Lei Yamautsuri
Senior Manager, Global Communications / Tokyo

Building a company culture of open communication

After an unexpected opportunity at the company she joined after graduating from university, Lei Yamautsuri chose to pursue a career as a professional Japanese-English interpreter/translator. She is currently the Senior Manager of Global Communications at SmartNews where she leads the facilitation of internal communications. She is also involved in corporate culture development as a member of the Culture Group.

When did you join SmartNews?

I joined the company in September 2018. I joined at the same time as Jeannie Yang who is currently our Head of Product for SmartNews and based in the U.S. One of my responsibilities was to interpret for her.

When you joined the company, what did you set as the goal that you wanted to achieve here?

From the very beginning of my career at SmartNews, I felt that I wanted to provide comprehensive support for internal communication through my work as an interpreter/translator. For that reason, I didn’t want my work to be limited to interpreting at meetings and translating documents. I wanted to find and solve any linguistic problems that arose. For example, I would regularly ask neighboring teams if there was anything that I could help them with. I still believe that the interpretation/translation team is a proactive team.

Was there already a translation and interpretation team in place at the time you joined SmartNews?

No. I was the first employee involved in interpretation/translation to join the company, so there was nothing in place. Thankfully, from the moment I joined the company, there was a huge demand for translation/interpretation support. Our team has since grown to seven people, but the demand has exceeded the supply to the point where meetings that need interpretation have to be scheduled based on our availability. It’s still a bit of a game of cat-and-mouse; our team has not been able to keep up with the speed at which the company is scaling. We plan to grow our team of seven to ten by the end of 2021.

The expansion of the team is an urgent task. What kind of people are you looking for?

We are looking for people who can relate to the mission of the company, have love for each and every employee, and have a strong commitment to language and good communication. Our current team is full of craftsman-like members. It is not enough to simply speak good English or good Japanese; you have to have a good sense of intuition. For interpreters it is probably better if you can interpret in a “first in, first out” style, to keep up with the speedy conversations that happen at SmartNews. The number of people with diverse backgrounds will continue to increase in the future, so if you are interested in taking on challenges in a company that’s growing globally, I would like to meet you!

In a job that requires such a high level of work, when do you feel satisfaction and joy?

There was once a meeting with Jeannie, our Senior VP of Product whom I mentioned earlier, our VP of Ad Product Paul, and several other members who could only speak Japanese. I still remember even now that after I finished interpreting for that meeting, Paul sent me a direct message saying, “I was really impressed. I had heard rumors, but your interpretation skills far exceeded what I had imagined.”

I felt a sense of purpose having been useful, and I was so happy to have received such praise from a perfectly bilingual person like Paul. I believe that SmartNews will continue to grow on a global scale. I believe that communication has a large impact on our daily work. It makes me happy to receive this kind of feedback from within the company. I feel like I’m contributing to the company’s mission.

Please tell us about your career to date. What was it that got you interested in English in the first place?

I lived in New York State from the age of three to fourteen due to my father’s job, so when I came back to Japan for my second year of junior high school, English was more like my first language and my Japanese was a little broken. Despite that, I was somehow able to enter a regular junior high school in the city ward where I lived. At that time there were not so many children like me who had returned from overseas to live in Japan, so everyone was very curious about me and I realized that being able to speak English as a Japanese person was a huge advantage.

Did you continue to study English after returning to Japan?

As my exposure to English in the U.S. ended after eighth grade, the first thing I aimed for was to get level one on the Eiken Test in Practical English Proficiency. A level one score is said to indicate the level of English proficiency expected of a university graduate. So I looked for a cram school aimed at returnees. I was ultimately able to get the level one score on the exam in my first or second year of high school. This made me really enjoy the English language itself.

Did you choose a job that involved English out of college?

No, I was originally into IT and using computers, so I entered Fujitsu as an SE as a new grad. I was an English-speaking SE, but the job had nothing to do with interpretation or translation.

When did you reach the turning point that led you to your current job?

That turning point was when I attended an international conference while I was working as an SE. There were about 150 people in attendance, and the interpreter who had been hired to work at the event became ill and had to leave. My boss turned to me and said, “you’re a new hire, but you speak English, right?” and suddenly I got my first assignment as a consecutive interpreter.

I managed to interpret for the event and afterwards was thanked by both employees from Fujitsu and those attendees who could only speak English. It felt like I was being of use to people, and that was probably the turning point for me. I had heard that people can feel happiness when they are useful to others, but that conference was the first time that I experienced that feeling for myself.

After that I decided to pursue interpretation, so I quit Fujitsu and joined a company called DirecTV. Working there, I realized how interesting startup companies could be. That’s how I ended up working as a freelancer before joining my previous company, LINE Corporation.

When I joined, LINE’s interpretation and translation team consisted of myself and one other person, but in the three and a half years that I was there, I was able to grow the team to seven people. I also found it rewarding to play a role as a cultural bridge, removing communication hurdles between overseas and Japanese offices so everyone could work together smoothly.

Through these experiences, I gradually came to realize that I wanted to contribute more to a Japanese company that was looking to expand its services overseas. At that time, I happened to hear from someone at SmartNews that the company was expanding their overseas offices and wanted to set up an interpretation/translation team. I pitched myself for the role, asking if I could take on the challenge.

In addition to the interpretation/translation team, you are also a member of the Culture Group. Could you tell me about this group?

The group was created by one of the first members of the U.S. office with the purpose of promoting the engagement and alignment of the company mission, “Delivering the world’s quality information to the people who need it,” and our three core values— “For the Common Good,” “Be the Owner,” and “Have Appreciation” — as well as to promote alignment throughout the company.

What was the reason behind starting the group?

Having started off as a small company, SmartNews has grown rapidly over the past two years. The management team began to feel that a gap in awareness and understanding of the mission among employees had formed during that process. In response to this, the Culture group was born out of the idea of creating a department that would take ownership of the two axes necessary to bridge that gap: alignment and engagement.

What kind of work do you do on a daily basis?

I work on a variety of initiatives to communicate our mission and core values. For example, we are working on five initiatives called the Core Five. The first of these is called GAH (Global All Hands). This is a monthly, company-wide meeting held online to explain what the company is doing at every level. The second, WWD (What We Do), is a semi-annual opportunity for each department and pillar to present to the entire company what they are doing to achieve their mission. The third is our newsletter which is published internally bimonthly and features stories from each office and various staff members. The fourth is the Donuts initiative. Donuts is the name of a Slack application that randomly groups people in a Slack channel of the same name and has them hang out and have a conversation for 15 or 30 minutes. This was a measure we put in place when we switched to a remote-based working style due to COVID-19. We introduced it as a mechanism to foster on Slack the innovations born out of chance encounters that SmartNews had valued so much before. The fifth initiative, Unipos, is what’s called a Peer Reward system that visualizes the appreciation we feel toward our colleagues that have helped us. Those are the Core Five measures that we are currently working on.

Having an in-house interpretation/translation team is quite a rare thing in and of itself, so I think this shows how determined SmartNews is to go global and break down language barriers.

This determination is also reflected in the Culture Group as our core value of having appreciation is something that cannot be created without communication between people. Because we are able to work closely with the department in charge of onboarding and hiring, we are always ready to welcome new staff no matter where they are from or what language they speak.


Book Recommendation

Diving deeper into the impact of openness

I’ve reread this book about four times now. I’m a little bit embarrassed about how many parts I have underlined and how many pages I’ve dog-eared. (laughs) This book talks about how important it is to make information visible. I read it just as the Culture Group started.

As the company was continuing to scale, information was becoming more and more siloed. People could only see what was directly related to them. I began to feel concerned about the impact this was having on the workplace atmosphere and employee engagement. Once I learned that other employees were feeling a similar way, I started to look into information about these kinds of matters. That’s when I found this book. Because of it, I realized how strongly issues of openness affect workplace atmosphere and employee engagement, and it inspired me to study more about creating an open corporate culture. For example, I learned that a leader who says, “talk to me anytime,” but is actually too busy to make time to interact with their employees promotes lower levels of openness in their organization; that when leaders only share their success stories, everyone starts to hide their mistakes; and that the more employees feel they are part of an open work culture, the more potential that company has for growth.

The book includes a lot of data and it made me realize a lot. I really recommend it to anyone who wants to create an open corporate culture like I did.

OPENNESS shokuba no kuuki ha kekka wo kimeru

Author: Yuiga Kitano
Publisher: DIAMOND, Inc.
Date Published: November 2019

The contents are as of September 01, 2021.