge: "Facing obstacles we have no control over."
Best decision LavaNet made: Establishing a responsible growth policy. "We turn away new customers to preserve the quality for our existing customers." Of course, Nagashima doesn't like to turn away business. She tries to anticipate growth and have the right staff and resources to handle it. But if that doesn't happen, they will refuse new customers. "AOL can't do that," she said.
Trademark expression: "There's no try, just do."
Leadership tip: "When I was a teacher, I was told that a common mistake a new teacher makes is to get invested in getting students to like you. Same holds for leaders. You can't take action on a popularity vote. Instead, I make an effort to like the people I work with and serve. It leads to better decision-making carried out well."
"We have not laid off a single person in the history of LavaNet. How many companies can say that?"
Taking on... Proposals from technical staff
Nagashima said her background in physics has made it possible for her to understand many of the complexities of dealing with telecommunications and Internet operations, "but I don't know the specifics of how to do technical things."
So when her staff comes up with a proposal, "I don't tell them, 'No.' I ask for details." A key question is "What will the customer get out of this?" If the suggestion is for buying a piece of hardware for double what they are now paying, a knee-jerk reaction would be to turn down the request. But it may turn out, once the employee has explained the situation, that the higher-priced equipment will pay for itself in terms of more reliability or better functionality.
Each time employees go through the process of justifying their proposals to Nagashima, they learn something. "Next time they give the presentation, they know what I'm looking for."
Communication doesn't always come easily to programmers or system managers, Nagashima said. "They are often self-taught. They are loners. They are bright, but not used to communicating." The Q-and-A process they go through with Nagashima benefits both, she said.
"If I knew more, I might have been a worse manager because I might want to do it my way and not listen.
"When you have a weakness, you turn it around and use it as your strength."