Amazon Japan President Jasper Cheung's 2019 TUJ Graduation Commencement Address
Mr. Jasper Cheung, Amazon Japan president and member of the TUJ Board of Overseers Emeritus, delivers a commencement address at TUJ’s graduation on June 2, 2019, at the Shinagawa Prince Hotel.
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Good afternoon. I want to let you know how grateful I am for this opportunity to speak with you. Congratulations to all the graduates today. You are now ready to create a life and career of your own design. You own it, the great, the good and the bad. The world is wide open, and there is an overabundance of opportunities for you to grab. So, please go for it!
When I was like you having graduated from my undergrad engineering degree, it wasn’t exactly clear as to what kind of a life I wanted to design and live. I was in Hong Kong then, and I was making plans to leave the place where I was born and move to Toronto in Canada, as the impending handover was about to happen in another 10 years. Meanwhile, I wanted to be playful and decided to just see how far I could go in landing what were deemed the hardest and most desired jobs by conventional wisdom. And I really had nothing to lose, and for that matter, nothing much to gain neither. Without really the desire to get a job offer, I remember I was talking freely, responding to questions not trying to find the right answers, but with my answers in the way I wanted to express them. I talked about what I knew, and interested in, and what I didn’t know and not interested in. Then, miracles happened: one after another, I found myself given offers to these jobs from the banks, the trading houses and many others.
Being able to express myself freely. How I was given the opportunity to join P&G in Canada, when the calculus of relevant education and work experience would have and probably should have failed me; how I was given the opportunity to join and lead Amazon in Japan, where the odds of success were at best unknown, and many other examples in my life follow a very similar and simple underlying reasoning. Express freely about myself so my thoughts and approach can be understood. When the moral compass is in place, and with the handful of principles that I use to design and guide my life, my expression becomes myself, and through that comes my personal leadership, and personal thought leadership. But it wasn’t always like that. There was a period I was really lost, and confused, as I did not even know that I was lost. I felt like I had achieved a few milestones in my career, and I felt like I have to protect myself. I became cautious about what my next few steps in career should be. I was trying to figure out the magic formula, the shortest paths, and the calculus. Designing my life became a very heavy task, and I lost my ability to express myself. Personal thought leadership turned into complaints about what’s missing and what’s not happening, and I put blames on others, and fallen victim to things like not given the opportunity of this and that, or life was simply unfair.
Graduates, I’m sure you may go through much different experience, but you will have your fair share of the high’s-low’s. Stay with your compass, see through the noise, and find your true self. Give it space to express yourself. Your leadership will come out in ways beyond your imagination. Amazing results will follow.
So far I have lived in 4 cities, worked for 3 different companies. Remember the first job offers I was talking about? Well, I ended up taking one of them in Hong Kong, and postponed my move to Canada, for a year. However, there was always this little voice in my head saying, why would you leave a job everyone wanted, and look, don’t rough the boat, and your life will be taken care of. Luckily, I cleared my head one day and thought that the world was far bigger than one city, and going to a large country can really help my growth. So I gave up everything I worked through, it wasn’t really that much at all, but it was all that I had. I went to stay with a friend in Toronto, sharing a room not larger than 20 sq meters. And I started to design and build the life from virtually nothing. The initial hardship turned out to be just a wonderful experience in the end. I ended up finishing my MBA while working at P&G, all the time loving the country I was in, knowing far more about how the great businesses could be run, how to use principles to make decisions and learning from some of the best people at work and at school. I also learned about sharing passion with fellow Canadians from hockey to baseball, politics and economics and felt like that I had the oversize of Canada to grow into.
But Canada turned out to be a transient point in my life. I moved to Japan in 1995 with P&G, first landed in the city of Kobe, where the Hanshin earthquake shook the city and killed thousands of only three months prior to my arrival. I moved again to Tokyo in 2000, in order to join an unknown outfit called Amazon Japan.
The one thing that threaded these discontinuous changes in my life has been following my passion and the ability to take what one might consider as large risks in my career. I still remember that when I told a few friends that I was going to Amazon Japan, one of them said to me ‘you are probably one of the last people going to a dot com company.’ Others said you’ll be foolish to give up all your perks as an expat. My most respected mentor advised me about Amazon saying ‘I wouldn’t touch it with a ten-foot pole.’ But my passion was telling me that the internet is going to change the world, and I wanted to be part of it. Equally importantly is that when I met people at Amazon, they all demonstrated a level of passion about making history, about innovation and about the customer that I had not experienced before. I said to myself, I NEED to be part of this. As far as the advice was concerned, as much as it was truly well-intended, I was glad that they turned out to be wrong. But even if they were right, even if Amazon Japan turned out to be a large failure, it would’ve been risks well worth taking. Remember also, risks associated with such discontinuous changes are typically way over- analyzed and overly emphasized. When I start looking at the things that don’t change, I saw risks completely differently. For example, I know that my skills will never disappear with a failed opportunity. They could only become stronger. Add to that a longer time frame for consideration, where I could take time to modify to adapt and to change, and the perceived risks will further diminish. As long as I am building my skills over time, the risks are virtually free.
It pains me when I read that many graduates in Japan put high priority in their job search on such factors as stability and certainty. I am concerned such a mental model does not create innovation, does not lead to significant contribution to the community, and to this country.
Graduates, I look to you to cause changes, to create disruption through innovation, and take risks at a personal level so your personal leadership can shine and inspire others to do the same. Today we have over 6,000 employees in Japan and we continue to bring in new leaders at large numbers. We have been very lucky to be regarded as a workplace that graduates would highly consider. My biggest fear, however, is that graduates are attracted to Amazon because we are large, because we are established and perhaps we won’t fail. None of this is true, nor do we want it to be true. We want leaders who can cause changes, remain passionate about our mission, and know that their personal leadership will shape the company into the future.
Recently at a reception where we welcomed college graduates into our company, one of them came up to me and asked me ‘What do you think as essential to be a great leader,’ and I told him this. When you put the well-being of everyone else before you, when you make that a priority in life, when you seldom think about what’s in it for you, you will excel in personal leadership far greater than if you care about your own self first. It’s not as if you don’t take care of your own well-being, of course you do, but I think for great leaders, you don’t consider a job well done until you know that you have made contributions to the well-being of others.
Over these many years in my life and career, I came to learn that pursuing an objective far bigger than myself creates the true passion for my work. Putting others’ needs before your own can be seen in a mission statement for a company like Amazon, where our mission is to be the Earth’s most customer centric company. The mission itself stands to test tones and doesn’t have an end to it. I started really learning about the importance of servicing others at a personal level after arriving in Japan. From the way I was greeted at the airport by the taxi driver, to the way I saw the doorman at a large hotel genuinely helping me in, I was so truly inspired to the extent that I actually wanted to be that doorman just to experience it. I also know being able to service a large and ever growing constituents of people, be it our own company of employees, the families or the millions of customers we service, my personal leadership requires more than just passion. Leadership must be supported by substance, with a strong set of skills and knowledge base. All of you just finished years of honing in on specific skills and thought processes and you have all great skills to offer to contribute to this world. Consider it a beginning, not the end to the journey of learning. Make learning a passion of yours. Make learning an objective of yours in everything you do, whenever you are handling a mundane task, or having an exciting conversation with someone. Keep your very high level of curiosity so you can always challenge your own sets of paradigm in forming your own mental models, about what’s possible and what’s not. At Amazon, we use tenets to help make decisions, but in establishing tenets, we always have this statement in brackets: Unless you know better ones. Something truly effective yesterday may not be true or effective today. We improve as we learn, but we only innovate when we make changes and break paradigms. Make learning your path to innovation.
Day 1 is a term at Amazon we use to remind ourselves to be humble, be customer obsessed, and be innovative. Day 2 is the beginning of a path to decline and eventually, death. Make everyday Day 1 in this journey of building your life and a career of your own design. Focus on the fundamentals, so you know what the substance you want to build over a long term. Focus on others, all the constituents, your customers, so the benefit from you being great, from your innovation and your inspiration. Put their interests before your own, and your greatness will shine. Find your own voice, so you express freely and your personal leadership becomes you. Always Day 1 and be a passionate learner.
Create miracles, as you are destined to be great. Thank you and Congratulations.