I took a sabbatical from my CEO role to join a ‘self-managing’ Japanese workplace: here’s what I learned

A change of perspective for social entrepreneur Dirk Bischof was just what he needed after two decades focusing on starting and growing five ventures. A four-month immersion in a Japanese organisation with no CEO was life-changing, he explains.

Dirk Bischof

In early 2023, I left Hatch, the organisation I had founded in London in 2013, for a four-month sabbatical. I ventured east, getting involved with one of Japan’s longest-standing enterprise support organisations, ETIC (Entrepreneurial Training for Innovative Communities). 

This sabbatical had been on my mind for a long time before I told my board of trustees and senior colleagues in early 2022 that I’d like to take a break from Hatch, where we support under-represented entrepreneurs to imagine, launch and grow sustainable and impactful businesses. I’d worked non-stop since starting my engineering apprenticeship aged 16. No gap year roaming around the world in my 20s, no career break in my 30s. And now, after 10 years at Hatch I felt the need for a breather; to check if I was still aligned to our mission and whether I’d be keen to do another 10 years – the time it usually takes to make any meaningful progress in a not-for-profit organisation.

Why Japan? I had visited the country almost 10 times over the last 14 years, from cycling more than 5,000km there and getting to know the culture. I really enjoy being in Japan, for reasons I don’t fully understand. To me, it feels like home. I had never worked there, though. When I met people from ETIC at a conference in November 2022 I learned that their focus is similar to that of Hatch – working with founders and changemakers – so I asked if they could host my sabbatical. Then it was just a matter of lining up some practical things, like my work permit, to start work in Tokyo. 

Being inside an organisation often makes you blind to things that could be improved

I knew that many things in Japan (and in ‘the East’, as we see it from Europe) are not easily comparable to how things work here in the UK. There are unspoken ways of doing things, hard-coded and yet invisible rules, which I had experienced during my previous visits. But to work there, to be part of a team, to understand how an organisation works with founders across Japan was a dream that suddenly turned into reality. 

 

Shifting perspective 

As a founder, it’s easy to get attached to your organisation – to the vision, outcomes, people and the success and failures of starting, running and growing an organisation. I’ve started five ventures in the last 22 years, with three of them surviving and thriving past the hardest first three years (the so-called valley of death). My current organisation, Hatch, is by far the most impactful one in terms of achieving its mission and vision, even though we’re nowhere near completing it. At the same time, being inside an organisation often makes you blind to things that could be improved, or that might already be working but that you beat yourself up about because they’re not better. 

Hatch team

The Hatch team in London: Dirk's most impactful venture yet 

 

So, placing yourself inside another organisation can provide something really critical: perspective. Doing this for a meaningful period of time (three or more months), if you can, will allow you to see your work from another vantage point. And, especially if you’re a senior leader or CEO, working in another role or organisation can be life-changing. All of a sudden, you have to re-negotiate the workplace, figure out who’s setting agendas, and how the organisation keeps itself accountable to its mission. You have to figure out how you create value, how you become a ‘team member’. All those things were new again; I had to figure things out from scratch. Exciting!  

 

A self-managing workplace with no CEO

ETIC delivers a number of enterprise support programmes and funding to social entrepreneurs in Japan, and is one of the best-known organisations in the sector. It employs about 50 people full time and has another 50 freelance or part-time team members. A few years ago, just before its 30th anniversary, ETIC transitioned from a hierarchical, CEO-led organisation, to a self-designing and self-managing one, without a CEO in charge. 

I have always been drawn to the freedom that comes with being an entrepreneur. The freedom of being able to direct my creative and business mind towards solving societal challenges, while directing my own time and energy. I still have people I am accountable to – our board, team, and customers. But I am largely in control of how and where I spend my time, knowing that I have a role to play as a part of a larger whole. Joining ETIC, where everything is self-designing and self-managing, was a huge opportunity to understand how this could work in an organisation with a similar mission.

If you’re a senior leader or CEO, working in another role can be life-changing. All of a sudden, you have to re-negotiate the workplace

After four months at ETIC, I can see some benefits of being self-managed and self-directed. It often appeals to those who want to realise personal and professional ambitions while helping to fulfil a larger, organisational mission. There was more focus on figuring out interpersonal challenges, often through the “teal” approach (see box).

But I’ve only just scratched the surface. My immediate questions around organisational strategy, KPIs and trying to figure out who was doing what were often rebuked with reference to things being “in flux”, or that teams “set their own strategy”. To me, this was very new and very confusing. But I had to trust that it was working, given ETIC’s success in delivering enterprise support programmes across all of Japan, delivering finance to founders via their Mitene Fund and running the prestigious Tokyo Startup Programme.

 

The Teal Principles

Self-organisation: Distributed authority and collective intelligence instead of rigid hierarchical management structures – natural hierarchies emerge and dissipate depending on situational context.

Wholeness: Individuals are allowed to “drop the mask”, and express all of who they are at work as and when they want to, not just those characteristics traditionally deemed to be professional.

Evolutionary purpose: The organisation has a purpose of its own. Instead of attempting to predict and control the direction of the organisation, members strive to listen and understand where the organisation collectively is naturally drawn to go.

Source: Frederic Laloux, Reinventing Organizations

 

Understanding how outcomes are delivered

Having been embedded in a non-hierarchical organisation, I can see how self-management is playing to modern notions of motivation being intrinsic to every person versus something that’s externally influenced, rewarded or punished. Think ‘carrot and stick, something that Daniel Pink wrote about extensively in his book Drive. There is a huge appeal in wanting to be the best employer or a ‘people-first organisation’, prioritising each individual’s personal and professional development by implementing people frameworks that foster ‘autonomy, mastery and purpose’, for example. 

But I don’t think that mission-driven organisations should necessarily consider self-management from the get-go. I think it’s more critical that they set out their long-term vision and mission, and chart a path towards achieving that, over time. It’s important to have a ‘north star’, something that’s far away enough in time, but not too far as to make it unachievable. 

I also believe it's critical that the organisation understands how it delivers outcomes for customers and stakeholders: a strong theory of change helps you understand how resources flow, how activities are being delivered and how outcomes and impact are generated. However, I found that ETIC did not focus so much on this kind of linear idea, where inputs leads to outputs, leads to outcomes. ETIC is engaged in ecosystem building! For this, you’ve got to play the long game, as changing systems takes time. But it is possible when stakeholders come together and re-imagine how things could be done differently, and invest in this process and journey consistently over time. ETIC’s work and achievements therefore didn’t always neatly fit into a box; they were often not that clearly defined, good outcomes were often almost a by-product, or not immediately obvious. Things were viewed in a more cyclical way, versus the one-dimensional or one-directional view here in Europe. 

To me, this was fascinating. Although this more cyclical way of working was producing results that went beyond what I could understand in just four months, one thing that was clear was how, over its 30 years, ETIC now has people (former staff, ambassadors, other contacts) working in all sectors in Japan, from government and foundations, all the way to startups and not-for-profits. Bringing these actors together, collaborating and working together felt at times more tribal, or communal rather than ‘just coming to work’ and doing a nine-to-five. 

 

Revising our ‘north star’

So how did I use the time away from Hatch? I used the four months in Japan and the remaining time of my six-month sabbatical to work on our new north star, a 2030 vision of what we’d like to achieve. 

In the past I often produced 100-page presentations that nearly killed my team members, but gave me great reassurance that we’d considered everything. Now I realise I need to stop trying to control the uncontrollable. I need to set a vision, but then let go and trust the team that if that vision and mission is important, it will be accomplished. 

As chief enabling officer, my role is to ensure that we’re becoming one of the best workplaces around. This enabling part of my work seems to play a more and more important role the more our organisation grows, alongside developing the processes and systems that serve people. When one-third of your team members run their own business, finding the balance between directing people’s creativity and energy towards achieving our mission, while ensuring that we develop and invest in them, is ever more critical. Top talent will go where they are valued.

And this is something I’ll be keen to check in on next time I’m in Japan. How are people being supported in their roles? How are barriers addressed in a self-designing and self-managing organisation? My learning is not done yet. 

 

Header image: Dirk with Naho Kawashima of ETIC in Japan 

 

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