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The young CEO: 5 essential lessons for emerging leaders

Yushiro Kato — the 32-year-old co-founder and CEO of manufacturing platform CADDi — offers his most valuable leadership learnings.
A grayscale business portrait of a young CEO in a suit and tie framed over a blue and gray background with abstract charts and the number 5, symbolizing key lessons integrated into the design.
Big Think / Vincent Romero
Key Takeaways
  • It’s critical to identify and solve pain points to move forward in an industry and provide real value to those within it.
  • Saying yes to opportunities that others might decline is key to making an impact, even if it isn’t the easiest path to take.
  • Embrace basic principles, seek truths in history, and return to core values.

From the early days of my career, I’ve been driven by a passion for innovation and a desire to make a meaningful impact. My journey began with a deep dive into the world of entrepreneurship during university, where I honed my skills and cultivated a mindset geared towards problem-solving — isolating big-picture issues that hamstring entire industries. 

After college I joined global management consultancy McKinsey, where I explored major pain points in traditional industries. On a personal level, I wanted to take on challenging work that would help me uncover a new creative business idea. I’m an entrepreneur at heart. However, transitioning from university to the fast-paced environment of consulting presented its own set of hurdles: For example, the demands of client expectations and the need to deliver tangible results.

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I embraced opportunities to lead and drive change, even when it meant stepping out of my comfort zone, and became the youngest McKinsey manager at the age of 25. In fact, I think it is only when you truly stretch yourself that you learn the life and professional lessons you need to really succeed. 

Now, as the CEO of CADDi, a SaaS manufacturing company I co-founded in 2017 with more than 600 employees worldwide, I’m mentoring others looking to lead and grow. Here are the top lessons I’ve learned along the way:

# 1. Hone in on the pain points

Choosing to become a McKinsey consultant was a strategic decision to prepare myself for future entrepreneurial endeavors. I was upfront with my mentor at McKinsey and shared my goal of starting my own business after working at the firm for a few years. He supported my choice (it’s not often you get to tell your boss you’re planning on starting a business in a few years and have them accept that!). 

At McKinsey, I quickly realized that making the most of my experience meant tackling meaningful challenges, not just repeatable tasks. McKinsey is often jokingly referred to as an “exercise” or “physical workout” in the industry because of its demanding nature. Despite the long hours, I had the chance to truly connect with my work and the industry I focused on. Working closely with manufacturers, I learned some of the struggles they deal with, particularly the technical limitations within procurement. These findings were the impetus for CADDi Drawer, our flagship software. 

On a broader level, I learned that it’s critical to identify pain points in traditional industries. Identifying those — and then solving those pain points — is how to move forward in an industry and provide real value to those within it. By selecting problems that matter and focusing on the most impactful issues, I gained valuable insights and skills. Balancing short-term demands with long-term goals, especially in startups where revenue is crucial, required strategic prioritization. I learned to put all my attention into the #1 pain point that would make a significant impact, a lesson that has been instrumental in my career and one I would encourage anyone at any level in their career to focus on.

#2. Drive your own projects

From my early days at McKinsey, I quickly learned the importance of driving my own projects. When I was put on my first big project as a business analyst for a large manufacturing company in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, I took on a leadership role that other managers declined. This was because the two partners on the project — one a former U.S. Navy SEAL officer and the other, a Stanford graduate who supported former President Barack Obama with his presidential speeches as a university student — had very strict managerial styles. Several managers even left the project mid-way because they were too demanding. However, I stepped up, embracing the opportunity despite the uncertainty of how it would turn out, and I gained a lot of value from the experience.

It’s crucial to “manage up” when you’re starting out in your career. This guidance shaped my leadership style and instilled in me the confidence to be the driving force behind projects.

The partners emphasized to me how crucial it is to think of myself as two levels higher than my current role and encouraged me to raise the bar. Even in rooms filled with intimidating individuals who had years more experience than me, I needed to handle all questions and delegate tasks effectively to my supervisors — in short, it’s crucial to “manage up” when you’re starting out in your career. This guidance shaped my leadership style and instilled in me the confidence to be the driving force behind projects, regardless of my position. I could truly “own” the projects because I was the one driving them. 

Additionally, saying yes to opportunities that others might decline became a principle I continue to live by. I learned that being proactive and identifying problems that matter was key to making an impact, even if it wasn’t the easiest path to take.

Focusing on a major pain point helps to sharpen your vision when differentiating the marketplace. In the fast-paced world of manufacturing, staying ahead of the curve is crucial. Our team at CADDi has always believed in the importance of understanding industry trends, but we also know that simply following the crowd isn’t enough. When the industry started shifting from 2D CAD analysis to 3D CAD, we didn’t just jump on the bandwagon. Instead, we took the time to understand the underlying pain points and challenges that our customers were facing. 

A lot of startups — not manufacturing companies — begin with 3D solutions right from the get-go because they are machine-friendly (better fit with “tech”) and fancier. However, the reality is that manufacturers still use 2D for supply chain (downstream funnels) and 3D for designs. We noticed that a lot of parts are designed in 3D CAD, but 2D is the predominant format used in procurement and manufacturing. Starting from the pain points rather than the solutions allowed us to realize we need to focus on 2D in order to truly address our customer’s needs.

While it’s tempting to chase every trend, I’ve learned that true innovation comes from focusing on real problems and delivering meaningful solutions. By balancing our knowledge of market trends with a commitment to differentiation, our company has been able to stay true to our roots while continuously pushing the boundaries of what’s possible.

#4. Have a clear mission statement

A focus on “unleashing the potential of manufacturing” drives my company’s direction. This mission ensures that all products, services, and strategies align with transforming manufacturing industries. For startups and scaleups, revenue is of paramount importance. While immediate revenue opportunities are tempting, there’s a constant tradeoff between short-term gains and long-term impact. 

Learning from history has provided valuable insights. I’ve found inspiration in understanding benchmarks like the shipping container, which transformed the global economy.

To navigate this balance, our strategy at CADDi is carefully aligned with our mission. By prioritizing initiatives that contribute to our mission, we aim to grow sustainably without sacrificing our long-term vision. Our mission serves as our North Star, providing clarity and guidance in our decision-making processes. It simplifies complex choices and ensures that we remain focused on our overarching goals. To keep our team aligned with our mission, we emphasize its importance in all our communications. Regular team meetings, workshops, and training sessions are used to reinforce our mission and values, ensuring that everyone understands and works towards our common objective.

#5. Embrace foundational principles

As I reflect on my journey so far, I realize that returning to foundational principles has been a guiding force throughout my career. Resources like Dale Carnegie’s books and teachings offer timeless principles for success, reminding me to return to the basics and focus on simplicity. Even though How to Win Friends and Influence People was written nearly 90 years ago, the core lessons in it continue to ring true. As leaders, we’re all simply trying to win over more people to our side and influence them to act, whether it is encouraging a team member to be better or a customer to buy more of your product or service.

Learning from history has provided valuable insights. I’ve found inspiration in understanding benchmarks like the shipping container, which transformed the global economy. Malcolm McLean, a U.S. trucking magnate, invented the steel shipping container in 1956 after he bought a steamship company. He was looking for a way to simplify moving goods between trucks and ships (he identified an obvious pain point within his business). He patented this transportable container, revolutionized logistics, and began its mass production. Years later, his invention is probably one of the first things you think about when someone says “supply chain.” 

By embracing basic principles, seeking truths in history, and returning to core values, I’ve likewise been able to navigate challenges and make informed decisions. This commitment to foundational principles has not only shaped my leadership style but also guided CADDi’s direction. As we’ve faced various challenges and opportunities, these principles have remained constant, helping us stay grounded and focused on our mission. 

Looking ahead, I’m confident that by continuing to embrace these basics, we’ll navigate future challenges successfully and continue to make a meaningful impact in the manufacturing industry.

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