Hopelessly, Helplessly Falling Part Three : Understanding the Opportunities
There are of course many successful foreign CEOs in Japan, and I would guess that at least half or more don't speak Japanese. Of course, 90% of these people are seconded by head office to work in Japan as expatriates, so they are not included in this discussion. However, there are some who have been appointed as local hires. How do you get yourself on that list?
It is fair to say that most companies hire CEOs and other senior management for some combination of leadership and communications skills, technical knowledge, track record, and/or personal network. Hiring here in Tokyo is no different, but since there are few candidates with all these traits, most companies make a compromise and hire based on their immediate needs. Therefore, if you are a foreign executive looking for opportunities in Japan, to have any chance at all of getting an appointment, you need to address one or more of these needs.
Clearly, not being in Japan already and not speaking the language does knock you out of the running on several important qualifying points, thus requires you to heavily emphasize the others - those of having strong technical knowledge and a proven track record.
So, in my opinion, this is where foreign executives can still have a chance. Appropriate backgrounds to match these two criteria would be, for a CTO (Chief Technology Officer) position for example, having successfully run a major corporate IT group, experience in controlling a major move or platform migration, having implemented a major ERP project, or having some highly specialized knowledge such as being an engineer/actuary for insurance projects (such as a new risk-based product).
There are so few candidates in Japan with these types of skills, that even foreigners with little/no language ability can wind up in the kingpin position - providing of course the employer is willing to hire a bilingual assistant or the employer is a foreign bank which already has a large body of English-speaking staff.
The second type of appropriate background would of course be a senior manager who has had a background of restructuring or launching new businesses in a sector that Japanese companies are not yet familiar with. Carlos Ghosn is the most famous example of someone who was able to achieve a turn-around after having had substantial prior experience in recovering automobile companies. He initially couldn't understand Japanese language, but was recognized as being the person Nissan could turn to with the appropriate understanding of the tasks and issues to be dealt with.
Of course, Ghosn was already in Nissan, so for an outsider to come in, you would need to target one of the foreign funds in Tokyo that is trying to deal with local underperforming assets, and where they have tried for some time to fix those assets but cannot.
So how does one get to interview for these high-end CTO and CxO jobs? The fact is that because the decision makers are going against common wisdom in bringing in a foreigner, and a non-Japanese speaking one at that, such people will be at the top of their respective companies - perhaps the overall major shareholder - and have a high degree of control. Probably the best way to get to them is to pitch them direct - since very few headhunters operate at this altitude. Getting in is a matter of working out who the immediate friends and company members are, then finding someone to start you off with a personal introduction. This can be hard to do from overseas, so a pre-interview visit to Japan to network and research is important.