How to Become a CEO of a MNC in Japan Part Two : The Strategy for Stepping Up
Most foreign CEOs I know who were appointed here in Japan as outsiders to the company, started off their CEO roles in smaller businesses first. It is surprising that wannabe CEO candidates don't understand this. I meet many interesting people who turn their noses up at JPY12-16m positions being CEO for a 5- or 10-person foreign software company, because it pays less and is a step down from their Sales Manager role.
But in fact, it is just these types of companies, because they are indeed hard to make profitable and to grow, that are ideal proving grounds for a later more prestigious job. You need to consider your first CEO job as training, a first base position - not the home run. Just as in baseball, it takes most people 3 jobs to win a prestigious position with one of the majors.
Running a small firm as your first CEO posting is tough both mentally and physically. It is also risky, because if you don't deliver and actually make the company grow by meaningful amounts, you will run the risk of being labeled forever in Tokyo as a small company guy/lady, or worse still a non-performer. So I can't over-emphasize how important it is to roll up your sleeves and pitch in to make the business work. Forget the dreams of chauffeur-driven cars, long lunches and having other people do the small stuff. Your sole job is to push revenues and profit and to use the results as your ticket to next base.
As a one-time recruiter, I would consider a CEO candidate successful and ready for next base if they'd taken a start-up from almost zero to JPY2bn+ in sales and decent profit margins over 3-5 years. Certainly, at JPY2bn in sales, you are now starting to enter the low-end of a Japan branch of a mid-sized company. And if you are lucky enough to pick up one that is underperforming, just running things the same way you did in the company you just left may win you early sales and profit gains. It will certainly win you the hearts and minds of your new Japanese staff. There is nothing people like to see more in a depressed situation than a CEO who is willing to get stuck in and share the burdens.
You might be wondering, if the CEO candidate did so well with the first company, why would he/she want to move to a new firm? There are many reasons, both altruistic and practical, but some of the more common ones include: jealousy at head office of your achievements and pay raises - causing blockages for further promotion, limitations in the product or service you are selling which prevent further market expansion - particularly true if you're in the technology space and the technology is mature, and perhaps the most common reason of all - M&A of the head office by someone larger in the industry.
So once you're on the CEO ladder, unless you own the company, getting to second base is not just a matter of ambition it is a matter of survival. Make your first CEO role a matter of deliberate career planning and be prepared for life to change just as things are going well. The important thing about getting to second base is in doing a decent job at each stage, and not gaining a reputation as an uncommitted job hopper.