All-rounders: Noriko Sato

Interview with Zoe Ledbetter and Christy Davis

Meet all-rounder Noriko Sato, a professor at International Pacific University in Okayama, Japan! She’s also a certified professional coach and HR consultant. Her varied career has spanned non-profit, corporate and education sectors; additionally, she has spent significant time living and working in multi-cultural settings. Noriko has a Master’s in International Education from the University of Washington in Seattle, and is a doctoral candidate in business administration at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. Her nonlinear path provides unique insights on how to navigate life and how becoming an all-rounder takes time, courage and curiosity.

Tell us a bit about yourself and the life/professional journey you have traveled.

I was raised in a small city, less than 40,000 people. I always had a goal to get out of my small town, beyond the mountains, to the big city, and do something. By the time I was 20–21, I moved to Tokyo and was pursuing an international life. I completed my undergrad at Osaka University of Foreign Studies, majoring in Spanish.

Professionally, I’ve marked each decade of my life in different ways. In my 20s, my working life began with a non-profit organization called Int’l Education Centre (IEC) in Tokyo. At IEC, we had connections with the private sector and academic institutions — these partnerships were essential for the work we did. My main responsibility was managing a graduate-level School of International Studies and coordinating cultural exchange programs between the U.S. and Japan. One of these was an exchange programme for Harvard Business School’s Asian Business Club students, with about 100 students at a time visiting Japan from Harvard. It was always a highlight for me — I loved meeting the students and coordinating their Japan experience.

In my 30s, I made a major shift, moving to the finance sector as Deputy HR Director for HSBC Bank. I was in charge of talent recruitment and development. This move to the bank surprised even myself a bit — I revelled in my not for profit work and my impression of the banking industry in those days in Japan wasn’t very positive. There were few managerial opportunities for women. But it actually provided an excellent opportunity to use the cross-cultural skills and tap many of the relationships I had developed at IEC. Specifically, I focused on relationships with universities and professors for recruitment purposes.

Then in my 40s I went independent, becoming a certified professional coach as well as offering leadership and diversity programmes to multi-national companies. During this time I also moved to the U.S. for a number of years. The decade passed quickly, and in my 50s I made a move back into education, joining International Pacific University in Okayama, in the western part of Japan. I teach and oversee the Career Centre, which means I’m responsible for helping secure job placement for 500 students every year. And last year I also became a student again myself, pursuing a Doctor of Business Administration at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo. If all goes well, I have a doctorate in 4–5 years’ time!

As a coach and since my banking days, partnerships continue to be key for me to get things done. I’ve learnt the importance of networks and relationships: they’re all necessary for me to be a resource to the people I’m serving.

What do you think makes you an all-rounder?

My international experience taught me a lot about being an all-rounder. I spent total of 8 years in the US, including getting a master’s degree at the University of Washington. I got a taste with my Spain exchange when I was 20. I also was a backpacker at the time and in those days there weren’t so many single travellers. I was quasi-tri-lingual — so having fairly good English and Spanish was very helpful for survival as I travelled. Fundamental problem solving skills I learned during my travels have been a foundation for me — learning how to navigate challenges began with the simple task then like asking directions of a stranger — for my young self it took courage. Courage is an important characteristic of what you are calling an “all-rounder”, but so is curiosity. I was curious about the world, about different kinds of people, and interestingly, my curiosity generated courage — it actually relieved anxiety for me when I didn’t know what to do next.

Looking back, I feel like my life resembles a jigsaw puzzle. It’s interesting to reflect upon all the different pieces of my life — from non-profit work to banking to education, and how they fit together and how I’ve collected different skills from my different experiences. I come back to curiosity and courage — these qualities strengthened with every year and enabled me to navigate my different career choices. Again, I was keen to see what was around the next bend in the road, never knowing what might be waiting for me.

How can qualities of all-rounders be sources of innovation in the work you do? What is innovation in your world?

There are multiple talents and personality traits in every person. Innovation, comes from diversity. I believe I have many different ideas, interests, traits — these facilitate my own ability to be creative and generate novel or fresh ideas. The same is true for an organization — they can be more innovative and stronger if they are intentional about cultivating and leveraging diversity. Different interests and talents make us stronger and more adaptable.

Your world continues to be diverse — your students, other faculty members, your executive coaches — how do you find common ground with individuals different from you, how do you eliminate the “distance” between yourself and the other person?

An interesting question! I’m not conscious about eliminating the distance between myself and others, actually. Rather, I think about how to build rapport. And it can happen in interesting, unexpected ways. Some years ago I had a multi-national company as a client — I coached a number of their executives. Before I would meet an executive client for the first time, I would do my homework to prepare for the first meeting, called a “chemistry check” session. On one occasion, I was running late and I hadn’t done a background search on my client. I made the assumption the gentleman I was meeting was director level of the company. We had a great chemistry check session and he decided to hire me as his personal coach for a year. After I left his office I subsequently discovered he was actually the president of the company. However, it worked better because I had so little information about him that I was naturally curious, and asked him so many questions. He liked that — later, it actually worked out better for us. I can’t recommend this as a usual way of working, but being authentic allowed us to find common ground in this case. It’s important not to be intimidated by power and position. These people of authority are still people. We laugh, we cry, our emotions are the same. I’ve been told I make friends with clients quickly, but I think it is my nature for curiosity and ability to discern feelings and communicate well are key.

You’re in your 50s, taking on new challenges, your journey continues. What advice or wisdom from your life would you pass on to others who are just beginning their journey to become an all-rounder, or desire to embark on such a path?

Don’t limit yourself. We are naturally gifted in many different ways, and each of us possess multiple gifts. Life has different twists and turns — we don’t know what is around the next bend. When an opportunity comes near you, reach out and grab it! Even if it isn’t exactly what you had expected or perhaps wanted or what you think you can do. Believe in the possibilities it may present. Believe in yourself and what you are capable of. Keep being curious about yourself and the world. Actually, it only takes a small amount of courage to take the first step. Each step then creates the opportunity for the next step, and the next step. Enjoy the journey. It’s cliché, but life is not just a destination, it is indeed about the journey. Each day I wake up and think: today is the first day of the rest of my life. This fact makes me feel young each day, and however much more time I have stretches before me. Never be afraid to start something new — you never know what lies around the bend!


Want to connect with Noriko? Reach out to her via her LinkedIn!


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Edited by: Christy Davis and Micaela Tam