How to Become a CEO of an MNC in Japan Part One : The Facts

How to Become a CEO of an MNC in Japan Part One : The Facts

Not so long ago, a long-term friend with extensive Japan experience called me from Silicon Valley asking if there were any CEO jobs going here in Japan. I have personally worked with this guy and know him to be an outstanding leader, communicator (bilingual), and technologist. But while I would hire him in an instant, for other companies his resume shows his last job here was a consultant, which is not a great gate opener for foreign CEO`s. If the resume doesn't say "CEO" mid-to-large size multinationals will barely consider him.

What I tried to explain to my friend, as tactfully as I could, is that for a locally-based foreigner to get a CEO job with a multinational here in Japan, there is a well-trodden pathway up the mountain side. Try to deviate from the pathway, and you will find it tough to be taken seriously and to be considered as a candidate.

So what is the pathway? Well, for starters, most foreign multinationals want Japanese CEOs facing their Japanese market, so foreigners come in for far more scrutiny and testing than their Japanese counterparts do. This almost always means that the person has to have a proven track record IN JAPAN, and be clearly able to bring the business up to speed by virtue of his/her personal network and personal capabilities. In my opinion, my friend struck out twice because, a) he had been away from Japan too long and thus his achievements here would be discounted, and b) his recent consulting roles meant that leadership positions were not prominent either.

Typically, foreign CEOs in Japan come from a sales background and their last job was as a Sales Manager/Director - running a team of more than 5-10 people and earning the company more than JPY500m in revenue (low-end figures). This makes it easy for potential employers at head office to assess the person in terms of raw numbers. If the candidate has a record of doubling sales each year for the last 2 companies they worked for, then they can probably do it again. Employers of CEOs like predictability.

Also, doing your time in the same industry can be helpful. The ideal situation is that the CEO candidate has worked 3 to 5 years for at least two companies in the same sector, hopefully one a Japanese company - thus showing intercultural ability. Not just on the resume, becoming expert in a single same industry also has practical implications. Over time, I've found that CEO job offers most often get made by Asia-Pacific Directors who have gotten to know a Sales Manager of a competitor or subsidiary/collaborating company. Therefore as the candidate, your job is to get known as the person in-the-know, so that when you are offered dinners and lunches by folks jetting in from headquarters, there will be a strong chance that they want to talk to you about your future.