Probably the most attractive and yet most challenging job an executive can have is to be recruited to fix a mid- to large-size company with problems. If that company is in Japan, then you know that the local management may have already gone to great lengths to fix things and still have not been able to turn the ship around. The only thing for such deep-seated problems is shock therapy, in the form of a gaijin shacho!
Some foreigners who, to my knowledge haven't spoken Japanese when they took on the top job, but who subsequently have gone on to inspire confidence and eventually success in their adopted Japanese companies include: Carlos Ghosn (who apparently did go on to learn some Japanese) of Nissan, Howard Stringer of Sony, and both Henry Wallace and Mark Fields of Mazda.
Of course these individuals were at the very top of their game and were presented with extraordinary opportunities. In Nissan's case, for example, Ghosn transformed a US$5.5bn loss in fiscal 2000 to a US$2.7bn profit just a year later. On a practical language level, he did this with interpreters, judicious use of both bilingual and non-bilingual foreign and Japanese management, and just getting on with the job. The only thing on his side was that Nissan was an international company and was in deep enough trouble that almost the entire workforce embraced Ghosn's call to change.
While most of us are not Carlos Ghosn, nor are there many billion-dollar turn-arounds to be had, there are nevertheless lots of smaller operations that need the same dedication and expertise and where it doesn't really matter whether the leader speaks Japanese. These companies are not hitting the headlines, and indeed, in most cases where they are owned by a foreign head office or a Japanese parent, the owners would rather keep the problems under the radar of the media - just in case their competitors try to use the information for ammunition. These companies on a regular basis will quietly parachute a foreign CEO in to turn the Japan operation around. I personally know of a number in such cases, in industries as diverse as telecoms, computers, finance, insurance, real estate, and airlines.
In most cases, the story is the same: the company has been stagnating, it's too large to leave alone or to fail, and the candidate taking the top job has an established career in leading growth and working in Asia. While some companies will send in one of their managers from elsewhere in the world, such as Renault did with Ghosn, others are happy to recruit on the open market. They are typically looking for very strong personalities, proven track records, and a passion for the industry. The candidates who get recruited are typically very well connected, and are on a sufficiently high salary that the cost of a bilingual assistant and hiring in a few more bilingual staff is much less than the prospect of the company sinking further.
So occasionally these CEO positions do come up, and if you want to be a candidate for such a position in the future, you need to be in the market, and you need to know what is going on in your industry. I usually advise people wanting to step up to a senior position to engage in a purposeful establishment of themselves in the job market, and to stay on top of those recruiters selected to represent you to possible opportunities - even to the extent of giving them the heads up on industry rumors, which you will probably hear long before they do.
If you have your eyes set on a "hired gun" CEO job, I advise that you talk to at least 3 recruiters and get to know them really well. You should be registered and interacting with a senior consultant at one of the top-level international firms - because they get many of their mandates from their overseas offices (typically where the hiring company is based), then you should find at least 2 mid-tier firms which have a proven track record in placing CEOs and where your consultant is very well connected in your industry.
You will be able to tell if a recruiter is not right, when they start focusing on your lack of Japanese language. In such cases, these people are either searching to a very rigid job description - not typical of a company in trouble, or they don't handle positions at a high enough level to be able to advise the hiring company on strategy.
Since being a CEO is being a self-starter, you should also be out in the marketplace, getting to know those who make high-level business decisions for their companies. Director level and above is a good place to start. As I will relate next week, you can meet these people at industry seminars, or by working your personal connections and targeting board members of 2-3 potential companies.
Apart from targeting the potential hirer, you also need to get to a position where you can sell your track record and natural ability to organize and motivate people. Clearly you have to already be in a similar job, albeit at the next rung down, and able to show that you got results.
Stronger and more profitable sales are usually the key to a successful turn-around - although lay-offs and operational efficiencies will be part of the formula as well. I've found that nothing gets the attention of a head office CEO with a Japanese subsidiary in trouble, as a strong sales track record.
How strong is strong? Well, if the company you're applying for is in the JPY10bn (US$90m) sales range in Japan, at least you will have to have had led a sales growth of up to JPY3bn-JPY4bn and a team of several dozen people. You also have to have strong presentation skills, because at this level, confidence and communication of your worth are 90% of the job - and board members of major companies are no pushovers.