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Global Leader Early Life Experience

Common Factors among Foreign-Affiliated Company Leaders in Japan

Henry Osborn, Partner & Representative Director, Osborn & Mori Partners Co. Ltd.

Tsuyoshi Kimura, Associate Professor, Faculty of Global Management, Chuo University

Reference: Kimura, T., & Osborn, H. (2021). Global Leader Early Life Experiences: Common Factors among Foreign-Affiliated Company Leaders in Japan. The Association of Japanese Business Studies 2021 Proceedings.


INTRODUCTION Given the increasingly competitive and complex world in which they now operate, corporations are investing into assessing, developing, and enhancing the capabilities and capacities of their leaders more than ever (Moldoveanu & Narayandas, 2019), often with the help of external employee training and development firms representing a global industry estimated to be worth more than 370 billion U.S. dollars (Statista, 2019). At a senior executive level, leaders are charged with navigating their organizations through the increasingly VUCA1 landscape that lies before them – not only in their home countries, but frequently further afield across regional and global markets. To successfully achieve this requires an ever-expansive domain of industry, specialist, and functional knowledge, as well as multi-cultural awareness, leadership effectiveness, and personal efficacy. Various leadership development interventions have been developed and implemented in the workplace aimed at supporting such leaders in acquiring and nurturing these necessary skills and attributes (Oddou & Mendenhall, 2008). However, research supporting the efficacy as well as outcomes of such leadership development interventions is limited (Lacerenza et al., 2017), with the variety of global leadership development programs implemented thus far showing poor results (Mendenhall, et al., 2008). Recent surveys indicate global company CEOs have doubts in general when it comes to the positive impact such efforts ultimately have on their organizations (Feser et al., 2017).

One factor limiting our understanding of the developmental pathways for successful business leaders is that the vast majority of the extant research focuses on leadership development that occurs later in life, typically in corporate or workplace settings (Liu et at., 2020). These studies neglect to take into account the individual leader development that occurs earlier on – particularly during childhood and adolescence (Murphy, 2011). Indeed, some leadership experts argue that “much of leadership talent is hardwired in people before they reach their early or mid- twenties” (Sorcher & Brant, 2002) – in other words, before they even enter the workplace. In order to design effective and customized programs for developing executives, it can be argued that an understanding of the precursors to the individual’s journey to becoming a leader, and the foundational experiences and processes they went through in order to get there, are essential in order to be able to effectively assign and tailor the right programs for the right people. Despite this, there exists a dearth of empirical research into the early life development of business leaders, and the key experiences and mechanisms through which individuals start to accumulate the foundational skills and capabilities necessary for leadership roles later on in life (Murphy & Johnson, 2011).

Research tells us that, while up to one third of the variance in leadership role occupancy can be accounted for by genetics, the far more significant remaining portion can be associated with the development of leader attributes and capabilities influenced by environment, context, critical experiences, and other life factors (Arvey, Rotundo, Johnson, Zhang, & McGue, 2006; Arvey, Zhang, Avolio, & Krueger, 2007) – a great deal of which takes place during the early stages of life, prior to emergence as a leader in adulthood (Day 2000; Day 2011; Castillo & Trinh, 2018; Day & Dragoni, 2015). This may be because aspects such as behavior, personality, and skills are more malleable – and thereby more readily developed – in childhood and adolescence than later on in life (Arnett, 2000; Murphy & Johnson, 2011). Some of these foundational leadership skills may even be important to develop early on (Avolio & Vogelgesang, 2011; Gardner, 2011), even if the effects may only become observable during adulthood (Bornstein, 1989). Furthermore, it has been suggested that the steps which lead to one’s development as a leader are self-reinforcing – in that, as one accumulates leadership experience, one becomes more confident in being a leader and more likely to engage in leadership activities (Hannah, Avolio, Luthans, & Harms, 2008), as well as to be expected to do so by others (Eden, 1993). In other words, the cumulative effect is greater, the earlier leader development begins – as was concluded in a comparative study of leaders and non-leaders by Amit et al. (2009), which found that individuals who emerged as leaders had more leadership experiences in their youth. Collectively, it would be reasonable to suggest that the development of an integrated framework to identify and assess for key experiences, environmental influences, and other contextual early life factors which converge to produce successful leadership outcomes in adulthood, would contribute significantly to the ability of corporations to better understand and support both future as well as existing leaders in their organizations.

When it comes to Japan, while considerable research has been conducted on Japanese business and management practices, studies on leadership and leader development have remained sparse (Fukushige & Spicer, 2007; Morinaga & Tateno, 2015), with almost no existing research focusing on “global leadership development” within a business context in Japan. This is despite Japan facing a unique and unprecedented need to develop more leaders capable of driving global business expansion in the face of various converging factors, including a rapidly aging society, a shrinking local workforce, a saturated domestic consumer market, and ever- increasing competition from companies overseas (Yonezawa, 2014). Furthermore, the research on leadership in the existing literature has focused exclusively on employees at Japanese companies in Japan or Japanese multinational companies overseas (Bozkurt, 2012), completely neglecting another “pool” of Japanese global business leaders: Japanese executives employed by foreign-affiliated companies in Japan.

Foreign-affiliated Companies in Japan As of 2018 there were 3,287 foreign-affiliated firms in Japan employing 552,388 regular workers (METI2, 2019), representing 0.74% of Japan’s working age population of 75.072 million (Statistics Bureau of Japan, 2019). Given the necessity for employees of foreign- affiliated companies in Japan to operate as part of a globally-integrated employee network, often working within Westernized corporate environments and business cultures, these firms typically require a high level of English language ability, as well as a degree of experience of, and familiarity with, global cultures and styles of communication, when recruiting new staff. This is particularly true when it comes to hiring the most senior level leaders at these companies – “Japan General Managers,” or “Japan Country Managers.” Such leaders are expected to play a pivotal role facilitating communication between the Japan subsidiary and global management, ensuring key stakeholders are aligned on both sides, while also making sure the company’s global corporate culture and values are understood, replicated, and instilled within all layers of the local Japan entity. In order to be able to achieve this, these leaders need to be extremely highly skilled in terms of understanding how global organizations function, how to communicate across complex international corporate structures, how global business decisions are made and how to influence such decisions, and how to actively maintain Japan’s “seat at the table” as part of a multi-cultural global leadership team.

Arguably, Japan stands to learn a great deal about how globally-capable Japanese leaders are “made” by gaining a deeper understanding of the developmental pathways of top Japanese executives at foreign-affiliated companies in Japan. Furthermore, given the importance of the development that takes place early on in life (as mentioned above), through detailed examination of the early life experiences of these executives, we may be able to shed light on possible approaches that can be taken to encourage the holistic development of more global leaders in Japan, from an earlier stage in life prior to starting their professional careers. Lastly, there may be important implications for Japanese and foreign-affiliated companies when making key decisions on hiring global Japanese leaders into their organizations.

To read the full research paper, click here.


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