In an age of turmoil, what qualities are needed to succeed in the global workplace?

Masao Torii, president of Novartis Holdings Japan, has worked on the front lines of global pharmaceutical companies for forty-five years. He shares his take on globalizing your business.

The world is in turmoil with Brexit, terrorism, and blowback to globalization. How is global business affected?

Torii: Turmoil is precisely the word for it. You can’t see what’s coming up ahead. The established balance of power is shifting, and order is being lost. The turmoil in the Middle East, Russia, and China, as well as the Trump phenomenon in the US, are out of control.

Global companies are unsure which direction to shift. Such management decisions are high-risk. We must be both quick-witted and flexible, and have crisis management skills to adapt to change where “not knowing what comes next” is the defining condition. For new projects, you have to envision potential negative outcomes and create a Plan B. Being proactive can be good, but you need to be strategic and take stock of the risks.

This also applies to hiring talent. Past cases of success and failure are increasingly irrelevant. People need to forecast scenarios in spite of an uncertain future, identify and respond to risk, and have the fortitude to face problems head-on when the going gets tough.

Amid these turbulent times, how have you managed to remain at the forefront of the global stage for so long?

Torii: There is no secret formula. All I have done is tried to make the best decisions at any given time. Looking back on the latter 23 years of my career, as the head of the Japanese branch of a global company, I focused most on developing trust with HQ. I always made good on my promises and ensured there were no surprises. This is absolutely fundamental.

Transparency is key. You have to be totally transparent in your activities vis-a-vis headquarters, otherwise, it breeds a culture of unnecessary doubt and suspicion. I made every effort to ensure the Japanese market did not become a “black box.” On overseas business trips, I endeavored to have as much face time with key executives as possible, doing away with any doubts they might have about what we were doing in Japan.

At the same time, you also get Japanese staff who take the attitude that headquarters makes unreasonable demands and totally ignores the local context. The Japanese market does have certain particularities not found elsewhere, but local Japanese personnel tend to use that attitude as an excuse to shirk responsibility, saying “that kind of thing won’t work here.” But that is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a special market. That’s why it’s equally important to carefully explain what the global headquarters wants to achieve and what their stance is.

My role has been fostering the right balance so that HQ feels confident entrusting things to me while the local team feels at ease that I am looking out for their interests.

Is being Japanese or being from Japan a negative in a global context?

Torii: On the contrary—if anything, it’s a positive. What I’ve seen over these 45 years is that the world’s interest in Japan is high, and it is likely to remain high. The importance of the Japanese market remains the same.

The reputation of Japan as a nation and Japanese people as skilled workers is high. There are many people who understand and appreciate the Japanese people’s ability, following WWII, to see the changing times and work assiduously to make a world for themselves. I think the deep-seated Japanese quality of wanting to do one’s best work for one’s clients is outstanding. And the value of Japanese teamwork…rather than one person trying to stand center-stage, Japanese people are particularly humble in putting their interests second to the greater good. In many ways, I’ve found that to be an asset.

However, if Japan is this lofty, special nation, it won’t grow with the rest of the world, nor can we give back to global society. Rather than digging our heels in and sticking strictly to the Japanese way, what global Japanese players need to do is develop creative ideas that contribute to the world. There’s no reason this can’t be done with the spice of added Japanese value. It can be a steep hurdle to climb, but if you don’t step up to the plate, people won’t take you seriously as a key member of a global organization.

You said that the hurdles are steep. What can be done to overcome them?

Torii: It’s actually quite simple. It comes down to commitment and mindset. In elementary school, I had no confidence, and I wasn’t a leader. I was a wallflower, almost invisible. When I hit middle school, I knew I had to change. Thankfully, my homeroom teacher gave me lots of opportunities to be in the limelight. I was ignited with a passion to take center stage, to lead people to greatness.

When I hit college, I really decided to change. I majored in German and was a leader in the English Speaking Club. A priest who would become my lifelong mentor gave me a chance to study abroad in the US. I promised myself I would master English and make him proud, so I selected a place to study where there were no other Japanese students.

Looking back, I see I was able to change gears and get myself in the mindset to want to make all that happen. No matter how high the hurdle, if you have conviction, you can do it—anyone can do it.

How did earning your MBA help you in a global context?

Torii: It was that chance to get in close contact with diversity. Studying not just with Japanese people, but those from other countries, as well as debating, is the perfect opportunity to refine your thinking. In general, Japanese people are hesitant when sharing their opinions, particularly in English. But if you are committed to conveying your idea, you can get it across. MBA programs are the perfect place to train those public speaking and communications skills. The classes are like boot camp for global talent.

Lastly, what words of advice would you give to young people thinking about working in a global context?

Torii: Firstly, you have to have clear goals in mind. Your motivation could be anything; that’s immaterial. In my case, I wanted to break out of my shell and try something new. That’s as good a reason as any.

Secondly, you have to always give your all to everything. Only you know whether or not you are giving something your all, so you have to be honest with yourself. You have to be able to look back on a day of hard work and really be able to feel satisfied with what you did.

(This article was translated from the original Japanese interview conducted by Hiroyasu Mizuno)

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