“Must do” vs. “Nice to do”
Essentials for Global Business

It’s already been two years since I was assigned to work here in Singapore. Japanese employees stationed here often tell me of the troubles and dilemmas that arise from the fact that they find themselves in an overseas office, i.e., on the front lines of the global environment.

There is no end to the troubles and pressures that employees posted abroad encounter.

They may be unsure of how to lead the local staff team or may be swamped by all the things that need doing and find themselves lost as to where to start. Or, the head office may have told them to “localize” things but they do not 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 myself, I experience firsthand what is distinctive about expanding a business in a foreign market as well as the difficulties of organizational management in a diverse environment.

Through the various experiences I’ve had over the course of these two years, however, I have come to realize that a person can face these troubles and pressures simply by honing one single skill. That skill is the ability to discern between what you “must do” and what would be “nice to do.” In other words, it is the ability to discern what is essential for business.

In this life, the number of things that we would like to do is limitless. But in a global environment, it is difficult to do everything. For that very reason, in order to do battle in a global environment, it is important that — rather than thinking about what would be nice to do — you should think strategically about what you must do in an environment different from Japan, focus only on those things, and decide to do them.

This skill is also important for those in charge of operations in Japan. But when you are in charge of operations overseas, there are particular environmental factors that make it difficult to recognize and discern the difference between what you must do and what would be nice to do, making it necessary to acquire this skill to a higher degree.

Four environmental factors that make overseas business difficult

Here are four factors that one encounters in a global environment.

■ Differences in the business growth stage

The level of economic development varies from one region or country to another, and market size, growth potential, and growth rates also vary. So even if one starts an operation that is similar to another operation, the stage of the new operation will be different. And if the operational stage is different, then the operational objectives, the focus points, and the required resources at that stage will also be different. As a result, the operation’s decision-making criteria will also be presumably different. However, it is not unusual for the Japanese head office to want the conventional domestic wisdom applied to overseas operations as well. It is for that very reason that overseas representatives need to figure out on their own what exactly must be, and then have the strength to carry that out.

■ Gaps in the amount of tasks required

After leaving the head office in Japan, the scale of an organization (number of people) becomes extremely small. While setting up operations, you need to carry out tasks that extend across different fields,  such as hiring, handling personnel administration, and managing finances. The result is that you end up with many more tasks than you experienced in domestic operations, where staffing levels were fairly generous. It is precisely at times like this that you need to distinguish between things that strategically you absolutely must do in this environment, and things that would be good if you could do them, but which — if you must omit them — will not have a major impact on strategy, and then focus your resources on doing what you must do.

■ Gaps in levels of responsibility

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, as one individual, you must perform a number of roles, ranging from tasks for ordinary staff to functions of people in charge, and meet broader expectations. Therefore, you must avoid considering what needs to be done from the standpoint of the single role that you had in Japan, and instead have the ability to think on your own what needs to be done in accordance with the one-level-higher position that you have been appointed to at the overseas office.

■ Cultural gaps

Differences in things like 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 where what you regard as only natural and expected is different from what others regard as natural and expected. For instance, in the case of how to do a job, the secret to doing a job in a foreign culture is understanding that what you regard as the things that naturally must be done differ from what other people think must be done. You should to avoid imposing on others what you regard as natural, and instead have the ability to think of what needs to be done in that environment and then communicate it clearly to your team.

When involved in overseas operations, environmental factors like the ones listed above make doing business more difficult. For that very reason, it is even more necessary that you have the ability to understand the principles of management and to discern what is essential for business — what must be done — in a global environment.

It is precisely the honing and acquiring of this ability that can be considered the key to successful globalization.

This article was originally written in Japanese to show how people working in Japanese corporations can overcome some of the challenges working overseas. We hope you enjoy it.