Do not underestimate your abilities, make sure to set high goals, and be persistent in striving to achieve them — these are just some of the bits of advice billionaire Tadashi Yanai gives to people who want to become successful business managers.

College students and business managers took advantage of a rare opportunity last week to meet and speak with Yanai, the founder of Fast Retailing Co., the parent company of the massively popular retail apparel chain Uniqlo, during a question-and-answer session at Waseda University.

Known as a charismatic business manager, Yanai gave simple, direct answers to questions about how to best pursue their careers.

One student, who wants to work in a business related to high school education, said he hoped to acquire the “high level of skills” needed to run such a business by the time he turned 25. He asked Yanai which companies would teach him what he needs to know.

“I don’t think it’s possible to achieve such a high skill set by 25,” Yanai said.

He said no matter what business people do and how hard they work, it takes about 10 years to become a capable manager.

Yanai advised the young man that the best way to learn how to run a business is by starting one up himself. He suggested that the student start with a cram school, build it up, and later turn it into an actual high school.

During the two-hour session, Yanai repeatedly said that having high goals was critical for business managers, adding they should set targets higher than anyone in their companies.

The Uniqlo chief himself has publicly declared his own bold goals, such as achieving ¥5 trillion in annual sales by 2020.

A man who runs a company that installs power systems in factories asked Yanai how managers should balance the goals they set with reality.

In an apparent reference to Toshiba Corp., whose workers manipulated accounting data to give the appearance of increased earnings, the man said some companies set goals too high, which can create undue pressure on employees.

Yanai said the Toshiba case, which was extreme, exemplified Japanese business culture and its hierarchical and seniority-driven system.

He said that the important thing was to ensure that a company’s goals and employees’ dreams were in sync.

That way those employees willingly strive to achieve the company’s goals.

“Chances will then be given to those people, thus motivating them to perform better than they usually would,” said Yanai.

Yanai then asked the man what his goal was, to which he replied that he wanted his company to be number one among independent installers in his field.

“But I am thinking we can’t . . . ,” said the man, explaining that his firm was currently ranked 50th among such independent providers.

“If you think you can’t, you can’t…I think you can do it. Please realize that in 10 years,” said Yanai, stressing that people should not assume that what they want to do is impossible.

Yanai pushed the notion that it is important to be persistent and keep trying to achieve goals.

One student who is studying Japanese questioned his reasoning, stating that although being tenacious may be necessary, huge losses could be sustained if his advice is strictly adhered to and a company fails to withdraw from a losing business in time.

“You are right. That’s why you need to analyze which will be bigger: the investment or profit,” Yanai said. “If you think that a business is failing, you withdraw quickly. But if there is a chance, you do it until the end.”

Yanai said maybe 1 out of 10 businesses had the potential to become successful. His policy is to start fast, run it small and quit fast if necessary.

Another attendee, who is the No. 2 man in a company that manages pharmacies, said his firm’s president lacked leadership skills but still the company continued to grow due to the efforts of a number of capable executives.

“You have a skill, so why don’t you go to another company?” asked Yanai, adding that his current company probably will not grow that big under weak leadership.

Another student, who wants to be a musician, but who will eventually be forced to take over the family business, asked Yanai what she should do.

“Do you have talent in music? There are people who want to be professional sport players or artists, but when they don’t have the talent, it’s very unfortunate,” he said.

The student said she wanted to be a musician because music can connect people who come from different backgrounds.

Yanai recommended that she start a business that can help her realize her dreams, for instance, by cultivating and producing musicians.

“It’s much easier to be a business manager,” he said.

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