Career Development

Cross-Cultural Communication

Ako Shimada, Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of Ushio America, Inc., sits down with CCBJ to discuss her roots and how cultural sensitivity is key to harmonious and successful multinational teams.

CCBJ: Tell us about yourself.

I was born and raised in Japan, and I've been practicing in California for over 20 years. I was in private practice for more than eight years, primarily involved in commercial litigation and intellectual property litigation and protection. In 2008 I went in-house with a major healthcare company where I spent about six years. My focus was regulatory compliance, which included doing a lot of internal investigations. I joined the Ushio group in 2014, initially as assistant general counsel for Christie Digital Systems, Ushio America's sister company, which provides digital projection systems worldwide, and then, in 2017, I moved to Ushio America in as general counsel. In 2021, I became the general counsel of Ushio Europe. I work closely with our parent company, Ushio, Inc., visiting it a couple times a year.

Please talk about your involvement with Practicing Law Institute.

I've been on the faculty of PLI's Advanced Licensing Agreement seminar. It's a two-day course and I've been teaching the international licensing segment for about four years. Based on my experience in IP, litigation and management and my work with my Japanese parent company colleagues. I've been doing that for five years. It's been a very rewarding, interesting experience. All the PLI faculty members I work with are so smart and so experienced. It's been great working alongside them.

I understand that you are heavily involved with mergers and acquisitions and advising Ushio on such matters. What can you tell us about the priorities there and how you navigate that system?

I am Vice President, General Counsel and Corporate Secretary of Ushio America, a wholly owned subsidiary of Ushio, Inc., which is based in Tokyo. So any M&A matter requires board and parent company approval. My parent company has a committee that evaluates potential M&A opportunities. We have to work closely with them, and they're all Japanese. So things can take longer than working for a US company as Japanese culture is very consensus-driven. Things are very carefully evaluated and for any significant proposal or project, you have to go through a formal approval process. So you need to build in enough time to make the project move forward, and you cannot expect something to be decided very quickly.

Also the culture of it is very important. I've been involved in one project where we invested a significant amount into a company, but culture-wise, it was not a great fit. And it's very challenging for Japanese executives to manage a very domestic company. That's unique to a Japanese company and particularly between Asian and American cultures. Culture clash may not be as challenging for a European company acquiring an American company, or vice versa, but having been involved in several M&A projects since I joined Ushio group, it’s been my experience that things aren’t as easy and smooth between an Asian company and a US company.

Tell us about your work with the board and executive committee on various things like IP, M&A, litigation matters. What's your communication process, because obviously they're not experts in these areas and they rely on you, especially within the landscape of the United States.

Ushio America has regular board meetings and as the corporate secretary I attend them all. I also discuss litigation and legal issues as part of the board meeting agenda. In addition, I have weekly calls with Japan. I'm particularly involved with one business unit regarding intellectual property issues. We discuss pretty specific technology, patent, and technical stuff. I work with folks with technical backgrounds. The COO at my company is from Japan so he has very close communication with Japan, as does my CEO. We all talk to Japan on an individual basis; it's not really hierarchical, which I really like about my company.

What are some of the key issues that face multinational organizations?

It's extremely important to understand the culture and listen really well. You cannot insist on your way of doing things. You need to listen and adapt to the culture of the company, especially if it's foreign-owned, because what you think people should understand is not necessarily the case. Basically we’re all creatures of how we are raised and where we grew up and the cultures that we’re used to. So you need to try to understand other points of view. It's already challenging trying to do that with your American colleagues as we’re a diverse society. But to do well in a multinational enterprise you have to be even more culturally sensitive. So my number one advice is to try to understand and listen.

Are you responsible for compliance with the SEC, the DOJ and other US regulatory bodies?

We are not publicly traded, so not the SEC, although we still keep SEC regulations in mind to the extent that many of our customers are subject to those regulations so as a supplier, we have to be mindful of meeting any obligations that apply to suppliers. As for the DOJ, we have to be careful about antitrust and any other regulations that apply to private companies.

Does that trickle up to the Japanese government and their regulatory as regulatory landscape as a subsidiary or a body here?

Because our parent company is in Japan and is publicly traded, it is subject to the “J-SOX,” which is the Japanese equivalent of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. So it is subject to many reporting and internal control obligations which, as a wholly-owned subsidiary, we also have to observe. In addition, I have to pay attention to regulatory developments in Europe because I also oversee European legal concerns. That can be a challenge because it's not easy to keep track of all the new developments in Europe, which is a consumer friendly, environmentally sensitive, regulatory culture. Every year you encounter new directives and new laws.

What is your advice to attorneys or other executives?

As I mentioned above, my number one advice is to be a good listener—no matter what type of company you work for, but especially if it's a multinational company. Be authentic, open and inclusive in your leadership style, especially when you work with people from diverse backgrounds, because everybody has a different communication style—especially Japanese. They don't really speak up as much as Europeans or Americans, so you need to really pay attention to them and then ask them what they think, because they don't like to talk over other people; they're very polite. Part of being inclusive and culturally sensitive is adapting your communication style because you can be perceived as being too aggressive.

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