I was born again. Not in the spiritual sense, but in that feeling of helplessness you get when you can’t comprehend what’s going on around you. That is how I felt when I moved to Japan.
Don’t let the last name fool you. I am third-generation Japanese Canadian. Like many “gaijin” (foreigner), when I arrived in Tokyo, the extent of my Japanese was limited to “sushi” and “Toyota.”
Fortunately, my company provided me with language instruction. But finding the time to study is difficult, especially when taking on a senior role in the local operations. However, you cannot overestimate the benefit of learning the language, even at a basic level. It makes day-to-day living easier, and it demonstrates a willingness to learn the local culture. The locals appreciate the effort, no matter how much you butcher the language.
Not having a native grasp of the language and culture does have its advantages though. It taught me a valuable lesson—the power of focusing on strategic issues, rather than on the tactical.
Anyone who has seen Japanese advertisements knows how bizarre they can be. So when I briefed the ad agency on our new campaign, I focused on the strategic issues—who was the demographic and psychographic audience; what is the competitive set like and what are they saying; how do we want to position our brand; what is our unique proposition; and what response do we want?
I tasked the agency with the tactical execution of the strategy. They knew I would judge their work on how well it delivered against the strategy—and that I would not be an armchair creative director. They felt empowered and produced great work. The resulting ad campaign drove double-digit growth, and the creative idea is still going strong 18 years later.
Although Tokyo is one of the world’s great cities, with an abundance of first-rate restaurants, transportation and housing, these creature comforts cannot help you avoid the stress of transitioning to a new culture. The transition is easiest for the worker, who is busy throughout the day. But it can be difficult for the spouse/partner, especially if a career is put on hold. For this reason, the decision to take on a foreign assignment must be made jointly as a family—an unhappy family life will negatively impact your effectiveness at work.
Also, if you have a clearly defined career path and your company has determined your next job assignment, consider yourself lucky. In most cases, the length of your foreign assignment is agreed to (e.g., three years), but what you do thereafter is “TBD.” So it is critically important to network internally and maintain your visibility to help ensure there will be a suitable role for you at the end of your stint.
I think the lessons I learned working in Japan are country agnostic: Learn as much of the language as you can; focus on the strategic and empower others to deliver the tactical; make sure your family is on board with the move; and take ownership of your next assignment.
A Japanese proverb states, “A willow tree never breaks under the weight of snow,” which suggests that flexibility allows you to endure hardship. When taking on a foreign assignment, being a willow is definitely a good thing.