Nikkei Business Daily August 6, 2019

The Importance of a Talent-First Approach in the U.S.

In the last three decades we have observed several waves of expansion efforts by Asian companies, reportedly motivated by a desire to replicate their market leadership at home in the large Western markets and often starting with the U.S.

My research over the years suggests that Japanese companies trying to find a fast path to U.S. market dominance are seldom successful on their own. Ultimately it makes sense to find a U.S. company receptive to becoming a local partner, so I admire forward-thinking business leaders who—when challenged to “go global”—readily pursue an acquisition strategy as the first step in tackling the U.S. market.

Following acquisition, the tactical, but critical cross-cultural best practices are readily discoverable. For example, American colleagues must learn meishi exchange and the importance of nemawashii in critical decision-making. Japanese colleagues must get comfortable with the need to constantly articulate a point of view in U.S. meetings, that office “face time” is not important, and that their human capital networks outside of their companies are essential.

More fundamental and harder to learn is an insight into the differences in perspectives on people. Today’s, knowledge companies largely view their human capital as the most precious corporate asset. When talent is the most expensive resource, and the IP they ultimately produce is the defensible moat for both leading start-ups and corporate tech goliaths, then talent acquisition, engagement and retention becomes a company critical capability. The resulting implication is that managers’ paramount responsibility is employee engagement and retention.

In ultra competitive markets like Silicon Valley, the top university graduates and sought after professionals will be very selective when considering their next move. They will screen each opportunity to find the most inspiring mission, aligned corporate values, a passionate boss who they can learn from and who will develop their career, and a collegial team that will contribute to their development and fun. They expect competitive salary and equity compensation, and what have become standard job benefits (ongoing education, extra or even “open” vacation policies, on-site dining and personnel services).

US employees expect to understand why their employer is doing what they’re doing, how the company will win market share, and what their individual contribution should be towards their company’s success. Western talent is not blindly motivated to “be #1 in XYZ market” or to “achieve $X revenue growth in Year 1.”

In contrast, even in the most competitive talent pools in Japan, it still seems that employees are expected to be company devotees, required to embrace any role or assigned manager and adapt an “anything for the company” mindset. Career/life imbalance is often a given.

Successful expansion requires a recognition of the cultural and talent norms in the US and a willingness to embrace them. I realize that this account may make U.S. managers and their teams seem full of entitled children (wagamama). But as countries like Japan continue to face a diminishing younger, coveted workforce of knowledge workers, I hope there are some insights here that can make your expansion journeys successful in the West, and also be used at home.

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