I mentioned earlier in this series that I would be creating composite sketches of the background of people who've made it here without having the advantage of strong Japanese ability. "Composite" means that I've drawn from the backgrounds of a number of acquaintances with similar experiences, as related to me, but with the objective of allowing them to stay anonymous.
Our first composite sketch is for a hired gun CEO. He is in his early-40's, and was first recruited into Asia for a technology company while he was in his mid-30's. He is married to a Japanese partner and has kids. His journey to Japan started when he was recruited from a successful high-tech company in the USA by the owner-entrepreneur of a competing business. They'd met at a conference where our young executive was speaking, and the owner had taken a shine to him.
The owner made an attractive but high-risk offer for the executive to join a new start-up subsidiary in Asia - a move which could make or break a rising career. Since the young executive was ambitious, he took the position and was posted to Hong Kong. There he worked on a management team, leading sales and business development, and helped oversee the rapid growth of the start-up to more than US$20m in sales over a 3-year period. He rose to become the regional sales manager.
The owner then went on to sell the business. As part of the deal, the young executive negotiated with the new owners to move to Japan to live with his Japanese wife who wanted to be close to her parents, and he became the sales manager and a director of the business there.
While our young executive didn't know much about Japan, he knew that sales there were not going well, and that he needed to inject both enthusiasm and some new products/services into the Tokyo and Osaka teams. With his appointment to the position, he got approval from the new owners to receive a one-time budget to spend on programs to reinvigorate the jaded operation.
Once he arrived, he immediately hired a bilingual business development manager and a secretary, and had the biz dev manager become his interface to the existing management team. Note that he didn't ask his secretary to do this, since this would have mis-matched a junior staff member with the proud senior members of his sales team. He also didn't want to take the risk that some of them might be sexist.
The young executive already knew that in Asia you have to earn your stripes to gain respect and be viewed as a leader. He went all out to prove to his team that they should trust him and try his new strategies. With a combination of bilingual training companies, long cross-discipline team sessions to overhaul services and products that customers no longer wanted, and some market research to find out what the competition was doing, the young executive was able to bring some global best practice to a sales team that had originally grown organically. And which certainly did not understand that sometimes you have to invest to reap returns.
Despite his insufficient language (yes, he took language lessons when he could), the informed decision making, some tough staff dismissals and team reorganizations, as well as the trust gained after he helped drag in some major new accounts, all paid off. Sales went up and the team became loyal to him.
Again, after a period of 3 years, and on the strength of his growing reputation in the industry and particularly in the difficult market of Japan, he was approached by a number of recruiters, and finally relented after being offered a CEO position in a much larger firm, working on a major meltdown that they had had.
He took the new job and set about applying the same principles he'd learned at the previous company. This time around, however, he was more confident of being able to show results because he now had some local resources to recruit in and bring up to speed. In fact, he was careful not to bring too many candidates in from his previous employer, but once word got out that he was looking, he received a number of calls from his trusted old team asking to come over. He picked up 3 key people, and asked the others to give him time to come back to them.
You won't read about our composite manager in the newspaper in the context of trouble. He's smart enough to stay under the radar screen. However, you will read about his successes in the annual general reports of the parent company, or on rare occasions at the ACCJ or some other business group, helping others understand how it is possible to turn a ship around in Japan.