The passing of an era in a company is often so subtle as to create an illusion of inertia, like the pushback from the jetway of a passenger jet that is only discernible by looking out the window but otherwise goes unfelt. Such changes in era are only remarked when someone asks, “Were we always like this?”
At one Japanese chemical manufacturing company I know, the memory of a different era is mostly lost, save a few old-timers. I once suggested to one of its sales teams that they ought to prospect in industries other than the one the company now dominates if they wanted to grow the business. The company’s products have multiple applications.
Yet the members of the team nearly all agreed with each other amongst themselves. Mine was a terribly naïve suggestion—and simply not possible. They had no prospective customer contacts in other industries nor possessed even minimal product expertise.
It would be irresponsible to branch out into parts unknown as such amateurs, they reasoned. I suppose in that they were right.
“Things in Japan are different,” they explained, “and in ways you as an American cannot possibly be expected to fathom,” they consoled me. “You can do that kind of thing in America,” they said with presumed authority—though none had ever worked in the United States. “But you cannot do that here in Japan!”
“You need to understand. This is Japan!” they admonished. Who could possibly argue with that? Had I been a child, I am sure one of them might have knelt and patted me on the head.
It was only a few managers who spoke up and disagreed.
“When the business and its staff were young and scrappy, finding opportunities in other industries was part of the job! If we had no contacts, we went out and made them! If we lacked product expertise, we went out and got it! We talked with prospects and they educated us. We got advice from colleagues in R&D!”
These managers had done this kind of thing once before. Why should it not be possible to do it again? At least that was their reasoning.
However, it was only managers over fifty who knew of this former era, and only because they had lived it. No one ever talked about it, much less named it. They had almost forgotten it had ever existed. Anyone under forty though had no idea such ways of working were even possible.
Managers at another company I know, who had been around long enough, described the beginning of the business as an era of rapid innovation, adventure, and risk taking. Yet somewhere along the way, the business morphed into a bureaucracy—lumbering, risk-averse, and calcified. No one was sure of exactly when it happened,
Nonetheless, happen it did, and long ago enough so that bureaucracy was all the younger staff had ever known. They had assumed a bureaucracy the business had always been. Anything different was unimaginable for them, like a two dimensional creature trying to envision a three-dimensional world.
When eras go unremarked, the understanding of the present becomes a false memory of the past, and the future promises nothing different—like a climate without seasons.
With last week’s ascension of Emperor Naruhito to the Chrysanthemum Throne, I am reminded of Japan’s tradition of naming and demarcating its eras in advance. The new Reiwa Era’s eloquent characters literally translate to English as an auspicious peace, but such a banal English phrase does no justice to the intent, ambition, and aspiration of an entire nation of people that the name Reiwa comports.
The demarcation of the Reiwa era is nothing less than a declaration of resolve to the entire world—that this is now who we are. There is no ceding to others in the future to interpret the make up of our era after we have lived it, nor for them to demarcate it in ways that suit only their convenience and sensibilities. No, our era is ours to name, demarcate, and make as we say, and not out of selfishness or ego. Our era is our legacy so others in the future can learn from us and make the next era their own.
In companies, as leaders, we create vision, declare strategy, advertise and (hopefully) espouse our values. We might even pay homage to the past, and recognize our history. Yet we often leave it to others in the future to discern and define what was our era, just as we do with past eras that others have lived—assuming we do anything at all.
It does not have to be that way. Take a page from Japanese tradition. As a leader, you can name and demarcate your own era.As a leader, you can name and demarcate your own era. Click To Tweet
You too can declare, this is now who we are. Never cede to others to interpret how your era made you—assuming people in the future will discern any distinct era of yours at all.
Your era is yours to make, and on your own terms, as long as you have the resolve to do so.