Japan Experience is a Life-long Experience
Last night I had dinner with an old friend and ex-employee named Ranjith. I haven’t seen Ranjith since 1998, although we’ve been in touch all these years, and I’m pleased to say that he has aged well in that time. He is from Sri Lanka and currently works for one of the major banks there as a special projects manager, traveling around the region setting up new businesses for his boss’ boss.
I first met Ranjith when I was recruiting engineers in Melbourne, Australia, back in 1993. At that time I had to range far and wide to find Japanese speakers who would come back to Tokyo to work for my growing IT company. Ranjith was rather unique because although he was from Sri Lanka, he could speak Japanese, having done some schooling here. He was in Australia to get work experience in the IT sector before heading home.
However, I managed to snag him before he headed west, and instead he detoured to spend 4 ½ years with me in Tokyo! During that time he proved that good performance is a state of mind and he was quickly promoted from an engineering position to a management one, looking after one of our key accounts. I know that I probably caused Ranjith to gain some grey hairs (actually he has very few), but that experience certainly taught him a lot about client and employee management, as well as how to stay hungry for opportunities.
I was sad to see Ranjith go, but I knew that he wanted to be nearer his aging parents and give his kids a chance to grow up in their own country. On getting back to Sri Lanka, Ranjith got a good job with the bank he is working for now, providing IT support and management to a division there. For a while he would email me with reports, saying he couldn’t believe how slow things were and how much needed to be done to bring the infrastructure up to the proper level. After a while the emails started to wane, and I figured that maybe he’d slipped back into “local time” and that some of the tension and energy that he’d shown in Tokyo was just a memory.
However, on meeting him again last night, I found out that this wasn’t the case at all, and in fact his get-it-done attitude had earned him the attention of the big guys in the bank, and he’d had a promotion to a special projects section of the bank, in addition to his IT responsibilities. The fact is that he was just too busy to stay in touch...
This got me thinking about his success and I wondered if other ex-employees had benefited to the same level from their Japan experience. Did it help them?
As it turns out, a few have done pretty well. One is now head of a US$600m Japanese business in the UK. He has a Japanese wife and speaks pretty good Japanese, which is a big help in dealing with the Board back here. Another is the Australian head of the software division of a global multinational, and is developing products and business on the same scale. Another runs his own multinational consulting business from the USA, and has become a millionaire a number of times over. Several others are International Sales and Marketing Directors of Californian high-tech firms and Technology Officers of multinational banks in Europe and here in Japan. Still others are running various businesses in their home countries, some related to Japan, but mostly the common denominator is that they are almost all tightly run, team-oriented organizations.
If the alumni of my 1990’s IT business are anything to go by, then I believe that with all its challenges and problems to overcome, Japan has to be just about one of the world’s best business training grounds. It comprises a type of Survivor program for businesspeople. After all, as a non-Japanese here, you learn all the basics: humility, teamwork, cross-cultural communication, dealing with bureaucracy, creating solutions, selling by persistence, psychology, providing honest output for one’s salary, working with insufficient finance, doing remote marketing, etc.
Certainly Ranjith was able to gain a working style that has since been recognized by his employer. Now he trips around Asia Pacific seeking new business and building sales networks. We talked about various ideas of things that we could do together in Sri Lanka, including possibly creating a school for IT engineers there. But I’d only do that if the graduates could intern in Japan for two years as part of the course – because then I’d know that they would have passed the toughest course of all – that of the physical and mental conditioning caused by the pressures of the domestic marketplace. And in my mind that would qualify them as high-achieving team members for any growing company anywhere.