How to be an effective change leader while on assignment to Japan


Dr. Bob Tobin

The chairman briefly lifted one eye over the brim of his copy of The Nikkei, as the CEO stepped into the backseat of the company limousine. The CEO soon joined the chairman in anonymity, disappearing behind his copy of The Japan Times. It was a daily routine the two bosses — one a Japanese national and the other an American — followed in total silence during their shared commute to the Japan office. Once there, the two sat in adjoining offices without talking to each other.

The American CEO had once tried firing the chairman but he refused to leave, instead coming to work in another limousine. This true story exemplifies how hard-pressed overseas company executives sometimes poorly cope with Japan assignments, bringing misery to themselves and the people they work with.

It wasn’t always that way. During the boom times of the 1980s when firms were more profitable, Japan was plum for many foreign executives. Then, challenging Japan assignments came towards the end of career, when loyalties of executives aged 55 or 60 years rested more with the Japan office rather than with the overseas headquarters. The work could be frustrating but satisfying for executives who implemented their vision to create a more productive, supportive local work environment. Frustration has since given way to disillusionment, as a younger generation of senior executives more beholden to HQ comes under pressure to become more productive and profitable.

Today’s executives in their 30s and 40s are in Japan on short-term stints of two to three years before moving to more important markets. “Japan is not the ‘king of the crown’ anymore,” notes consultant and author Dr. Bob Tobin, Professor Emeritus at Keio University Faculty of Business and Commerce. “It is just one step along the way in people’s careers,” he says. While here, these high earners run nonstop on a (some say) dehumanizing corporate treadmill.

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On arrival they are expected to hit the ground running. Most work an intense week. Territorial responsibility extends to Korea, typically bundled onto the Japan assignment. They take direct instructions from the home office as part of a growing trend by multinationals to centralize. Under pressure to meet analyst earnings expectations, hard-pressed executives invariably focus on cost-cutting rather than developing human potential.

Some come with good intentions. One CEO merging two companies announced that the merged firm would provide opportunities for local staff to learn English, study overseas and work in the home office. But his plans were trumped by instructions from HQ to cut people and costs. He was never able to follow through on his promises.

Others think that they can drive change quickly by micromanaging in a language they understand. To do so, they put a non-Japanese (gaijin) in charge of every department. Frustrated and angry when that doesn’t work, they’ll ask a consultant to coach the managers. However it is bosses, not underlings, who usually need the coaching, believes Tobin. When bosses try to control people or when they push too fast, local managers resist change. “Those who fail to recognize this are destined to fail,” he warns.

It is bosses, not underlings, who usually need the coaching.

Tobin saw how difficult making change is when he first came to Japan in 1989 for the US government, charged with working with the leadership of the US military throughout Asia. Every two months he went to a different military base and ran workshops. The officers had seen so many new commanders come and go. With each new arrival they thought, “Oh yeah, another initiative.” Then they acted as if they were paying attention to the leader, giving the illusion of change — but not do anything differently.

Expecting resistance to change, the cultural and language barriers and the pressure from HQ, most senior executives aim to not rock their own boat before moving upwards and onwards. Yet there are simple measures senior executives can take to increase productivity. To tap into people’s energy, Tobin advises that executives:

1.    Leave their comfort zone. Start by having a heart-to-heart conversation with local management. Most Japanese understand a little English. Listen to them. Describe the pressure they themselves are under and explain to people what’s expected of them. Often executives only talk to the person they replace. Many never leave their fancy offices to talk with underlings who typically work in ordinary cubicles. “Meaningful change has to touch people’s hearts,” Tobin says.

2.    Identify and work closely with the informal leader. There is always a naturally respected department head (buchou) or section manager (kachou) who can influence other people. Most likely it is not going to be the gaijin executive.

3.    Tell managers when you want a result rather than how to achieve it. It is when executives try to micromanage, often because the way of working here seems so different, that executives run into resistance.

4.    Ask, “How can I how help you, Mr./Ms. Manager, to be more successful?” One successful gaijin CEO asked all his employees to answer the question, “How can we improve the company?” They anonymously answered in black magic marker on large sheets of paper affixed to front doors situated throughout the office building. Senior management then worked off their list. Staff said, “Wow, management listened! That made all the difference,” recounts Tobin.

5.    Pay for after-hours drinks (nomikai) from own pocket when the home office refuses to do so. Foreign firms increasingly disallow nomikai as a company expense to save money.  As well as being the ‘norm’ in Japan, socializing with work colleagues in and out of the office is arguably healthy. “Paying for nomikai makes such a big difference in the way people work,” Tobin says.

6.    Show appreciation. A simple ‘thank you’ can make all the difference in the world.


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2 comments to “How to be an effective change leader while on assignment to Japan”
  1. Spot on.

    Making an effort to be observant and understand their culture, goes a long way in building great rapport with your Japanese colleagues.

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