Monday, September 10, 2012

When the Ugly American Is Your Boss

“He’s acting like a playboy," my Number One said. “That’s what the office staff told me.”

Hana (names have been changed!) was referring to my boss, the head of our international sales department, during his solo visit to our Tokyo office. His carefree behavior was coming across as a lack of respect not only to our Japanese employees, but to their work.

And we all felt like our hard work was being jeopardized by his clueless actions. Hana and I were worried about how our company might be coming across not only to our somewhat new Japanese office staff, but to our customers and business partners. Granted, customers probably would not come into contact with our boss, but the press might. Certain magazines loved our products and business model and not infrequently wrote about them.

“Yesterday he took off during the day to visit the Salt Museum. They’re wondering why he even came. They haven’t seen much of him.”

Boss had been promoted to oversee our international department a year before, based on – I assumed – his excellent performance in another area of the company and his excellent relationship with the hiring vice president. Unfortunately, he didn’t know anything about international business. Luckily, his staff (we) knew quite a bit. I had lived in Asia for ten years – six of those years in Japan – and hold an MBA in international management. Hana was native Japanese. Our staff was truly multi-cultural and for the past four years we had painstakingly built the international business, growing exponentially in double digits from year to year. Our growth had drawn the attention of senior management and they had decided to promote someone they knew well into the leadership position for international sales. It had become increasingly obvious to us, his immediate staff, that Boss’s expertise was limited to his knowledge of our company’s products.

Accompanying him on his first visit to Tokyo, I had observed his cluelessness toward some Japanese customs. Another American living in Japan had even commented to me about his casual style of dress in business meetings, when the rest of us wore business suits. His implication was that Boss didn’t seem to care how he came across and he was coming across a bit disrespectfully. I had been surprised myself about some of his actions and although I cut him a little slack for his first Japan visit, I felt very uncomfortable that I hadn’t seen any changes in his ethnocentric attitudes and behavior since then.

Despite what you might have pictured in your mind, Boss wasn’t your typical six-foot bumbling Caucasian American. He was ethnically Asian and when he was in Japan, he was often mistaken by other Japanese for one of them. Raised in Kansas City, with a degree in art, Boss, except for a couple guided-tour vacations, had never spent much time overseas and didn’t speak a foreign language. He seemed to view his new position as head of international as something of a lark – an opportunity for him to justify multiple international trips. From my perspective now, I believe he was in over his head and as an immature 40-year-old male, did the only thing he really knew to do when traveling: had a good time.

I wasn’t sure what to say in response to comments like our Tokyo employees’ or the ex-pat in Japan. How could I defend my boss when I had observed his egotistic behavior myself? Workplace protocol is to never disparage your boss; my parents raised me not to talk poorly about anyone and the nuns had taught me to respect authority. My office advice is always: Don’t say anything about anyone behind their back that you wouldn’t say to their face.

Boss never consulted me or others in our department on protocol or customs. When he saw us altering our dress or behavior a bit while traveling, he voiced somewhat surprised observations which at first made me think that since he was observant, he would get that doing that was simple courtesy and respect for others. But he never picked up on that he might do so himself.

Looking back I wonder what I could have done differently to help protect the company from what was to come. My staff and I wrote a well-researched report for senior management – at their request - about the pros and cons of a proposed direction of the international business, and we advised taking a different approach. It was disregarded and Boss sided with senior management to invest heavily in a risky Japan-based endeavor – basically replicating our successful US retail strategy in Japan.

I know that a major part of the reason they chose this direction was that Boss and senior management were too US-centric. Although our report, using two Japan-based expert consultants’ facts and advice, laid out pitfalls of their strategy, senior management was just too internationally ignorant to understand. Boss agreed with them that simply applying our successful US strategy in Japan would work just fine.

After working with Boss for two years, I ended up leaving the company. By that time I had no respect for Boss and not much for senior management either. After I left they pursued their chosen business strategy in Japan with the result of the first loss ever for the company. After a year of bleeding red they closed up shop in Japan and the international department was dismantled.

This true story could serve as a typical international business case study in one of my Thunderbird MBA classes. The harm a lack of international experience, cultural sensitivity, and global business acumen can do to an organization is well-documented. Add to that heavy doses of internal corporate politics and US egotism and you have a volatile mix that sets the stage for certain failure.

Yet this kind of thing still happens even in our current global environment. Senior management can  be blinded by their domestic success and think it simple to replicate anywhere. For optimal global success, listen to your internal experts no matter what level they are. Read books on your target countries. Consult some experts, find a cultural coach. Don’t be the ugly American (or your country’s counterpart). Get some international business training!

Japanese Bathroom
Cars 2 —
I love Japanese bathrooms!

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