Addressing the Global Leadership Gap

Feb. 27, 2017


On 27 February 2017, BCCJ members and guests gathered at the Shangri-La Tokyo for a panel discussion on cultivating strong global leaders and the immense rewards such leaders bring to business. On the panel were Yuka Shimada, trailblazing Head of HR & Board Director at Unilever Japan and leading light in the field of women’s leadership in Japan; Naoshi Takatsu, Managing Partner for Japan & North East Asia of world-renowned Swiss-based executive business school IMD, and Chad Stewart, Associate Director of HR in Asia & Oceania for leading Japanese pharmaceutical company Astellas Pharma Inc.

Addressing the global leadership gap is an urgent priority for companies expanding their geographic reach. As global companies focus their strategies on developed and emerging markets, it becomes more critical than ever to identify, recruit, develop, and retain intercultural leaders who can successfully navigate the company's opportunities and challenges.

The panel, facilitated by Tove Kinooka of Global Perspectives KK, explored the topic from three very different angles – that of a British company operating in Japan (Unilever), a Japanese company operating globally (Astellas), and an international executive business school that attracts and develops leaders from diverse industries worldwide.

Kinooka opened the session by asking the panel what they believed to be the biggest challenges in the development of global leaders. Large companies operating in hundreds of different countries, the panel agreed, presented challenges with regard to engaging multiple stakeholders across multiple boundaries and recognising variations in thinking. The goal is "to bring all the different styles of management within a global company together to form a universal leadership style."

Takatsu asked the audience what they believed was "the number one criterion for a successful leader long term." After some guesses, he revealed the answer: self-awareness and eagerness to adjust. "Successful leaders see success as making a positive difference in the lives of their colleagues, their organisations, their families, and society as a whole," the speaker said. "As one takes on global leadership responsibilities, the key is to stay curious, welcome multiple perspectives, and to be prepared to make behavioural changes. This doesn't mean a change in personality, but instead the adoption of new processes."

Shimada spoke about "authentic leadership" to engage and inspire employees. "Mindful leaders first ask, 'what is my contribution to the problem and what can I do to help solve it?'. Authentic leaders are self-aware and genuine. They are aware of their strengths, their limitations, and their emotions, and show their real selves to their colleagues. Shimada emphasised how useful this approach can be for women in the Japanese workforce, who sometimes feel under pressure to live up to particular expectations or fulfill certain roles. The speaker also addressed the importance of a working environment that feels safe and in which the employees have fewer fears. "This encourages open-mindedness and reduces prejudices."

Stewart pointed out that it is essential for good global leaders to remain aware of how they come across to others and to consciously adjust their approach from "let's do this" to "how should we do this?". "The benefits of mindfulness can lead to improvements in innovative thinking, intercultural understanding and cooperation, and better recognition of trends and the company mission." The speaker also emphasised that innovative companies now recognise the importance of succession planning, and increased awareness of talent development throughout the organisation, not only in HR.

The panel discussed characteristics shared by outstanding leaders, which included a positive, proactive approach to global issues; clear values and a deep sense of purpose; transparency and trust; and investing in others. Environments that encourage strong global leadership emphasise networking before hierarchy, inspiration before decisions, trust before authority, inclusiveness and self-awareness.

In the subsequent Q&A, Stewart emphasised the need for the global HR vision to be connected to all leadership development programmes rather than global leadership being restricted to small, individual training sessions. The panel also addressed the importance of will among companies and employees wanting to make changes in their company towards a more global and interculturally oriented environment. "There must be a will, a challenge, and support network for change to be implemented," said Shimada. 

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