The American executive blurted out a series of questions he had been unable to ask for a year.
Who should get off the elevator first? Do I have to present my business card with two hands, and if so, how do I avoid fumbling with the cards I receive? Why does nothing change, even after we hold meeting after meeting after meeting?
The executive felt at liberty to ask because he was alone with his coach, Victoria Bolam, at a cafe in Tokyo’s Imperial Hotel; neither his Japanese team or colleagues would know.
Bolam, a Tokyo-based business consultant, offers coaching sessions for foreign executives. Hailing from Britain, she draws on 13 years of trial-and-error to impart advice on how to manage and deal with Japanese subordinates and business partners.
“It’s little things like etiquette,” said the U.S. executive, who allowed The Japan Times to watch his session in late August on condition that he remain anonymous.
“I know it’s important who sits first and where they sit, so it helps when I’m directed; but I always find it embarrassing.”
The exec, a director of sales at a large multinational, looked down. “It’s like being a child again.”
The comment was an admission of frustration from a man who had come to Japan — his first overseas assignment — expecting the same level of success he had achieved at his firm’s headquarters in the U.S.
Having been unable to push forward with cost-cutting maneuvers amid fierce middle-management opposition, however, the executive sought out Bolam, who had also coached his superior and head of operations in Japan.
Japan may admire Carlos Ghosn for his success in churning out profits at Nissan Motor Co., while corporate turnaround specialists may extol the virtues of using a foreign manager to whip a Japanese company into shape.
But many foreign executives who do not have Ghosn’s clout struggle secretly with culture shock and a sense of utter helplessness and frustration at not having their directives implemented at the ground level.
Bolam’s advice includes some common-sense tips that are familiar to all Japanese — but that often surprise expatriate executives:
Submit documents three days before an important meeting, as key decisions are actually made beforehand.
An apology doesn’t mean you have to fix a problem, it just means you understand how the other party is feeling. It’s a show of empathy, and often one of the best tools for smoothing relationships.
An executive would be expected to apologize, for example, if he were hosting a meeting and a waitress were to spill coffee on a guest, she said.
Bolam’s advice reflects firsthand experience in smoothing friction between Japanese employees and foreign managers at various companies.
These range from small Japanese manufacturing firms in rural Aichi Prefecture to Deloitte Tohmatsu Consulting in Japan, where she was information manager for the Asia-Pacific-Africa region.
She also gives situation-specific advice, based on an analysis of a particular company’s corporate culture.
Demand for her counsel is one indication that the sales director is not alone.
According to a recent study by the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, around 45 percent of expatriate executives in Japan have had no previous management experience outside their native countries.
That was fine 10 years ago, when foreign executives sitting in management positions in Japan were often sent as a token headquarters presence.
But the stakes are higher now.
As foreign firms’ performance in markets such as the U.S. and Europe sag, they are anxious for their Japan operations to pick up the slack.
The result has been an influx of “real high-flyers” who are expected to perform as well as or better than they did in their previous positions when they come to Japan, Bolam said.
When these often unrealistic expectations are not met, the elite executives face a sense of defeat in direct proportion to their past success.
Consultancies often provide a minimal amount of orientation, although executives are usually too busy to prepare before their arrival, Bolam said.
Once they land, major consultancies offer daylong training sessions focusing on etiquette and cultural differences.
In the case of the sales director, however, his concerns are more personal, which makes going to a major consultancy uncomfortable.
One problem ex-pat executives often have is that Japanese workers are slow to implement executives’ decisions at the ground level.
“Often top Japanese (staffers) are simply waiting for the foreign executive to leave,” Bolam reflected. It is therefore important to convince the Japanese team that unless the required changes are made, a successor will be sure to follow through.
Back at the hotel’s cafe, Bolam assured the executive that he was not losing authority by waiting to be ushered to his seat.
“If you’re top dog, then it’s perfectly normal for you to lag back and have underlings introduce you to your guests and guide you to your seat,” she said.
Traditional Japanese etiquette reflects where everyone stands within the food chain, with hierarchy dictating where people sit, how people bow, and the order in which people enter a room or a taxi, she said.
Having explained the rules, she assured him that it was not necessary to live by the book or be a model business card giver, but to grasp some basic tenets.
“Concentrate on why” the rules are there, she said.
“Take a moment to look at people’s business cards” and, in a meeting with clients, line up the cards on the table to reflect a hierarchical seating order.
This sends the message that you care about who they are and where they are in the pecking order at their company, she said.
“People don’t expect you to know everything Japanese,” Bolam said.
On the contrary, some Japanese actually feel uncomfortable when a foreigner becomes “too Japanese,” she said.
“What is utterly important is that people see you are making an effort.”