Steven's Blog

Adapt the Company to Your Style

The most successful expat CEOs in Japan I know never adapt their leadership style to their company’s culture. They adapt their company’s culture to their leadership style, and there is no reason you cannot do the same in your company in Japan.

Not long ago, I was in the office of a newly appointed expat CEO of a French company. She told me she needed a coach. When I asked her why it is a coach she thinks she needs, she explained that she has a particular style of leadership that has made her successful all over the world up to now. However, everyone told her it would not work in Japan. People advised her that she will need to adapt her leadership style to a “Japanese” corporate culture. She wanted my help and I advised her that what others have told are backwards.

A newly appointed expat CEO of an European company in Japan had managed flat organizations where there was open communication with his staff no matter the rank in every operation he had led in every country. When he saw how junior staff avoided speaking with him unless spoken to—and even reacted shyly—he decided to change that, even though people told him this was not possible. “Japan is a hierarchical society,” they explained.

He ignored that advice and began scheduling regular lunches with junior staff in plain view of everyone in the company, just as he had always done in every other company he had led around the world. Hierarchy in communication crumbled within months. Mid-level managers took note.

The same CEO after taking up his post in Japan remarked that there were a number of senior staff who were not performing to a level required of their roles and had little prospect of improving even with support. When he asked his HR director how to fire them, his HR director told him that firing people is not just contrary to Japanese culture, but is also illegal in Japan.

It was not long before a fellow expat CEO in Japan, who knew better, advised him that he had been misinformed. So he fired his HR director and then fired the non-performing executives. There is now some hustle in the company culture as people see there are both positive and negative consequences for individual behavior and results, not just for years of service. The company went on to have a record year.

It is not just expat CEOs who are confronted with dire warnings about perturbing the so-called tenets of Japanese corporate culture. Another client of mine, who is a Japanese CEO of a Japanese company, wanted to promote a top performing sales manager to sales director. His senior staff advised him, “You cannot do that!” There were other sales managers who had not only entered the company before the top-performer, they reminded the CEO, but some were older than the manager the CEO wanted to promote. “These other managers will quit if you promote this guy above them!” Even though this Japanese company had long abandoned policies of lifetime employment and seniority-based promotion, executives had continued them in practice.

The CEO ignored the warning and promoted the manager to sales director. While the promotion was a blow to some of the managers who had been with the company longer, none of them quit. They accepted the new reality and the initial bitterness faded. They understood that they too were no longer shackled to their seniority or lack thereof and could achieve the same success based on performance. Some of the more ambitious junior managers were buoyed by the promotion, as they were confident in their ability to perform. Only now, they saw that their excellence would be recognized and rewarded in the company they are in, rather than needing to seek better opportunities with other companies elsewhere.

Just because you see your Japanese managers and staff behaving in a certain way, never assume such behavior is universally Japanese and immutable. Click To Tweet

Even when Japanese people tell you, as if they were an authority, that this is the way things are in Japan and you have to accept and adapt to a so-called Japanese way, take it with a grain of salt. Such advice is always for the benefit of the giver, not the receiver. They don’t want you to perturb their preferred way. Those who dole out advice on what is immutably Japanese often don’t know any better. I have found that those who speak with the most assuredness have never worked in any company other than yours, and just assume that the way things are in your company are the same everywhere.

So the next time someone tells you that as a leader you cannot do what you intend because this is Japan, listen politely, nod, and then do what you think is right. Good leadership is universally applicable, and so is yours.


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