When Gold Turns to Fool's Gold

Back to Contents of Issue: January 2005

When Gold Turns to Fool's Gold Dealing with "Nice Guy, No Action"

by Andrew Silberman

For the past dozen years,I've been running a management training company in Tokyo, and we've seen a lot of buchos. While the majority exceed expectations in terms of dedication and performance, it only takes one bad bucho in your office to undo years of hard work and turn success into a mess.

Over the next several months, I'm going to share real business cases--with names changed to protect the incompetent. Some surely will resonate with you. You may even find one of your own division heads "featured," in which case you may want to drop a copy of this column in his or her in-box.

Or you may just read these for kicks. My main goal is to help you spot the bad buchos before you hire them, and, failing that, raise awareness of the issues and offer choices for dealing with them once they are yours.

Bad Bucho One: Nice Guy, No Action..............................
One of the most frustrating hires you'll make in Japan is the division head who brings all the promise of a gold mine, but all the results of fool's gold. Sterling resume. Solid references. Great interview. But you're left feeling like a fool when he gets nothing done. And even if you inherited the nugget, Japan's right-to-work ethic means you're unlikely to pawn him off to someone else. The question is, What can you do?

One such case I'll call simply "Nice Guy, No Action," or N.G. for short. An American multinational hired N.G., first as a bucho, and then tapped him to take over as president. He graduated from one of the top Japanese universities and worked for 20 plus years at a leading Japanese industrial conglomerate. Fluent in English, he had an impressive resume: two 3-year stints in the U.S., and mid- and senior management positions in his previous career. His warm and engaging personality came through in the interview. Sounds like gold, right? What a find! Nope: fool's gold. You see, the resume and interview hid all the things this senior executive didn't, wouldn't, or perhaps couldn't do. Which was a lot. Here's a small sampling: failed to get a web site up and running (a year and counting since the original deadline); has not delivered on numerous promises to initiate a management development and succession program, along with professional training for his accounting staff; still left incomplete a revised set of work rules due in the middle of the year.

What to do?.............................................................................
First, let this be a lesson to you. Go way beyond reume, references and interviews for any bucho-level position. Extend trial periods long enough to measure results--and attitude. It's the attitude on the job, not in the interview, that counts. So you must frame the hire so that unmet expectations by either side will lead to a cancellation with no bad feelings. After all, you won't be asking for your money back, and you shouldn't be forced to keep a suit that just doesn't fit.

Training is often suggested, but in this case training came too late...for the bucho, anyway. His dismal performance in one of our modules only confirmed what you and we already knew--"Nice Guy, No Action." We faced a hard enough challenge just getting this particular bad bucho to recognize his bias for inaction. Fortunately, the training did allow other managers to grasp the real issue, and encourage them to act. We're now seeing the results of individual managers' compensating for this nice guy.

Now in this case Mr. Nice Guy, No Action has his own agenda: he's focused on retirement, most likely within five years. That, along with his Japanese cultural aversion to risk (more on this in future columns) has combined to form a mix that will never rise higher even if you put it in the hottest oven. Still, a solution was found by empowering others in his organization to do the job he should be doing.

So there you have the case of bad bucho number one: "N.G." We'll be coming down a lot harder on, among others, "Sekuhara Sam," "The Dictator," "The Prince" and a few others. As we do so, it's a good idea to keep in mind a quote from Leo Tolstoy: "If you see that some aspects of society are bad, and you want to improve this world, there is only one way to do it: you have to improve people. And in order to improve people, you can do only one thing: you must improve yourself."

Many executives and HR directors have come to us over the years expecting to change their people, especially their bad buchos. These executives seem to believe it's possible to do so without stepping into the ring themselves. Oh, they'll observe a training session, and they'll follow up with their staff, but will they actually work on improving themselves? Only our best clients do that. Be one of them.

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