Careers often pose tough challenges. When stressed, it’s easy to underestimate the value of professional friendships. Mayuko Hashida of GLOBIS Insights recently interviewed 2017 GLOBIS Alumni Award winner Shunsuke Karasawa about how he dealt with success and failure at one of the world’s most recognizable brands.

Hashida: Congratulations on the award. How do you feel?

Karasawa: Thanks. I was grateful that you contacted me. I feel such gratitude for all the instructors at GLOBIS and my alumni friends. The award was a result of the part I played in the turnaround at McDonald’s. My colleagues and I worked as a team to promote change. We wouldn’t have been able to accomplish what we did without the support of so many people. I’m so proud to have been a part of it.

The word “innovation” is very important to me. “Creation” and “change” are two keywords at GLOBIS, but if we consider creation as a term mainly for startups, probably 80% of the students are responsible for innovation or change at middle-to-large companies. GLOBIS graduates have to build track records of change, so GLOBIS has to nurture the ability of students to change their businesses.

That’s why I set up the GLOBIS Innovation Club when I was a student here. More than 1,300 people—current students and graduates—participate in the club, which invites practitioners of change to share their stories for inspiration. As someone who likes to wave the flag for change, I feel particularly happy to see such results.

Pride before a fall: Director at 28, then a big failure

Hashida: Could you tell me about your background?

Karasawa: Before I got a proper job, I was a typical college student. Just like everyone else, I took part in clubs and interest groups in college. I also had a part-time job. But then in my final year, five or six friends and I started a venture called Ha-mail. It was a play on words. “Sha-mail” was the phrase trademarked by Softbank predecessor J-Phone to describe emails with photo attachments sent via phone. Ha is the Japanese word for teeth. With our service, users could take a photo of their teeth and send it by email. The next day, they would receive advice from a dentist. We all ended up getting jobs, so the venture didn’t last, but Ha-mail did garner enough attention in its time to appear on TV. It was with Ha-mail that I learned how interesting work could be.

Hashida: So, you went to work for McDonald’s?

Karasawa: Yeah, it was a big decision. Most of my friends went to work in trading companies and banks. They asked me, “Why McDonald’s?” They teased me a little and thought it strange. Students tend to think of the food service industry just from the standpoint of the restaurants—places where people go for part-time work.

On top of that, I was offered the job in 2004, due to start in April 2005 after graduating. At the time, McDonald’s Japan had just posted a loss. One of the recruiters told me that McDonald’s had to change. I was attracted to the idea of being a part of that. I remember chanting to myself “I wanna change the company” every day, like a spell or incantation.

Hashida: Were you in marketing the whole time?

Karasawa: Yes, I stayed in marketing from the beginning, and when I was 28, I got promoted to Director of Merchandising. Most directors there were in their forties or fifties, so when I got the offer, it came as a complete surprise. My drive to change the company got even stronger. I wanted to produce results, especially now that I was in such an important position. As it turned out, I managed to drop the ball on the biggest project of all.

You might remember a time when the counter menus disappeared for a while. Japan was the only country in the world where there were still menus on the counter, so we assumed people here would be able to order without them. Testing went well, so we rolled it out nationwide. The response from customers and the media was completely unexpected. They said that losing the menu was inconvenient for customers, and that we were just trying to force quicker ordering because all we cared about were efficiency and profits. The message was very different from what we intended, and our brand image suffered.

So there I was: I had just become a director with lofty ideals to change the company, as if I knew it all. But I couldn’t. I felt so frustrated, like it was time to move on and grow in a different environment. Then I realized I had still not fully repaid McDonald’s for everything the company did for me. And leaving would have felt like running away. So instead, I came to GLOBIS for an MBA.

Developing skills, establishing a network, and identifying a personal mission

Hashida: So you came to GLOBIS for your MBA in 2013.

Karasawa: Well actually, I took a class in Critical Thinking in 2008. Five years on, I still remembered how much I’d learned. It had helped me achieve results and grow so much, and really left a deep impression on me. So when I decided I needed to grow further, I remembered GLOBIS. I knew straightaway that it was the right decision.

Although I wanted to change my company, I had no vision or ideas for the direction of that change. I wanted to achieve results, but I couldn’t fail again. I was suffering from all the pressure I was heaping on myself. In a way, I was working with one eye on my bosses, hoping they would not see me make another mistake. I was asking myself, “Is this really what I want to do?” I wanted to drive away that self-doubt. It was the focus on kokorozashi (my personal mission) at GLOBIS that helped me do that.

Hashida: So, what did you learn at GLOBIS?

Karasawa: Just like it says in the school’s philosophy, I developed my skills, learned about networks, and found my kokorozashi. It all had a huge benefit for me.

Learning about management frameworks helped my skills develop. In January 2015, a few months before I graduated, I became the Director of the CEO’s Office and aimed to bring the company from the red into the black. My first day on the job, there were reports over food safety issues. The media went into a frenzy. It was like a circus. With our backs against the wall, as Director of the CEO’s Office, it was my job to bring all the decision-makers together—finance, marketing, human resources—and restore some control. It was handy that I had learned about working in hubs and other management structures in my organizational behavior class at GLOBIS.

Next was the network. January was also my birthday, but with a crisis going on, I didn’t have time to celebrate. Right on my birthday, a friend invited me to a secret group on Facebook. The group had about 100 members—all friends from GLOBIS. They had uploaded photos of themselves eating McDonald’s hamburgers with messages of support. The storm blowing around McDonald’s was at its strongest, and I was a wreck. Full of emotion, I burst into tears. Being able to find such an incredible group of friends has been my biggest asset. It was they who got me through it.

Next time, Mr. Karasawa will tell us how the American fast food chain turned around three bad years to end 2016 on a high note.

Top photo credit: Jirsak