Keith Yamashita, Chapter Two: Impact at Scale

After two decades of work at SYPartners, Keith Yamashita — the master of the whole‐company reboot — is ready to help transform the way business is done globally. His field of vision is expanding, he says, but his winning methods stay the same:  Begin with the individual person and work outwards, even across the world.

Yamashita, chairman of SYPartners, didn’t always see the individual as the first mover in organizational change. “My point of view has really changed on this over the years,” he says. “In the beginning, we thought we could move the institution, and in moving the institution, we thought the people would come along.”

As it turns out, it’s the other way around. If the people don’t budge, the institution idles. Yamashita’s focus on the individual has electrified major organizations like Apple, Nike, Starbucks, IBM, and others. His tactics are unique, but simple: Know your superpower  what you’re uniquely good at. Build duos that bring out the best. Trust that the project will not fail, nor will the people around you.

But that was all Chapter One for SYPartners, according to Yamashita. “The first 20 years of SY were characterized by doing work for multinational or global companies. All those companies are anchored in the U.S., but now we will start to work for companies that are headquartered elsewhere, as well as on issues that transcend the globe.”

Chapter Two opens with SYPartners joining the recently launched kyu, a group of international firms with discrete talents in brand, design, and entrepreneurialism. Yamashita describes kyu (pronounced “CUE”) as a “potent collective dedicated to the belief that creativity moves society forward.”

Although “it’s still super early days here,” Yamashita says he feels a “trusted bond” with kyu, which will act as a strategic unit within the Tokyo-­‐based Hakuhodo DY Holdings. Hakuhodo, the oldest advertising firm in Japan and the governing spirit of kyu, is the “pinnacle of a people‐centered company,” he says. “The more they revealed about their philosophy, the more it felt like we were operating in an alternate universe on the same first principle. We were so oddly similar.”

Hakuhodo engages in the insight of sei­‐katsu‐sha, an understanding of the individual as a whole person with a complex life, aspirations, and dreams. For Yamashita, this holistic reverence for and understanding of the individual is a critical grounding force in the swift and tumultuous currents of today’s economy.

“We have entered an age of perpetual transformation,” he says. “Gone are the days when you could innovate in cycles. We are now always moving to a new place, and it’s ongoing. I think to do that you have to unleash human talent, so work is going to become more human, more creative.”

Efficiency plays are no longer enough to vitalize an organization, according to Yamashita. Deep creativity must be drawn to the top by allowing others free play in their work. Trust is essential. “It isn’t yet the paradigm of the whole world, but I wish it were,” he says.

As Yamashita and SYPartners step out onto the planet in a bigger way, he seeks “more comrades and colleagues, more resources” to take on international causes and help countries to fulfill their national aspirations. Lately, he has been working with companies in New Zealand that are having impact far beyond their national borders.

“There is a growing movement to mobilize New Zealanders to transform their country into a model nation — one that thrives in the global economy and still preserves its unique heritage,” Yamashita says.

He never imagined SYPartners would take on such challenges when he started the firm in 1994 with one phone jack, a shared email account, and no clients. “SYPartners has been on a journey of transformation since day one, and we will continue to change and evolve. We are becoming more globally-­minded citizens.”

Chapter Three of SYPartner’s journey is still unwritten, but Yamashita has already sketched out a few major plot points:

“We want to make an impact on a billion‐person scale, to pick the issues that affect many of us, not just a few of us. That’s a long haul. We’re far from it today, but it’s where we’re beginning to direct our energy and our creativity. It might take us the rest of the century.”