Two years ago, I was assigned to work in Singapore. Japanese employees stationed here often tell me of the troubles and dilemmas that arise from working in an overseas office, on the front lines of the global environment.

Sometimes, they’re unsure of how to lead the local staff team. Other times, they get swamped by all the things that need doing and find themselves lost as to where to start. Still other times, the head office may have told them to “localize” things, but they simply don’t know how to build up a strong, localized overseas office, or even how to produce results during a brief overseas stay.

As an overseas representative of a Japanese company, I too experience firsthand what it’s like expanding into a foreign market, as well as the difficulties of organizational management in a diverse environment.

Over the course of these two years, however, I have come to realize that a person can face these troubles and pressures by honing a single skill. That skill is the ability to discern what you must do from what would be nice to do. In other words, determine what is essential for the business.

In life, the number of things that we would like to do is limitless. But in a global environment, we just can’t do everything. For that reason, it is important to think strategically about what must be done, rather than what would be nice to do. And we need to consider must in an environment different from Japan.

This skill is also important for those in charge of operations at home, but overseas, it carries a little more weight. There are particular environmental factors that make it more challenging to separate the nice from the must.

Four environmental factors unique to overseas business

■ Business growth

Economic development varies from one region or country to another. Market size, growth potential, and growth rates also vary. Even if an overseas operation seems similar to a successful one at home, the stage of environmental development will almost certainly be different, meaning there will also be differences in the operational objectives, the focus points, and the required resources. As a result, the operation’s decision-making criteria will be unique.

It’s not unusual for a Japanese head office to try and apply conventional domestic wisdom to overseas operations, and this is why overseas representatives need to figure out what really must be from where they are on the ground – and have the strength to carry it out.

■ Tasks required

Compared to a domestic head office, overseas organizations operate on a much smaller scale (that is to say, fewer people). Responsibilities begin to extend across multiple fields, such as hiring, handling personnel administration, and managing finances. It is precisely at times like this that you need to strategically distinguish what absolutely must be done, as opposed to things that would be nice, but can be omitted without a major impact on strategy.

■ Responsibilities

At many Japanese-owned businesses, when you are posted to an overseas subsidiary, you are often given a position one or two levels higher than the one you held previously. But because staffing is limited, you’ll be expected to perform a number of roles, ranging from tasks for ordinary staff to those of management. Therefore, it’s important to think about yourself in a broader context and think on your own about what needs to be done.

■ Culture

Differences in cultural background and language exert a considerable influence on the way people work, their attitude towards their job, and their decision–making criteria. In a foreign culture, you encounter many situations in which what you regard as natural doesn’t even occur to those around you.

Try to avoid imposing your own views of what’s natural on others. Instead, consider carefully what really needs to be done in that environment and communicate it clearly.

In overseas operations, environmental factors like the ones listed above can make doing business more difficult. However, training yourself to recognize those things that must be done and those things that would be nice to do will unlock the key to successful globalization.

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