Charisma is a good thing, right?

Don’t all successful global executives demonstrate charisma? The answer is yes, but let’s be clear about what we mean by charisma. We are not talking about over-the-top, larger-than-life sales-types who ooze charm for better or worse. I know of no follower in any culture who wouldn’t shy away from such a leader. In true charismatic leadership we find the ability to emotionally connect with others and communicate a vision with confidence, integrity, and in a way that puts others first. Leaders do it in a way that meets others where they are, and this requires the ability to adapt their styles to the situation. They attract followers. How a leader projects himself in Japan may be different than how he does it in Sydney or New York.
In Asia, for cultural reasons, these leaders walk a fine line. A leader’s willingness to project charisma strikes many as chameleon-like, a bit disingenuous and risky. Sticking out too much seems overly individualistic, while adapting or changing our leadership style seems inauthentic. Suzuki-san, Japanese general manager, felt uncomfortable adjusting his style in order to connect emotionally with others. He felt like a salesman, a fake. He was not willing to bend his style to elicit an emotional response. He was described as lacking in vision. He felt more comfortable showing himself as solid, predictable, structured and logical, but he didn’t connect with others.
So how might Suzuki alter his approach in different situations? What if he were making a presentation to global executives in the US on the future of the business? The behaviors that feel right to him in one situation may not yield the result he wants in another situation. Creating an attractive vision for others, listening more, explaining less, and connecting with his team emotionally—projecting charisma—does not amount to compromising his values around putting the needs of the business and others first. He decided to move outside of his comfort zone and practice this new leadership skill. He realized that building an emotional connection with others makes himself and others feel good. And it’s good for the business.

Drilling down in interviews: Why do hiring managers talk instead of listen?

Research says that 64% of new executives hired from the outside fail in their new jobs, so how do we improve our selection process? Most successful leaders are taken aback when a hiring manager or recruiter tries to understand what makes them tick, and I mean try to really understand, because so few people in the corporate world try, even during a critical job interview. They’re too busy selling (as are most candidates). That’s why one of the best ways to recruit the best candidates, the hard-to-get candidates, is to drill down, understand how they got to where they are, and get to the bottom of their motivations. When you know they’re right for the job, great candidates will know it also.

Take China and Japan, two countries with critical talent needs. In Japan the danger is that interviewers, whether the hiring manager, executive search consultant or HR executive, tend to treat senior executives with the respect of an elder or become overly impressed with the executive’s track record of name brand employers which may or may not be relevant for the job. In the case of China, where everything is urgent, the short supply of talent and can lead to making the wrong trade-off decisions. Meanwhile, without better direction, the candidates themselves tend to let their status do the talking. So what should we be looking for? How do we know when the candidate has what it takes?

Successful leaders don’t just materialize out of thin air or hatch out of some top-ten business school. They somehow master their environment and emerge with a strong sense of who they are, while others come and go. So, during an interview, the executive will be taking stock of the interviewer while the interviewer does the probing. How much is shared depends on trust and the quality of the interviewer.

We would hope to hear some truths about the executive’s successes and failures, one or two watershed moments that defined his or her career. We’ll should looking for the how and why of his or her actions. This is described as ‘behavioral-based’ or ‘competency-based’ interviewing and there are books on the subject. But it’s not so easy and takes both practice and desire. Try to hear the executive’s description of the emotions around the experience: pain, humiliation, exhilaration, regret, satisfaction. You may hear about decisions or achievements, but try to learn about what matters most: how the individual mustered the wherewithal to make things work out against the odds, accept the hard lessons, and apply the learning.

You might hear about luck or good timing. But our job is to dig deeper and understand the true makings of a person’s success. Then, link these competencies to the critical needs of the job at hand. Is it that difficult to drill for the fuel that drives successful leaders? We’ve got to get better at it. Knowing that the person opposite you is taking stock, be curious, be real, and reach out.

MIA leaders: Most CEOs haven’t transcended their economy, or corporate culture, in Japan

Half full or half empty?

Where are Japan’s leaders? And why have Japan’s few corporate leaders risen to almost cult status? Leadership guru and writer Warren Bennis says—I’m paraphrasing—that great leaders rise above their context. Put another way, you might say that in Japan, great leaders rise above or push through the context of their culture and established norms for corporate behavior. They make their mark regardless. My goodness, how difficult this is – in any society, much less in Japan.

It’s tough, but let’s not let Japanese executives off the hook. Case in point: Surprisingly, in an era of low or non-growth within Japan, most of the elite institutions (Toyota and Sony excepted) have failed to diversity their revenues and make their mark outside of Japan, defying strategic  logic and common sense. Viewing the world through the dimmed light of slow-growth Japan, they struggle to raise their eyes to the horizon. Their glass is half empty. These leaders have elected not to challenge their own corporate apparatus and cultures in order to wage and win in battle against the globalized big-boys on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, in the business schools, in BRIC, you name it. The music is different out there, but Japanese managers haven’t changed their tempo. And now it appears that even Sony and Toyota have proven that global success requires more than overseas assets or even a foreigner at the top.

Leaders are a study in perseverance and growth, often through painful, personal experience. Failure is inevitable, perhaps necessary. And so who would volunteer for such a hardship role in Japan, and why? Add on top of this the need for today’s Japanese leaders to acquire experience in the West, or at least China, speak English, be accountable, and yet have the modesty and temperament necessary to win support of his or her team…and you have a tall order.

Leadership means more than holding a leadership position, in the same way that being a writer means more than writing things down. Ask a writer why they do what they do and most will say that they must, that writing is existential. It’s not surprising then that leadership, for true leaders, is existential. They do it because they must; to not embark on the struggle to make your mark is to go somehow missing. The sheer weight of Japan’s culture and behavioral context, Planet Japan’s turbo-charged gravity, creates national heroes out of corporate leaders, usually entrepreneurs, who decide to break through. Let’s acknowledge that true leadership is courageous.

Leadership: Mr. Yanai’s DNA

I’m struck by the simple clarity of one Japanese CEO. Read these comments, in his own words, from Tadashi Yanai, CEO of Fast Retailing. If you’ve been watching Japan, you’ve seen his company, the freshness of his approach, the attitude that touches every part of his business, including his people. This is the essence of his recent interview in the Wall Street Journal. Fast Retailing Co. (you might know it as Uniqlo) operates 1,974 stores around the world, an impressive footprint, given that it opened up its first Uniqlo store just 8 years ago. By comparison, The Gap operates 3,100 stores and Inditex Group (Zara) operates 4,264 stores. Here’s his ambitious tag line: Changing clothes. Changing conventional wisdom. Change the world.

Clarity of goal: He aims to make his company Asia’s leading fashion retailer within 5 years and “the worlds No. 1 fashion retailer by 2020.”

Hierarchy: “Store managers are our most important employees. If the head office disappeared, the business could still go on while we rebuilt headquarters.”

Global thinking: “How much we leave up to the local staff varies [during expansion] but the basic ideas and operations have to be the same everywhere.”

Global integration of operations and culture: “If we bought a company based in New York, we would even consider moving all of the top management, including myself, to New York. We would have to be ready to go that far if we were to become a truly global company.” Asked about how he manages brands in different regions around the world: “Differences in culture and fashion trends from region to region aren’t so crucial. Far more important is communicating substantial information on what kind of company we are and how we run our business. As long as we get this part right, we can succeed anywhere.”

And this powerful message: “We can’t escape our DNA. It’s both our strength and weakness. Our Japanese origins are necessary and useful if we want to differentiate ourselves. But what we want to emphasize is not the old, traditional Japan, rather the new Japan, what Japan is becoming.” To cap it off, here is his approach to adaptation and risk-taking, so uncharacteristic of Japan: To seek growth in a changing environment, companies have to repeatedly reinvent themselves, and this process involves far more failures than successes.


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