Japanese companies need to pull up younger burdock roots if they really want to grow globally
Along with “tako tsubo” (octopus pot), another Japanese concept “gobou nuki” (plucking out burdock roots) used in HR has been deemed harmful to corporate Japan’s global prospects.
The term has been used frequently in the Japanese media recently, according to Masahiro Kotosaka, an ex McKinsey consultant now at Ritsumeikan University. In a recent article in Nikkei Business Online he points out that the recent appointments as President of Takuya Hirano at Microsoft Japan, Tatsuo Yasunaga at Mitsui & Co, Koji Arima at Denso, Tatsuya Tanaka at Fujitsu and Takahiro Hachigo at Honda have all been described as plucking burdock roots, as they are in their 40s or 50s, younger than normal for Presidents in corporate Japan. The average age of Japanese Presidents was 62 in 2014 (up from 61 in 2013), around 10 years higher than the global average.
The older age is of course partly explained by the continuation of seniority based pay and promotion in Japan – although Panasonic, Sony and Hitachi have all recently announced they are abolishing or looking to abolish this system.
The average age in Japan for a “kacho” (section head, the first managerial position in Japanese companies) is 38.6 and 44 for a “bucho” (department head, or General Manager) according to Recruitworks. In India, China or Thailand, the average is 9 years lower for kacho and 10 years lower for bucho. Even the US average is 5 years lower for both positions.
Kotosaka asserts that Japanese companies need to start pulling out younger burdock roots, people who might be future executives, and making sure they have early leadership experience. If this does not happen, the younger generations of Japanese will soon feel a big gap with their overseas peers.
Already Kotosaka has heard (as I have) from Japanese companies that they feel the utilisation of non-Japanese or external executives has increased and the presence of Japanese executives has faded.
The most notable example is of course Christophe Weber, President of Takeda Pharma, and his team of 16 executives, of whom 8 are non-Japanese and have come from outside the company and two are non-Japanese who joined through being executives in a Takeda acquisition. Weber had his first leadership experience at the age of 29 when he became a country manager at GSK. Carlos Ghosn of Nissan also became head of a factory at the age of 27.
My former employer Mitsubishi Corporation is mentioned as an honourable exception to the lack of experience given to juniors, along with gaishi (foreign owned) consulting companies and private equity firms. For such companies, people are the main asset, and it’s true I suppose that trading companies such as Mitsubishi that have now moved more towards acquisitions rather than trading, do afford ample opportunity for younger Japanese to take up management positions abroad. In practice though, I have seen many instances where the acquisition is left to manage itself, and the Japanese expat director mostly stays in the regional headquarters, processing paperwork to send back to Japan HQ, rather than hands on managing the business.
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