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Kūlia i Ka Nuʻu: Janna Nakagawa at HMSA – Finding a Peace of History
This column of Kūlia i Ka Nuʻu features Janna Nakagawa, the Chief Administrative and Strategy Officer at the Hawaii Medical Service Association (“HMSA”). Janna is an honors graduate of Oregon State University and holds a law degree from the University of Washington. She is a “total football fanatic” who practiced labor and employment law at two different law firms in Honolulu before beginning her career at HMSA as a management trainee.
During Janna’s interview with Ryan Sanada, she shared her thoughts on how being a history major has shaped the way she views the world, the importance of being a good listener, and why she’s such a big fan of college football.
How would you describe your new role at HMSA and what is the most rewarding part about your current job position?
I’m responsible for many of the corporate service and governance areas of the company, including Human Resources, Information Technology, and Strategy. The most rewarding part about my job is that, every day, we get to positively influence the health of the people of Hawaii. And we’re not talking about people we don’t know – we’re talking about our mothers, fathers, children, brothers, sisters, cousins and so on.
We’re a big company, but if you heard our internal discussions about how this or that decision will impact someone or what they’re going through, I think you’d be surprised. I was amazed when I came to the company. And the best part about my job is I get to be a part of that conversation. I get to see the humanity behind the decisions and be part of something that will have a lasting impact to the health of our community. For me, that is very rewarding.
Equally fulfilling is getting to participate in developing and mentoring others. One of my own mentors was able to convince me to relook at my own aspirations by sharing how, with the increase in leadership, she was able to mentor others within the organization. That is an essential responsibility for any executive – to ensure we cultivate the next level of leadership. It just happens to be an aspect of the job I really love.
Do you have any words of wisdom for HR practitioners out there?
Professional knowledge and skill will only get you so far. You have to try and place yourself in the other person’s shoes and walk around in them. Ask “why?” And just listen, not in a defensive way.
Ah yes, “two ears, one mouth.” What makes listening so important to you?
We’ve had employees who have a lot to say – and sometimes there’s a lot of negativity. Sure, that can be hard to deal with because it seems like a very singular perspective; I totally get it. But those employees also share issues that should be addressed. They might say 9 out of 10 things that make you go “huh?” but they also share nuggets of valuable information that the company needs to hear about. If you tune out and you don’t listen more deeply, you’re going to miss something – and sometimes that one thing is at the root of the other problems.
Don’t get me wrong, we have to exercise muscles that we don’t practice a lot – for me it was patience, but if I had stopped listening in certain situations, I wouldn’t have learned what was at the heart of the employee’s concern or heard about a really important issue or risk that needed to be addressed.
I believe you were recently interviewed for an article on women in senior leadership positions. Can you tell us a little bit about what that article will be about?
The purpose of the article was to highlight employers that have a lot of women in senior leader roles. They wanted to understand the dynamics of how that happened.
With regards to the question of “what quality makes for good women leaders,” what I shared is that I think what makes a good woman leader is the same thing that makes for good leaders in general. It’s really more about the person’s skills and traits and how that aligns with what’s needed in that particular role. Women and men are in HMSA leadership positions because they have the skills and traits we need to be a successful team and fulfill our company’s purpose.
Thankfully, I’ve never felt I was treated differently than my male counterparts. Maybe it’s because of my background in labor and employment law or just my upbringing, but I’ve never regarded anything I or others do as being related to their gender.
Staying with the topic of leadership, what is the most important leadership lesson you have learned and how has it shaped the person you are today?
I think my favorite quote is “Your actions are so loud I can’t hear a word you’re saying,” by Ralph Waldo Emerson. Actions and words need to match. It’s hard and I’m not perfect, but I need to believe in what I’m saying and then prove it through my actions. People are smart – they see if there’s a difference.
When I became an attorney, I took an oath before the Hawaii State Supreme Court Justices to uphold the laws of the state. People tease me because I don’t enter crosswalks if the numbers on the signal are counting down. I actually asked a police officer for clarification of the rule. I stop because you’re supposed to stop and I try and make everyone else stop with me, and most often they humor me.
I think it’s important that your words and actions match consistently, and equally important to be accountable when they don’t.
Which do you think is more important: looking back and reflecting or looking to the future and planning accordingly?
I think both are important. I’m a history major, so I think many things that happen today have a connection with what’s happened in the past. There is value in understanding the past and why something happened as it did and how it’s shaped current events.
I don’t think it’s a good idea to dwell on the past or allow it to constrain you from moving forward, but we shouldn’t disregard what’s come before or we run the risk of repeating the same mistakes.
Speaking of the future, where do you see the future of HR going?
I think each company comes to a point where they have to decide what kind of company they want to be. HR is a key player in that decision because nothing gets done without the people behind it. Leadership can decide that the company must become more customer-focused, but unless you’ve created the environment that enables that to happen, you’re probably going to struggle. HR helps create the environment. It does so through its recruiting efforts, onboarding, training and development, benefits and compensation, and employee relations.
It’s interesting, one of HR’s primary functions is to be sort of a compliance guardrail, but if employees feel like they’re being policed rather than supported, it may not create the environment you want. HR has to find a way to be good at both aspects. Tying all those elements to the company’s purpose and creating that consistent narrative for leaders and employees could help move that along.
Okay – perseverance, hard work, or intelligence. What’s the most important thing?
I think the differentiating factor, because at certain levels you need all of the factors (intelligence and hard work), is perseverance that is aligned to the company’s purpose. There needs to be something meaningful behind that perseverance that makes an individual want to work harder to achieve it. In my opinion, perseverance without purpose is actually a little bit dangerous because it might be more about that person and what they want than what the company needs from them.
I know you’re really big on self-improvement. What is your key to “sharpening the sword,” if you will?
I consistently ask for feedback. From an HR perspective, I drank the Kool-Aid. I believe that you can only get better if you know what you’re doing wrong, acknowledge it, and then practice. I mean, it’s never easy to hear criticism – how many of us really want to know what we did wrong? I may be strange that way, but I really do want to know. Maybe it’s because I know through my HR experience that if behaviors and performance are not called out as an issue, people won’t change on their own and it will impact success whether the person knows it or not. I would rather know and get the chance to improve.
Year’s back, one of my bosses told me she’d never met anyone so willing to share all their faults. I explained that “If I don’t share what you should be looking for, I can’t improve. So, I need you to know where I can get better. And in knowing that, if you see me exhibiting these kinds of behaviors or going down that path, tell me. I would like to improve.” No one is perfect; you can just try to do better every day. I’ve just asked my bosses up front to help me with that.
What is something that most people don’t know about you?
I’m a total football fanatic. I grew up around football. My dad and brother played football, and now my nephews play football. Weekends during the fall were dedicated to football. My favorite team is the University of Washington Huskies. I don’t really follow any pro-teams. I don’t really care for the NFL because there isn’t that passion or team dynamic you see with high school and college football teams. That heart, that passion to achieve a common goal for your school and for one another, that’s why I love high school and college football.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be and why?
If I had a superpower, it would be the ability to look into the future, because I love to plan. Unintentional consequences are things I worry a lot about. And many times there are unintended consequences to decisions you make. If I could see the impact of those things in the future and avoid those things, I would absolutely do it.
If you could spend one full day with any person, alive or deceased, who would it be and why?
I would spend the day with the Dalai Lama. I’ve read his books and watched every movie and documentary about his life - my favorite being Kundun by Martin Scorsese. Because I raved about it, my parents watched it and my dad fell asleep within the first 10 minutes. Needless to say, they ended up with the distinct impression that their daughter was a bit strange.
If I could, I would ask the Dalai Lama how, despite all he and his people have been through, he has maintained a sense of peace and contentment. I know what his books say about it, I would just want to hear it from him; to experience that kind of contentment first hand.
Over the years, with the increase in responsibilities, I’ve struggled with the weight of my own and others’ expectations and feeling personally responsible for every outcome and impact. I think building resilience is important, and I think being more at peace with the outcomes of actions and decisions in and out of your personal control would be helpful. I think the Dalai Lama’s had a lot of practice with that.
For yourself, how do you find peace? In other words, what do you do for Janna-time?
I love football season, I think that’s why I love the fall so much! I love watching my nephews play and I love watching the UW Huskies. For my husband’s combined birthday and Christmas gift (he’s a Christmas baby), I bought him Husky football season tickets. It’s been the best present I ever gave him, and I benefit as well! We’ve been able to connect with family and friends in ways I wouldn’t have anticipated.
Also, I have three dogs. They’re just so joyful and unconditional in their love. Whether we’re gone for hours or just minutes, they greet us like we’ve been gone for years – ecstatic just because you’ve walked into the room. What other experience is like that?
And last but not least, my husband, Kris. We’ve been married almost 20 years and he’s genuinely the kindest person I know. He’s a lawyer too and has a stressful job, but he doesn’t take it out on anyone and I’ve never seen him grouchy – in more than 20 years! I think he’s the closest in personality to the Dalai Lama you’re going to get. He’s the least judgmental and the most content person I know. Being around him builds my ability to take on any opportunities and challenges that come my way.