Terrie's Job Tips -- Team Training: Part Five - Winning Over Hardened Teams

One of the biggest challenges for a non-Japanese manager to deal with is when they are parachuted into a situation and are required to take on, train, and motivate a battle hardened crew of veterans - particularly sales, administration, or customer support veterans. This situation most frequently happens when you are part of a merger with a Japanese firm, a joint venture, or you have been appointed to replace an underperforming manager in a foreign-owned business that has been left too long on its own, and whose employees have forgotten who they actually work for.

As an example, let's look at what kinds of people inhabit a classic Japanese sales team.

A sales organization anywhere is a tough place. But Japan comes with its own special set of challenges. The Sales Division is usually a very top-down, autocratic entity, operating on the same rules and emotional manipulation that the team members learned at school. Think of the ruthless domination and humiliation dispensed to baseball kids by their toughest coaches, then translate that into a work environment.

In some ways this is appropriate behavior. There are some very successful sales-oriented companies in Japan that are run like army battalions. If your product is not particularly complex, then it is possible that sales success will simply be a function of disciplined activity: getting off your butt to see as many customers as possible, taking rejection and overcoming it to move on to the next opportunity, focused drinking with the customers so as to get to know them closely enough to get deals done... that kind of stuff.

In realizing this, you can understand why some Japanese sales guys in their 30's and 40's are pretty hard-bitten and not the easiest people to get along with. For them there is a specific way to do things, and while they recognize the power of money and title, nevertheless, they find it hard to respect someone who doesn't do things the way they do, or who hasn't overcome the same difficulties that they have.

So just like in a John Wayne movie, these tough guys act like and want to be treated like soldiers. They want generals long before they want chaplains, and expect their leaders to earn everyone else's respect. Many of them tend to be conservative and don't like to change. They are also really productive (awesome, in fact) sales guys and don't need a lot of resources to make money. Sounds like a lot of fun, doesn't it. So how on earth are you going to train them?

Well not by showing up with a flashy training presentation, that's for sure.

First there is some softening up to do. You need to create a situation where they have a general that they can trust, and to have that person take the time and effort to earn that trust. Once you have that situation, then the training and opening up of all sorts of personally unfamiliar values and emotions can happen. So a big question here is, "Are you hard core enough to join them at their own game?" Can you lead and punish, win and support others, and generally lead a crazy set of hours and drinking habits? If you are not, then you'd better be finding a Number Two person, or look for a new job.

To be accepted as the leader, you will want your team to look up to you and respect you. To give you this, they will want proof that not only are you a breadwinner (it's very important that you are able to get some business wins), but that you can suffer with everyone else and work as hard as they do. You also need to be able to take control of discipline in a fair and rational way. But in a way that results in a final clear decision.

Winning your rights as the team leader is not a short process, and typically it can take 6-12 months. This is quite a long time to be building rapport, but you really need to have the FULL trust of the team before embarking on a training program, since not doing so will not only be a waste of money, it will further fuel cynicism and skepticism - both deadly enemies to effective management.

The good news is that old Japan hands can point to many examples of foreign leaders winning the trust and loyalty of their Japanese teams. If you stick at it and don't engage in any manipulative politics, you will start to feel a palpable change in attitude after a few months. Maybe the tipping point comes with your being humiliated over your poor karaoke singing and team members teasing you about it. Or maybe it will come after you fire someone who it turns out was harassing others on the team as well but no one wanted to say it. Or perhaps you helped pull in a large contract by virtue of being an entertaining foreigner to the customer! Once there are 1-2 defining events like those just described, you'll be-heading for home base.

You will be able to tell when the critical change happens because your team members will start coming to you for personal-related decisions and for help in their personal lives. Just remember that now you have earned the right to manage, you can't stop and get off. Looking after loyal team members is a very time-consuming activity.

But once you do get to this critical point, you can now intersect the traditional with the developmental. This is the time to roll out a coaching/training program and show the team new ways of getting things done. Their trust will give you maximum leverage and results.