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Career Success
OCT 27, 2020

How Surviving Cancer Led to a Commitment to Diversity and Inclusion

By Shuutaro Takeuchi, With Masahiko Kon, Translated by Jonathan Soble

Where does the road to diversity and inclusion begin?

C-suite executive Masahiko Kon believes it’s his responsibility to create a workspace of diversity and inclusion.

Kon’s personal experience with discrimination began with an unexpected shock: cancer diagnosis. By then, he’d put in years as a hardworking, respected finance manager, but once word got out about his condition, that didn’t seem to matter. People around the office were suddenly treating him as a frail, dying man. Statistics, too, warned that he was likely at the end of his career.

Now he’s the president of 3M Japan and 3M Japan Products, as well as a long-time faculty member at GLOBIS University.

He spoke with his GLOBIS colleague Shuutaro Takeuchi about what fighting a serious illness taught him about workplace diversity and inclusion.

Mr. Masahiko Kon, a leader in finance who survived cancer discrimination in the workplace
Mr. Masahiko Kon’s experience with cancer discrimination led him to a whole new understanding of diversity and inclusion.

The Three Things You Need to Manage Well

Takeuchi: Now that you’re running a company again, you must have a renewed awareness of what managers need to do to be successful.

Kon: It really comes down to three things for managers, especially top management.

The first thing, of course, is a commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion. By incorporating diversity, you can improve in other areas, such as innovation.

Second is the ability to make decisions. Things nobody else can make up their mind about ultimately rise to the level of the president. There’s almost never a 100% obvious answer. Information is always too scarce, so you have to make decisions in that context.

Third is the ability to see the entire world from your position above—almost like a bird’s eye view. It’s important to be able to look at the big picture, to see global trends, to have a sense of where the government is heading, things like that.

Battling Cancer in the Business World: A War on Two Fronts

Takeuchi: I understand you’re battling an illness.

Kon: I had pancreatic cancer two and a half years ago. The surgery was successful, but the cancer hasn’t completely disappeared. Chemotherapy and the side effects associated with it are hard. And on top of that, there’s discrimination against cancer patients in the working world.

Takeuchi: What do you mean by discrimination?

Kon: I was working at another company at the time, and there was definitely a shift in how I was viewed. No one told me outright that I should resign, but people said things like, “There’s no way you can handle an important job at a big company like this with cancer.”

I wasn’t getting any new assignments. It was depressing. About a third of cancer patients lose their jobs. Average annual incomes drop significantly. I would see data like that and think, “That’s it for me.”

But 3M is a company that respects its employees and their individual circumstances. It doesn’t discriminate against people just because they’re—well, cancer patients, for example. In fact, not once did I hear anything negative from anyone in the company. Not so much as a “It must be hard to work when you have cancer.”

The U.S. headquarters even nominated me for the position of president after considering my performance and capabilities. I was both surprised and impressed. When that happened, it was me who asked, “Are you sure you’re OK hiring someone who’s being treated for cancer?”

Seeing the Problem from the Inside

Takeuchi: It sounds like your big takeaway is that people with handicaps don’t need to feel handicapped.

Kon: Exactly. That’s what diversity is all about. It’s discrimination to say, “You can’t do that because of your handicap.” And there are so many ways a person might be seen as “disabled.” A woman raising children may not have flexible work hours, but that’s no reason she can’t be a manager. My own experience made me think hard about that sort of attitude.

As president, it’s your duty to eliminate even the slightest discriminatory environment. It can’t be solved only with numerical targets—a certain ratio of female managers, or a certain percentage of disabled people in the workforce. You need to create a company where people with disabilities and people who are commonly referred to as “minorities” don’t feel that they are at a disadvantage, or even that they are a minority. I’ve seen and experienced how energized people become when they don’t feel disadvantaged.

When I was appointed president, I explained this directly to all my employees. It’s a philosophy we embrace at 3M, and it’s something I would like to communicate to society.

Takeuchi: How did your own style of working change after you were diagnosed?

Kon: I was in the world of finance for more than 30 years. It was all about collecting and analyzing as much data as possible. The hours were always long. There was a kind of Showa era approach of just powering through.

But when I was diagnosed with cancer, things suddenly changed.

The treatment was physically demanding, so I couldn’t conduct the same volume of research that I had before. I thought about leadership and realized that, instead of leading from the front, I needed to delegate and support others who could lead the charge.

Pitfall No. 1: Don’t Mistake Goals for Means

Takeuchi: What do you want to work on in the future? What are your goals?

Kon: One of the things I used to tell my Entrepreneurial Leadership class was that there is a difference between a goal in life and the means to achieve it. Means are very easy to understand, and you can raise your level of performance by paying attention to them. But ultimately, it’s the goal that counts.

To put it another way, jobs like CFO or president are really just means to an end of producing something or changing the world in some way. The higher the position, the more power you have to bring change. But the title isn’t the achievement.

So my goal in life… Broadly speaking, I want to make society a better place. For me, the only way to do that is through business. Being president of 3M Japan is a way of achieving this goal. It’s my sole purpose as a top executive to put this ideal into practice.

As a lecturer at a business school, I believe that we can train managers to grow as human beings. If all a manager had to do was memorize a business book and regurgitate it, a computer or AI could do the job. There would no need for human beings. But that’s not the case. We can all grow and learn every day.