Board-level buy-in for intercultural training

Apr 17, 2019  · by

Elizabeth Masamune

Topics: Business case, Diversity and inclusion, Intercultural profession, Interviews, Japan, Leadership, Return on investment, Training

We caught up with Elizabeth Masamune, an entrepreneur, board director and consultant who has succeeded in our profession’s biggest challenge: getting cultural competence accepted as a strategic issue.

Argonaut icon on whiteHow do you get buy-in for intercultural training in what could be the world’s toughest market?
Elizabeth Masamune, Cultural Correspondent

I invest a lot of time in bringing down the barriers on a human-to-human level. For me, being based in Tokyo means doing business not only in Japanese, but also in a terminology that’s familiar to top execs. I work hard to see things from their point of view. And in practice, I make sure that I meet the decision-makers and influencers through projects, networking events and any forum outside of a traditional sales pitch. The five-point approach published on this site is a good way to capture the fundamental spirit of what I do.

Argonaut icon on whiteWhat’s the core idea behind your work?
Elizabeth Masamune, Cultural Correspondent

My current mission in life is to help the Japanese deal with their declining and aging population by embracing and integrating other cultures into Japanese culture. It’s fair to say that Japan is still a monoculture.

One of my key goals is to build recognition of diversity issues in Japanese board rooms. That recognition of diversity is growing, and slowly organisations are learning to walk the talk on diversity and inclusion. It’s not quick, but we are making progress.

Argonaut icon on whiteHow do you get started?
Elizabeth Masamune, Cultural Correspondent

I have to give a little personal history, because it’s almost impossible to hit the ground running coming in as an outsider into Japan. Your personal connection with Japan is key. They prefer to deal with insiders and they look for people who have a deep understanding and long history with Japan. I have an Australian background and worked as a Diplomat for the Australian government’s trade commission. I worked in many Asian countries and my connection with Japan goes back 30 years. My role back then was to connect local companies with Australian companies, so I had to act as an Asia expert and a cultural interpreter.

It’s unlikely that a foreigner in Japan will ever be accepted as an insider. You may eventually qualify in the eyes of Japanese colleagues if you work for the company for 30 years, but becoming an insider is impossible for many foreigners. Your track record in Japan is your best hope of being chosen to join the inner circle.

In terms of getting a specific Board-level action started, one of my projects started with a conversation between me and a business leader about introducing CultureConnector into his organisation. I already knew the gentleman. Introducing technology, automation and reporting can really attract the attention of Boards in tech-loving Japan. You just need to connect the technology to their business goals.

Technology is part of the “getting your approach right” aspect of the five-point system for winning Board support.

Argonaut icon on whiteTalking of the five-point system, what’s your experience of this in Japan…
…on ambition level?
Elizabeth Masamune, Cultural Correspondent

You cannot push things too far, too fast in Japan, especially if that thing seems to come from the outside. The notorious case of the Olympus CEO shows how quickly ideas are squashed if “global” approaches are introduced too rapidly. Working as a board insider in Japan, I see this very clearly now. Learn to walk before you try to run.

…on getting your approach right?
Elizabeth Masamune, Cultural Correspondent

As a foreigner in Japan, you’re only selected for certain roles, so you need to generate maximum advantage from the opportunities you get. The role of “cultural interpreter” may be vague and poorly-defined, but it is important and can get you a seat at the top table.

I’ve taken every chance to introduce the ideas of diversity and inclusion. The approach which is working best now in Japan is to frame culture as an aspect of management, as a management science. In fact, the term “diversity management” makes sense to people here. With a decreasing population, Japanese leaders accept the need to bring new sources of talent into the economy.

…on connecting with individual board members?
Elizabeth Masamune, Cultural Correspondent

One of my many hats is as global research team leader for the Japan Diversity Network, an umbrella organisation for other associations which promote diversity, including some big companies. It’s rewarding to collaborate with so many energetic people who bring energy to the movement towards diversity in Japan.

There are some great high-profile examples here, such as the charismatic former CEO of food and snack-maker Calbee, who made huge progress in promoting gender-balance in the workplace.

…on the financial case?
Elizabeth Masamune, Cultural Correspondent

Japanese boards are like boards in US and European in the sense that they want to see measurable results. They are looking for a connection with business goals and impact on financial performance.

If you manage to demonstrate the benefits in dollars and yen, then board members here are much more likely to sign up to “soft skills” initiatives. But the evidence base here in Japan is still weak and we need more longitudinal studies.

…on getting the timing right?
Elizabeth Masamune, Cultural Correspondent

Few Japanese business leaders will invest their time and corporate resources into pre-empting the need for cultural competence. People here accept cultural training as necessary only when there is a specific business event that creates a “burning platform”


Argonaut icon on whiteHow do you see the future of intercultural competence development in Japan?
Elizabeth Masamune, Cultural Correspondent

Japan is starting from behind. But international comparisons are not useful here. Japan is in fact doing quite well, considering its unique history.

In Japan, we could say that diversity is gradually becoming accepted, but inclusion will be the greatest challenge. People here need to fully accept diversity in principle first before we move forward to inclusion strategies. Training has a role to play here.

You can appreciate the scale of the challenge when you realise that the Japanese believe that it is not really possible for outsiders to truly understand Japanese people.

Japanese organisations do respond to messaging from the top and fortunately I am seeing an increasing number of boards who “get” diversity as a path to future business success.

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