Do You Have What It Takes? Success in the Global Workplace

An Interview with Masao Torii, President, Novartis Japan

In an age of turmoil, what kind of qualities are needed to succeed in the global workplace? We asked Masao Torii, president of Novartis Holdings Japan, who has worked on the frontlines of global pharmaceutical companies for forty-five years.

On October 13, Mr. Torii will be giving a seminar at GLOBIS Tokyo on "Leading Global Environments with Japanese Values." 

(Article is from the original Japanese interview conducted by Hiroyasu Mizuno, July 2016.)

Facing problems head-on

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

Mr. 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.

For global companies, it is unclear which direction to shift: 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.

GLOBIS Insights: Amid these turbulent times, what has been your key to remain on the forefront of the global stage for 45 years?

Mr. 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 company HQ. I always made good on my promises and ensured there were no surprises waiting for them. This is absolutely fundamental. 

Transparency is also key. The Japanese market has certain particularities not found elsewhere, and HQ tends to view it that way, too. However, local Japanese personnel tend to use that attitude as an excuse to shirk responsibility, e.g. saying that "that kind of thing won’t work here." But that is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to be a “special” market. You have to be totally transparent in your activities vis-a-vis headquarters, otherwise, it breeds a culture of unnecessary doubt and suspicion. I took every effort to ensure the Japanese market did not become a "black box." When going on business trips to headquarters overseas, I endeavored to have as much face-to-face time with key executives as possible, doing away with any doubts they might have about not knowing what it was we were doing all the way in Japan.

At the same time, you also get Japanese staff who take the attitude that headquarters always comes with unreasonable demands and totally ignores the local context. At those times, you have to carefully explain what it is the global headquarters wants to achieve and what their stance is.

In that sense, my role has been fostering the right balance such that HQ feels confident entrusting things to me, while the local team feels at ease that I am looking out for their best interests.

Another key is having your own opinions in a global context. If you are acting as a representative of Japan, naturally, your jumping-off point is Japan, but as a key person in a global company, you also need to contribute in that global context. In other words, you need to be able to craft a strategy that is globally informed. To that end, you have to watch global developments, understand the macro flows, identify the problems the company is immediately facing, and take action to address them. At strategic meetings at company headquarters, I acted as the Japanese representative to explicitly convey my opinions and show our position as a key player in the room.

GLOBIS Insights: Is being Japanese or from Japan a negative when acting in a global context?

Mr. 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 was high, and it is likely to remain high. The importance of the Japanese market remains the same. There was a moment in time where "Japan-bashing" was in vogue, but the Japanese market is vast; no one is interested in bashing it.

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 to, following WWII, read the tea leaves 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. Think about it—there are some countries where people won’t do their job unless they receive a tip. Then there’s 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 found that proved to be an asset.

However, what you have to take to heart is that you can’t let that spoil you. It’s easy to just say, “Oh, Japan is such-and-such,” or, “This doesn’t fit the Japanese way.” That won’t get us anywhere—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 your heels in and retreating back to Japan, what global Japanese players need to do is develop creative ideas that contribute to the world, all the while giving them the spice of added Japanese value. This 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.

To begin with, you need to address your own understanding of Japan. If you are caught up in the idea that Japan is a special country that no one understands or wants to work with, no one will want to listen to what you have to say. In my experience, that has nothing to do with language barriers. You have to turn those feelings into a positive—you have to want to show people that Japan is working hard, that Japan has lots to offer, that Japan wants to be a global player, that you want people to learn more about your country. No matter how fluent you may be, if you don’t have that conviction, you won’t be able to communicate effectively. Global talent are people with that passion, and the people with the open mind to accept people with that kind of passion.

Strong Conviction to Overcome Hurdles

GLOBIS Insights: You said that the hurdles are steep. What can you do to overcome them?

Mr. Torii: It’s actually quite simple. It comes down to your commitment and mindset.

In elementary school, I had no confidence and I wasn’t a leader. I was simply 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. Like magma flowing from inside of me, I was ignited with a passion to take center stage, to lead people to greatness.

When I hit college, that energy flowed forth. I really decided I was going 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 it happen. My thinking is that no matter how steep the hurdle, if you have conviction, you can do it—anyone can do it.

GLOBIS Insights: So the jumping-off point for everything is wanting to become that someone, wanting to "be a certain way"?

Mr. Torii: You have to have a blazing passion that goes above all else. In my case, I didn’t have confidence and didn’t stand out, and was always wrapped up in my shell. I wanted to break out, and that motivation got me moving.

And, I simply worked hard. It’s in my nature—I have to do things exactly, can’t cut corners. I’m a perfectionist. I always want to give my all, no matter the circumstances. I think that attitude conveyed itself as passion towards the people who mentored me and gave me insights.

That motivation, that energy, trumps everything. You have to have a pure, unadulterated desire and hunger. When I do interviews, I look for that in people. It’s an intangible. Provided you have the mindset, anyone can become like me. It’s an attitudinal change.

Naturally, in terms of being a global citizen and worker, it’s important to have a strong interest in getting out of Japan and seeing the world, getting in contact with different ideas.

GLOBIS Insights: When you earned your MBA, what helped you in working in a global context?

Mr. Torii: First was being able to study alongside enthusiastic colleagues, which was a great source of encouragement. I recently lectured for a GLOBIS MBA class on global leadership development. The energy in the classroom was at fever pitch just walking in, with students from abroad, foreign workers in Japan, and Japanese people, working together and tackling issues to carve out a future for themselves. It was both nostalgic and inspiring to get back into the MBA classroom.

Second is getting in close contact with diversity. Studying not just with Japanese people, but those from other countries and debating is the perfect opportunity to refine your own thinking as a Japanese person or otherwise. In general, Japanese are hesitant when sharing one’s opinion in public, particularly in English. But, if you are committed to conveying your idea, you can get it across. That’s why MBA programs are the perfect place to train those public speaking and communications skills. MBA classes are like boot camp for global talent.

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

Mr. 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.

Also, you need to understand yourself as a person. Know your qualities, have confidence and make use of them. These could include being serious, industrious, considerate of others, and humble enough to put others first. These are qualities that Japanese excel at, so Japanese can leverage them to differentiate themselves in a global context. No matter where you may go, remembering who you are and using that to your advantage is, in my estimation, a requirement of being a global player.

Hear Mr. Torii directly at GLOBIS on October 13 on "Leading Global Environments with Japanese Values!"

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