Inspiring Organizations To Embrace Sustainability In Japan With Tove Kinooka

One Woman’s Passion To Change The World, One Step At A Time

By Kathryn Wortley
February 21, 2020
Careers, Savvy Spotlight

Though a long-term resident of Japan, Tove Kinooka is well plugged into the climate crisis facing the globe. A passionate believer that the world is a delicate ecosystem, she has long followed the environmental news with concern and tried to consider sustainability in her daily life in Japan.

In 2015, Tove Kinooka took another step in the direction of sustainability in Japan by co-founding Global Perspectives Japan, a consultancy that offers sustainability leadership development and organizational transformation. Through the fledgling company, Kinooka and co-founder Gavin Dixon work to foster responsible and sustainable business practices in organizations, in line with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

Launching a business and tackling issues as complex as sustainability is not without challenges but Kinooka is driven to succeed. Savvy Tokyo sat down with her to find out about her journey and why she decided to become an advocate for sustainability in Japan.

Tove Kinooka, Advocate of sustainability in Japan

Tove Kinooka, Director & Co-founder at Global Perspectives Japan, a sustainability leadership development and organizational transformation consultancy

From English Teaching To Sustainability In Japan

What brought you to Japan?

I was working in the UK in horse racing when my racecourse merged with another. I got cut and wasn’t sure what to do, professionally or personally, but I was single and had no financial obligations. I saw an advertisement to teach in Japan for a year. I enjoy traveling and experiencing different cultures. Japan was a country I knew nothing about, and I’d never been to Asia, so I thought why not. I thought it would be for a year—it’s now been 21 years.

How did you make the move from teaching?

I decided quickly that teaching English wasn’t my thing, but I enjoyed living in Japan.

As a teacher, I had focused on personal development and mindset rather than language, so I moved into corporate training focusing on developing skills and a global mindset. After having kids, long hours in training programs became difficult so I moved into management, developing new programs and training staff.

The clients were multinationals and Japanese companies from all industries, from new recruits to CEOs. It was a very steep learning curve but a great opportunity to develop my skills, knowledge of business and different industries. 

What was the inspiration to start your own company in the field of sustainability in Japan?

The company I was working for was bought by a venture capital company. I could see it changing fast and moving in a direction I was not comfortable with. I did a program at Ashridge Business School in the UK on organizational change and that stopped me in my tracks. A lot of issues discussed were those I was experiencing at the raw end.

I didn’t have the influence to improve the situation, but I thought, if I were a consultant, I could help companies work through change. Also, the office moved, so it was an hour and 45 minutes to commute. I was leaving my daughter at daycare at 7:30 am to rush to Tokyo, with people tutting that I was two minutes late again. I felt guilty that I wasn’t there for my daughter enough. I said, why am I doing this? 

I didn’t have the influence to improve the situation, but I thought, if I were a consultant, I could help companies work through change

I talked with Gavin over lunch. The more we talked, the more we thought we could start our own company. I don’t think I would have been brave enough to do it on my own. Because there were two of us, it was easier to take that jump.  

Building Your Own Brand From Zero

What’s challenging about moving from employee to business owner?

The biggest shift was knowing how to build a business from scratch because neither of us had any experience of that. There had always been salespeople to go out and get contracts while I focused on programs. Suddenly we had to do all of it, from the initial proposal through to delivering the work.

The hardest thing was realizing how much we didn’t know. It was very much trial and error. There were days when things were going right, giving a real confidence boost, and days of trying but struggling, and we had to learn from that. 

How are you tackling those challenges?

There are so many things to juggle—client relationships, contracts, legal, accounting. It’s stressful because it’s unknown and we’re still learning a lot. We’re starting to outsource a bit to free up our time and mental space for the things we do.

I think recognizing where you can do that appropriately within your business will bring greater benefits in the long run. Gavin and I hold each other accountable and are very honest with each other. We tell each other to stop and take time out. Exercise really helps as we need time to think about something else.

Tove Kinooka, advocate for sustainability in Japan

“We tell each other to stop and take time out. Exercise really helps as we need time to think about something else.”

Finding Your Balance

How do you manage work-life balance?

Because the business is something that I’m very passionate about, it’s difficult to switch off. If I was single, I wouldn’t worry so much about that, but I have a husband and two children. When I am with my kids, I need to be listening to them rather than thinking constantly about work and all the things I need to do.

I’ve become more conscious of the need to balance my energy and put boundaries in place. Things can wait until later or until tomorrow. I’m trying to be more disciplined. It’s very easy to burn out and then you lose sight of creativity and the bigger picture.

I think it’s healthy to stop, recharge and come back with fresh eyes. For me, it’s still a work in progress though! 

What’s a typical day for you?

Our work is not off-the-shelf stuff, it’s designing tailored solutions. Depending on the phase of the project we’re in, I might get up early, go for a run and have breakfast with my family.

When they leave, I sit down in the quiet of home and focus on designing a program. There might be a Skype call with Gavin later to share where we are. Another day we might visit a client for a needs assessment. For a day of delivery, I’ll be with the client doing a workshop.

Each day requires completely different energy, but I like the variety. 

Tove Kinooka, advocate of sustainability in Japan

Why is your work in sustainability so important to you?

I grew up in Devon and Scotland, in beautiful natural environments. Seeing the effects of climate change around the world terrifies me, and I want to be able to do something. If I can help our clients do business better, I can make a difference using the skills that I have, to help create a better future for all of us.

The vision for our company is to see a world where every organization—from small, two-person businesses to massive ones with tens of thousands of employees—has a net positive impact on society and the environment while being sustainable as a business. 

If I can help our clients do business better, I can make a difference using the skills that I have, to help create a better future for all of us.

How can people start to think more sustainably?

My first degree was biological science so the keyword for me is “ecosystem”. Our world is so interlinked and that is something we need to be aware of more.

Sitting in this coffee shop in Tokyo, how are our decisions affecting people overseas? Where do these coffee beans come from? Where was this cup made? We need to see those connections and then consciously adjust our mindset and behavior in order to have a better impact on our world. 

What do you do for fun?

I spend time with my kids. My son is obsessed with pirates, so quite often I find myself wearing a bandana and waving a sword! Spartan racing is my other passion. A team of us do races, so sometimes we train together, followed by a beer or a BBQ. I really enjoy that. It’s a great way to let off steam and give me a focus, a purpose to staying fit. 

Tove KInooka, advocate for sustainability in Japan