December Woman to Watch

Nao Ushio

Tell us a bit about yourself and your career so far. What has been the highlight of your career to date?

I am originally from Japan, where I started working at Cisco. I was quite young when I started at Cisco and wanted to eventually travel the world after working there for about one year but I enjoyed working in Cisco so much, and I ended up there for 17 years. During this time the company sponsored my global executive MBA  which took me to 6 different countries, so I accomplished my original goal in the end. I always wanted to work outside of Japan, so when I got a 2 year assignment to the US at the headquarters I was very excited, it ended up being 12 years. I moved to the US to manage the Japan market at the headquarters, after a few years I shifted to managing executive briefings for companies from over 30 countries. Then I moved to Business Operations in a Services group and did my MBA. I covered strategic planning, budget management, IT and systems, and also People strategy, which led to my next job outside Cisco. During that time I also had two kids and maternity leaves.

I always wanted to make more impact, when a startup opportunity arose I thought it was very compelling and I really resonated with their mission to help people be happier and more successful at work. So, I jumped into Glint (now LinkedIn) 5 years ago, during the pandemic I moved to Singapore to help expand and lead the CS team in the Asia Pacific region. In the past two years, I’ve accomplished a lot, learnt a lot, and made a lot of mistakes. I gained so many new skills and experiences more than I could gain in my past ten years in Cisco. I feel very privileged and lucky to be in this position. 

It must be so exciting to work across so many different cultures and countries. What would you say are the main differences across each market? Do you have to change much of your approach in customer success to meet these changes?

My current role is managing customer success across the whole of APAC (Australia & New Zealand, India, Japan, and Southeast Asia), which in itself has so many differences and different cultures. The biggest learning for me, which I learnt the hard way, I thought that Australia was more like western countries like the US. When I moved from Japan to the US 17 years ago, I had to adjust a lot – from very indirect to more direct, less time wasting culture, something very opposite to Japanese cultural norms. Coming back to APAC and the work in Australia I learnt that with clients where you have to build the relationship before doing business which is so fascinating. 

After spending 17 years at Cisco how did you adapt to moving into the more start up environment?

I’m not too sure how I adjusted, it is very very different. Speed and impact are the biggest things. In Cisco for example, you would have about 2 weeks to prep and review in anticipation of meeting a customer or client. In the start up, sometimes you have only 15 mins before you meet with a customer. In a startup environment one person has so much responsibility, which is a lot of pressure but also very exciting to have so much impact. 

What skills do you think are the most important to focus on and develop in customer success at the moment?

I think these skills would vary across industries, but I think they are all very transferable skills and what I look for when interviewing new people. 

  • Stakeholder management – managing customer expectations
  • Project management – putting together so many different pieces and internal departments
  • Technical proficiency – which depending on the company and role isn’t always as important
  • Storytelling – pulling together the data and figuring out the bottom line impact of the solution to the customer to prove value

Internal collaboration is also becoming more important than ever in the current climate because CSM is one of the first to notice the change in the customer business and possible churn. So I think it is crucial to empower CSMs more and let them sit on the decision making table.

Jolyn mentioned you manage a multicultural team across APAC, is there anyone or anything in particular that is your leadership inspiration?

Thank you for asking, it’s so nice of Jolyn to nominate me. I feel very honoured and privileged to have so many talented and hardworking people in my team. As a child growing up in Japan, becoming a female leader is really beyond my imagination. I had no exposure to female leaders previously, I had always had a feeling of injustice and inequality. Japan still ranks 116 in the world in gender equality today, and growing up I really felt this which became my motivation. In starting my career, I vowed to commit myself to succeed as a woman and actively contribute to making the world a better and fairer place for all. 

I am lucky to be in this position and I want to make sure I contribute to everyone else’s success and the workplace being more equal, just and fair. 

We saw on your LinkedIn you achieved the ‘Services Inclusion & Diversity Champion Ambassador Award’ at Cisco. What are the main things companies need to enact to promote DEI within a SaaS company?

Thomas Edison is famous for a tremendous number of  new innovations and inventions, but he was actually an entrepreneur and a business leader. He used to put together diverse people in small teams to inspire each other and collaborate to invent new products. I say this because at Cisco I led an event with his great grand Niece to talk about this story, with the theme of  Innovation Through Collaboration (If you are interested, you can read her book, Midnight Lunch). It’s very important to consciously hire and mix and match diverse talents, and facilitate the team collaborations. This is how we survive in this competitive world. 

Secondly I think it is important to give everyone space to do a self assessment; what’s your identity, what’re your values, and what’s your unconscious bias? What’s your personal DEI goal and why? We are all different people and that’s the beauty of the world. Self assessments are so fascinating to learn about yourself so that once you understand yourself you can respect others and admire differences. 

Lastly, we need to embed DEI in our everyday work and the base of your organisational culture. Many organisations think they have to have a special task force, budgets, or training, to promote DEI. But I think the more important thing is to practise and demonstrate DEI at every opportunity. For example, be inclusive in the meetings, build products and services with DEI in mind, and be an authentic leader and encourage others to be true to themselves.    

What have you been reading, watching or listening to lately?

I have been listening to a book called Very Bad People by Patrick Alley. This book is so exciting, scary and it is about what’s happening in the world. Patrick is one of the co-founders of Global Witness, a British based NGO focusing on the link between natural resources, conflict and corruption. I spent time with him and other two founders in Japan and London and wrote a thesis about their work for my International Relations undergrad degree many years ago. They are my heroes and they inspired me that we can change the world.