Our take-aways from 2014

As we reach the end of 2014, I would like to thank all of CapitaPartners’ friends and clients great success and fulfillment in 2015.

For us, this has been a year of unbelievable progress, thanks to the contributions of my associates and partners Ken Brousseau, Armin Pajand, and Steve Fisher. Together, we partnered with and supported clients in Singapore, Tokyo, Hong Kong, across Southern California, Silicon Valley and the Bay Area, Maine, and New York. Thank you all for your commitment to achieving new levels of success; you are an inspiration to me!

Looking back at the outcomes from the past twelve months, some core themes emerge:

First, receiving executive coaching is exhilarating—and challenging. In fact, growing self-awareness and taking the necessary actions to expand various capabilities during the coaching process is hard. Our clients dig deep to uncover all of their behaviors and mindsets, some pleasing, others not, and lay them out on the table for observation and introspection. While this is uncomfortable at times, with dedication, it can be extremely rewarding. One client told me that, while she “re-discovered her love affair with the business,” being coached also was one of the most difficult things she has ever done in her professional life. My take away here is that change doesn’t happen because we want to change or because we are thinking about changing. Change happens because we step outside our comfort zone and take action. There can be no coaching without action.  I am continually moved by my clients’ courage in this regard.

Second, global leaders experience far more complexity and flux than do executives in local roles. We know this from research, our own careers, and our clients. Executives based overseas experience the “tyranny of distance”—the midnight phone calls, bosses 10,000 miles away, and constant travel. As a result, our clients need to summon extra mental energy and resilience and go out of their way to build bridges, demonstrate interpersonal adaptability, and appreciate different cultures. Success for them is a matter of maintaining optimism in the face of these challenges, and a lot of our work revolves around providing extra support so they can do so with more ease.

Third, I am reminded time and again that we author our careers and the contributions we make to organizations and the world at large. Some are surprised to discover that our limitations are determined by ourselves, not by our employers. A career is ours to create, share, and, sometimes, transform. Beyond a resume, a LinkedIn profile, or a value proposition, the best careers are an extension and expression of who we really are. The more we understand ourselves, our purpose, our passions, and our development needs, the sooner we can take control over our careers. I am especially gratified by the work we do with clients to help them gain mastery over their ability to leave an inspiring legacy. Again, I am humbled by my clients’ dedication to re-think their life and career.

As a result of our shared efforts, almost all of our clients successfully navigated some sort of major transition during 2014. One was promoted to CEO, another repatriated to the US after seven years in Japan, a third found his true niche and value proposition after being promoted to CFO. Building on the principles that contributed to these achievements, in 2015, we will be expanding our research and coaching programs that focus specifically on global leadership and facilitating critical career transitions for global executives.

About CapitaPartners. We partner with clients to develop global mindset in executives and build an outstanding cadre of global executive talent. Through coaching, workshops and consulting, we offer programs on Global Leadership, Leading Across Cultures, Global Careers, and Transitions. Our AsiaNext platform ignites the next generation of talent in Asia.

Seven Goals for Asian Leaders

Leading others has mostly to do with how we manage ourselves. Here are some concrete ideas for succeeding in global roles.

1. Get on top of your job.

Why? When we enjoy our jobs, it shows. Getting on top of our jobs allows us to focus on strategic thinking, building critical relationships for the future, and influencing up. But here’s the rub: Studies show that cross-border, cross-cultural, and multi-functional global roles in Asia are different. They are high in complexity and uncertainty as Asia grows in size and importance. And often there is no playbook. Our challenge is to manage this surge in complexity by becoming more versatile in the way we manage data and interpersonal relationships. Listen for feedback. By becoming more self-aware of your strengths and limitations, how you make decisions, and how you relate to people, you can more effectively manage through others. (See Getting on top of the job in Asia)

2. Make your voice heard at Head Office.

Why? As the global center of gravity shifts to Asia, Asian leaders need to demonstrate greater influence on global strategy. There is a vacuum to fill and CEO’s expect you to fill it. But it’s hard, especially for Asian leaders with no experience in headquarters. One Head of Asia described her mindset shift to me. “Before I was promoted into this job, I used to think that “Corporate” decides the strategy and Asia’s job is to execute. Today I understand that there is no Corporate. Corporate is us.” Many of today’s CEOs want Asia to take the lead in strategy formulation, given the growing impact of Asia on growth and earnings. But winning a seat at the table is hard for Asian leaders. By learning influencing skills, thinking systemically across the organization, and building key global relationships, executives in Asia can begin to speak up and make their voices heard.

3. Become the go-to person across the company.

Why? Being the go-to person is a visible sign of influence. Think about it. To whom do you ask for ideas and why? By demonstrating value in everyday conversations and contributing to the effectiveness of others, you are demonstrating soft leadership. These are the leaders who get promoted.

4. Build a reputation for innovative solutions.

Why? Creating innovative third-way solutions require us collaborate with others without regard to status or who owns the ideas. At CapitaPartners, we use the term, “win-win-win solutions: I win, you win, we win.” Yong Nam, the big-thinking former CEO of LG Electronics, cultivates this enlarged definition of “we.” He once said to me, “I look for leaders who win in collaboration with customers and suppliers. The entire value chain wins.” Another friend, the CEO of a large Asian telecommunications company, says his company built their leading market share in China by ensuring that Chinese consumers won. And they did this by helping the Chinese government build the necessary infrastructure. So what does it take to create innovative solutions? My friends would say hard work, lots of humility, and an enlarged definition of “we.”

5. Build versatility in decision-making styles.

Why? Managing effectively is mostly about making good decisions. We make decisions all the time, big and small—from where to go to lunch, to how best to manage a critical meeting, to whom to hire. Minor decisions can be made on the fly. Bigger decisions, involving multiple stakeholders require an aptitude for integrative thinking—the ability to source others for data, consider multiple solutions, and connect seemingly unrelated dots. Savvy executives use multiple decision-making styles, depending on a decision’s urgency and complexity. Versatility in our decision-making styles allows us to consciously use the decision style that best suits the situation. This takes practice.

6. Build your empathy.

Why? Research shows that effective senior executives demonstrate higher levels of empathy, cultural self-awareness, and interpersonal adaptability than their less effective counterparts. Empathy allows us to step into another’s shoes. Another former colleague uses the word “executive maturity” to describe these qualities. We can grow our ability to empathize with others, starting with active listening, becoming culturally self-aware, and demonstrating respect for others. But it’s hard. The Asian virtues of humility and respect provide good starting points.

7. Find your purpose.

Why? Your purpose is your compass, your true north. Purpose puts meaning and potency into your everyday actions as a leader. It is said of Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, that his success as a leader has much to do with his relentless search for truth. This in turn has shaped the Amazon culture. President Obama said of Nelson Mandela that he moved South Africa toward justice and in so doing moved billions around the world. Leaders with purpose embrace their strengths and limitations, convictions and doubts in their entirety. They speak to what is best inside us. For these leaders, promotions, security, and reputation are the not the goals but rather the results of purposeful leadership. As the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu said, “He who knows others is wise. He who knows himself is enlightened.” We may not all achieve this. It’s the journey that counts.

Getting on Top of the Job in Asia

Sonny got a coach and got on top of his job.

Sonny, based in China, was recently promoted to lead a 40,000-person organization across China and neighboring countries. And yet, for the first time in his career, he felt like quitting.

His company, one of the largest and most successful manufacturing services firms, had been growing at breakneck speed for ten years, riding a global boom in manufacturing outsourcing. Prior to Sonny’s promotion, he led Operations — the core growth engine for the company. Sonny ran Operations with the skill and efficiency of a highly experienced battlefield commander — calling critical shots and tending to the needs of the delivery team. Sonny loved the job. He knew the business better than anyone and was respected in local circles for his no-nonsense style. He had reported to the company’s head of Southeast Asia, who reported to the EVP, based in the company’s head office.

Two months after Sonny’s promotion to Regional General Manager-Asia, things began to unravel for him. He now led all functions within the region, including HR, Finance, Operations, and Global Account Management. Because of a re-organization, he reported directly to the global EVP of the company, based in headquarters.

Things became far more complex. Sonny was now expected to be the architect for the company’s growth strategy while leading the P&L across a diverse geography and continuing to grow at record rates. Sonny had never reported directly to a top executive at headquarters. As Sonny commented to us, “I can’t get on top of it. I have no balance. I’m spending my time fighting HR and Finance, people who have no feel for Operations. I am expected to present a strategy for growth — everyone looks to me and I’m getting no support.” Sonny also knew that his direct reports were frustrated, and one—his key HR executive—was about to resign.

Studies show that cross-functional global roles are different. Global executives experience far more complexity, flux, and ambiguity in their jobs than domestic executives, and they deal with a multiplicity of stakeholders across diverse cultures and boundaries. Intelligence alone doesn’t lead to success.

Through coaching, Sonny began a journey of change, beginning with a heightened awareness of his own leadership style. He then learned how to lead others within the team and across the organization in a global context. All successful global executives take this journey sooner or later, some more consciously than others. Executives who don’t evolve, don’t get promoted—we know this from evidence. Sonny learned how his style impacted others, including his team, and how to better influence across borders and cultures.

1. Leading Self: Sonny learned that others, especially those across the matrix, considered him “a bully, overly demanding, not strategic.” Executives at headquarters felt Sonny needed to step into the Regional General Manager role with more of a strategic impact. His decision style assessment report revealed a task-orientation style that leaned heavily on speed and action over planning, active listening, inquiring, and systems thinking. In short, the skills and behaviors that got Sonny promoted were no longer enough.

2. Leading Others: Sonny began to understand how his own style was negatively impacting himself and others. Worse, as the pressure grew, Sonny’s style became even more controlling. As a result, he became more alienated from his team and decision-making became dysfunctional.

The turning point came when Sonny decided to change. “Through coaching, I realized that my job was to create purpose and opportunity for thousands of people in this organization. My focus ceased to be ‘operations versus everyone else.’ We need to become one organization.”

Over the next six months, Sonny learned how to become more versatile as a leader and decision-maker, but it was hard. The new behaviors — more listening, probing for information, and pausing before judging others — didn’t seem natural to him and he almost gave up. Over time, however, he realized that the new behaviors were essential for success and consistent with his purpose. He couldn’t possibly succeed in his new role without the expertise and ideas of others. In addition to understanding his own style, he learned how to adapt to the style of others, a critical first step in influencing teams. In other words, he developed his ‘empathy muscles’ and used his new skills to read people and situations.

He later observed, almost by surprise, that there was no more fighting within his team. People felt heard. As he leaned on others for ideas, others provided solutions. Through greater self-awareness, Sonny began to adapt his style to each situation.

3. Leading the Organization: Although his job required constant influence — up, down, and across — Sonny lacked the skills to influence across cultures and borders. “I was impatient,” he says. “If someone disagreed with me, I wrote them off.” Through practice, Sonny became more aware of the needs of executives across the matrix. He built relationships and communicated in ways that allowed him to be heard.

4. Impact: Because others on his team were contributing more, Sonny had more time to think strategically. He began to use his influencing skills to engage executives in headquarters to shape the global strategies and policies that impacted his business and teams. He built alliances with global executives across the matrix. He showed more confidence and initiative in his communications with his boss and, as a result, demonstrated more impact at a global level. By managing himself with greater self-awareness, Sonny learned to adapt his style to meet the needs of each situation. Sonny said to us, “the business is becoming more complex, but I’m enjoying it more.”

Sonny did all the work. Our job was to show him the thread by which he could knit through the personal, relational and organizational layers of culture, complexity and chaos.

Filling the talent pipeline, even as it is under construction

Over the last 30 years, I’ve worked in nine different countries, most of them in Asia. And in that time, I’ve learned a great deal about what kind of leaders thrive when the going gets messy.

I still remember when the enormity of the talent challenge facing Asian businesses in particular hit home for me. It was 2005 and I was in Shanghai leading a workshop for human resources leaders at 10 of the largest multinationals operating in China. Recruitment, employee value proposition, compensation, retention, development—these were only a few of the jigsaw puzzle pieces of their talent issue. The big picture was this: they needed to build a sustainable pipeline of leaders—and all of them admitted falling short.

Building a sustainable pipeline doesn’t just entail recruiting, training, and giving raises so your executives don’t jump ship. Rather, it touches on building a strong culture of talent across the entire company which requires inspired leadership from the top.

And it starts with hiring and promoting the right talent. The best way to fill this executive pipeline, even as it is under construction, is to find good people who get up to speed fast, listen to them, and give them running room. A company can accelerate leadership development if it has first selected people who embrace learning and change. Then, with the right support, including mentoring and coaching, organizations turn these individuals into the  innovative, inspiring and impactful leaders they need.

Our talent pipelines will always be a work in progress, just as we, as leaders, are always “under construction.” By focusing on the important things, which includes having the right people on the team, organizations will move faster to build a sustainable pipeline and win in the marketplace with the best talent.

Castles in the sand? Building talent is the way to leave a lasting mark in Asian businesses

Is this your legacy?

“If you want to do business in China, send over your best people to first serve your customers and employees; not the investors. Build the business to last. Alibaba was born in 1999. I want us to last 102 years so that we last across three centuries.”
— Jack Ma
Founder and CEO, Alibaba

 Bart, a regional expatriate head of Asia for a fast-growing, mid-sized consumer technology company based in the US, spent two years trying to recruit a Country Manager for their largest business in Asia. This executive, young and high-potential, churned through more than twenty candidates over this two-year period, never quite satisfied enough to make an appointment. Meanwhile, Bart, always moving from sales pitch to sales pitch, drove the business in Asia until, after two years, he got the promotion he wanted back home and his assignment in Asia came to an end. He eventually left the company after a frustrating repatriation and called me with a request to assist him in his job search. “I love Asia,” he said. “I grew the business in Asia 30 percent during my two years.” I then asked him how the business is doing now. “Not good,” he said. “After I left, the business fell apart. Weak leadership. They don’t have the talent” I wasn’t sure if he was bragging about his successes before the company’s fall, or admitting to a cardinal sin for a multinational expatriate leader in Asia: failure to build talent.

Could this peripatetic executive have achieved more by helping others be successful? Would this business be stronger today if Bart had built a stronger platform of high-potential local leaders? Bart, like many ‘heroic’ expatriate executives in bustling Asia, ended his career with this multinational with nothing to show for it. With his repatriation back to the US, the business was no better off, an also-ran in a sea of local competitors (like Alibaba).

All expats are tempted to demonstrate value immediately, to be the hero they were hired to be. Yet many expats conclude their assignments having erected castles in the sand. It doesn’t take long for waves of change to wash their achievements away, even as they get promoted for their great work.

So what’s the job of the regional multinational leader in Asia? Effective leaders define their value by setting the agenda, creating the space for others to be successful, building for tomorrow. They find ways to tap into the entrepreneurial value system in China described by Jack Ma. For some this may mean spending more time coaching talent, gaining alignment on a bigger vision, building infrastructure, or unlocking the potential of teams. Or defining a more liberating culture and creating opportunity for locals to create new ideas, business models, products or customers. Or making that long-awaited appointment in North Asia,even if not perfect. Great talent doesn’t need more heroic bosses. They need space to grow.

Tomorrow’s regional head of Asia is today’s unpolished gem. The message to Bart: take a risk on talent, give space. Talent is everything. By the time my 30 year-old associate becomes a gray-haired partner like me, two-thirds of the world’s middle class will be buying through Alibaba or through giant malls in the suburbs of Asia. Our businesses in Asia will have grown five to ten times in scale. For most companies, China will be a larger domestic market than the US. On a typical Friday afternoon, more of your suppliers, customers, outsourcers, and consultants will be connecting through Chengdu on their flights home than through Chicago, with fewer delays.

What does this mean for multinationals doing business in Asia? The Chinese consumer doesn’t know or care where your board members meet or on what stock exchange your shares trade. They want products on the shelves to meet their needs at the right price points. Jack Ma’s principles apply: Focus on the customer. Be entrepreneurial. Treat your employees well. Exploit local opportunities. Multinationals need to build talent on an unprecedented scale from the inside out. For you heads of Asia: what’s your legacy?

(This post is a revised version of a prior post)

It doesn’t take Superman: Marketing leaders in China don’t need x-ray vision, just consumer focus

Who owns the brand?

How does a mainstream global multinational set about turning a somewhat tired consumer brand in China, growing in the single digits in 2005, into a market-leading, powerhouse brand, growing in the double digits five years later, culminating in a four-fold growth in revenues?

DDG (not the real name) created a culture of deep consumer centricity and ruthless focus, supported by a globally aligned leadership team, to take full advantage of China’s emerging opportunities. In turbo-charging growth, acquisitions help, as they did for DDG, by building scale, multifaceted talent, and broader and deeper capabilities. But acquisitions didn’t account for the success of this Turbo brand, which saw organic growth far surpassing competition and even DDG’s own past successes. Over these five years, DDG drove a huge shift in the organization’s commitment to innovation, local decision-making, and talent.

Our first instinct is to attribute this success to one game-changer, in this case, to Tom Ringer (not his real name), the agile head of marketing. Much credit is due. His impressive communication skills, humility, and strategic sensibilities pop out. He’s the un-superman. I’m tempted to doom Tom with the ‘effective manager’ moniker, which isn’t how we describe game-changers in this day and age. Most impressively, this leader, based in Asia and armed with natural charm, savvy, and empathy, altered the organization’s orientation from a headquarters’ sense of true north to an entirely new bearing, a place deep inside the Chinese consumer. The result was a fresh and open mindset and willingness to dismantle all that was understood about the brand. A new organizational culture took root in China and grew in lock-step with Corporate’s willingness to cultivate local autonomy, accountability and pride. Along with all the other good stuff, DDG’s growth recipe has resulted in a senior leadership team in Asia that is now 90 percent Asian, up from just 75 percent two years ago. The team takes pride in, and celebrates, the results. This personalized, globally aligned leadership team, led by Tom, is not the stuff of super-heroes; it is, however, game-changing.

China will emerge as the world’s largest economy during the career-span of Tom’s high-potential young managers. Two-thirds of the world’s middle class will reside in Asia by the year 2030, if not earlier, creating enormous opportunities for both Asian-based and Western-based multinationals – and pressure on these same global competitors to develop talent fast enough to exploit these opportunities. Given the shifting footprint of their customers and workforce, companies like DDG are fast re-thinking their management structures and centers of gravity in an effort to support local decision-making, speed, greater autonomy, and, just as importantly, the mission-critical leadership competencies of their high-potential young leaders. Hardest to alter is the corporate culture underlying most of today’s successful, highly centralized, globally integrated organizations. And yet change they must, especially around the talent that will drive their double-digit growth in Asia.

DDG drove a seismic shift in their approach to marketing, moving from a headquarters-determined brand strategy to a China-centric approach based on deep customer understanding and local innovation. This doesn’t happen without leaders who listen and learn. DDG transformed the way they grew leaders across the talent platform in Asia. It doesn’t take superman.

Leading in the moment: Creating the performance of a lifetime

It’s easy to imagine the source of  satisfaction for an actor: the applause, the spotlight, the fans. But when I asked a New York film and theater actor—who has had his ups and downs over a 30-year career—about his work, he gave me some surprising answers.

“The only way for me to survive as an actor is to focus on the moment. When I am doing a scene, whether an audition or a performance, I try to bring something extra, something of me to the scene that I haven’t found before,” he told me. What about the audition? Don’t you get depressed when you aren’t selected? “Most of the time I am not selected but I don’t think about that as failure. I only think about bringing something special to the audition. If what I bring isn’t right, and I’m not selected, then I can walk away feeling good about what I did in that moment.”

The actor acts because he must; it is existential. The small feeling of achievement doesn’t stem from the applause, although we all like recognition. It comes from the feeling that, briefly, in the moment that mattered, he delivered something special.

Haven’t we all felt that exhilarating moment when all parties in a drama – be it a meeting, a sales pitch, a job interview – clicked on an intellectual and emotional level? Reflect on times in your life when you achieved this extraordinary result. Something resonated between the actor and the audience, or between two actors on the stage, in a way that resulted in an outcome that was palpable, intimate, elevating, and valuable. There was purpose.

Consider the entrepreneur, the job seeker, athlete, salesman, politician, corporate executive. Being in the moment brings out the artist in us. It forces relevance, focus and humility. It brings other actors into our personal drama in a way that delivers outcomes for everyone.  Says the actor, “Sometimes I fail. When I do, I reflect and hopefully learn.”

Ask successful leaders who, like the veteran actor, have seen their ups and downs. There are no second acts. There is only today’s performance. Again and again.

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.

Working with search consultants: think fit, be focused, and get familiar

Even though the U.S. economy has technically pulled out of recession, my inbox doesn’t know it. I’m still getting scores of unsolicited emails and CVs from job-seekers around the world hoping to get a new position. Conditions are still tough.

So here are a few pointers for working with executive search consultants:

  • When evaluating your fit for an opportunity, minimize aspects of the job that are new: new company, new geographic responsibility, new function, new industry. If you’re evaluating a new job, three “news” is too many and would be seen by an executive recruiter as risky. If you’re out of work, getting a job is urgent, I know, but it is more important to get the right job.
  • Don’t get into the position of being one candidate, out of many, to fill a vacancy. The odds will be against you. Work to develop relationships directly with the CEO or line manager of your target companies and try to create a role for yourself that addresses a real business need facing the CEO. You’ll have no competition for the role.
  • Never rely on search consultants to find your next job. They work for companies, not for individuals.
  • If you can get a meeting with a search consultant, you’re lucky. Most simply don’t have the time to meet job-seekers, even as a courtesy. Their time is being paid for by clients.
  • The time to develop a relationships with a search consultant is before you need them. Be forthcoming with tips; help them before you ask them to help you.
  • Keep your cover letter brief and focused, addressing the consultant by name. If your cover letter and CV hits one of our hot buttons, then we’ll respond. If it begins “Dear Sir or Madam,” we’ll delete it immediately.
  • If you can get an introduction to a search consultant from one of his or her clients, then the consultant is very likely to pursue your case.
  • Most search consultants don’t have the time, desire, or expertise to guide you through a major transformation, such as changing industries. They would prefer to put you in a box and consider you for a position when the client needs candidates in your box. To get around this focus on competencies that transcend job title.

You can check out some of my past posts on related subjects, like finding your value proposition, zig-zagging your way, and job hunting from the inside-out. What is your experience? What am I missing? Do you have any other advice to job seekers?

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.

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