Who would you want running your Japan business - the straight-A student or non-conformist who enjoys bending conventions?
“I started to resent all the expectations people had of me from a really young age. So I began to actively betray them. I was a softball star in elementary school, so instead of graduating to baseball as everyone expected, I decided to switch to volleyball. I got top grades in middle school but didn’t want to be categorised as a yutosei (“star student”). Instead, I would change into my baggy pants once class was over to go and hang out with the “furyo” (bad kids). Everyone expected me to go to university, so I secretly applied to the National Defence Academy and joined the military instead. My mother cried for days when she found out. Once in the military, I started playing around with motorbikes – which could have got me immediately kicked out. I barely graduated from the Academy as I never studied, then decided to leave the military to go to the US instead...”
This might not sound like a story you would expect to hear from a someone who went on to become the top Japan executive for a well-known global lifestyle brand, as well as a successful business academic. A story that contrasts sharply with the elite yutosei childhood and adolescent experiences one might more readily associate with the 0.007%* of Japanese employees who eventually make it to the highly coveted role of CEO with international firms in Japan. The yutosei are the famously competitive “model” students who always get the top grades, are elected to champion the rules as school prefects or class captains, fawned over by their teachers, and the secret envy of all the other student mums.
And yet, we heard similar stories of non-conformism and self-appraised “mediocre” school performance from many, in fact most, of the Japanese CEOs we interviewed at-length in our sample of over twenty global company leaders in Japan. “As a teenager I was interested in fashion, and I hated the strict school uniform regulations”, said one apparel and sports industry CEO. “So I would do things like wear a red sweater over my shirt and grow my hair long. My teacher would often complain to my parents. My grades were okay but never great, and when it came to graduating high school, I hadn’t even thought about applying for university. I ended up deferring a year, eventually making it into university only thanks to my English ability, as I loved reading books in English. Later on, at business school, I almost got kicked out for failing the finance module (I hated maths), and only survived after convincing one of the yutosei students to help me out!”
One regional tech CEO described how he fell in with local gang members (“yankii”) at junior high school before a life-changing trip to the US made him re-evaluate the direction he was heading in. He managed to find his way into a US high school after a crash-course in English, and then funded himself through community college working illegally in a restaurant kitchen, before landing his first job at a global tech company. Another top FMCG executive spent most of his free time at high school playing guitar in Tokyo jazz clubs, where he not only learned the art of improvisation, but also prematurely honed his street-smarts by hanging around with various musicians, artists, and bar and nightclub owners.
Further stories of not only not identifying with yutosei students, but actively trying to put distance between themselves and this elite group (as well as the overall fabric and expectations of the education system they represented) abounded among the leaders we met. Another global technology Japan CEO told us, “I never liked the yutosei kids in school. They were so focused on study, cared only about themselves, and were so serious and boring. I just didn’t want to be part of their group. I was so busy having fun at high school that I forgot to study and ended up failing the university entrance exams. I became a "ronin", deferred a year, then managed to get into Tokyo University – where 90% of the students were yutosei stereotypes, and I felt like a total outlaw. So I spent my entire time making friends from other universities instead!”
Two of the executives we spoke to dropped out of university altogether, only to begrudgingly reapply a year later and go on to graduate. “I just didn’t want to be associated with the privileged and self-entitled students I was seeing around me,” said one digital executive. “So I decided to drop out after my first year and get a job instead. It was only when I found out how much less non-university graduates got paid that I realized I had made the wrong decision! So I used the money I had made from that one year’s work to reapply and put myself through the remaining three years of college.”
Non-conformist – or “rebellious” – traits among leaders who go on to excel not only in business but across a whole array of professional fields in life, has become a recent hot topic. In her book Rebel Talent: Why It Pays to Break the Rules at Work and in Life (2018), Harvard behavioural scientist Francesca Gino talks about people who have achieved success largely because of their unwillingness to conform. “Deviants” from the norm who break the rules to explore new ideas and create change, and ultimately have a positive impact in the world. Gino collected countless stories of “successful rebels” with unconventional backgrounds, including acclaimed Italian Chef Massimo Bottura.
Bottura – a self-proclaimed “troublemaker” in the family since childhood – dropped out of law school, which he had attended to please his parents, in order to focus on cooking. Despite having no professional cooking experience, he asked himself, “Why not?” and opened his first restaurant in Modena, in Northern Italy. He made his name by breaking every rule in the traditional Italian cookbook, violating centuries of beloved recipes handed down through generations with dishes such as The Crunchy Part of the Lasagna, and Opps! I Dropped the Lemon Tart! Having barely survived the first 15 years of his career, during which he was repeatedly lynched by Italy’s renowned food critics, his restaurant Osteria Francescana went on to win three Michelin Stars, and to be selected among the top-five on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list for several consecutive years.
Gino argues that we need to shift our thinking when it comes to rebels – that they have been wrongly branded as “troublemakers” or “outcasts”. That rebels are, in fact, frequently more successful than people who choose to follow professional or social convention, not allowing themselves to be held back by norms, rules, or the expectations of others. Based on her research, she suggests that most rebels share five core strengths: novelty, curiosity, perspective, diversity, and authenticity. Essentially, they actively seek out, and then immerse themselves in, new and alternative experiences and ideas, unafraid to be true to themselves.
The career paths of the leaders we interviewed deviate from what one would describe as “normal” in Japan even more than their school records. Indeed, their CVs radiate a thirst for new learning and experience combined with a willingness to defy professional norms and expectations, characterised by radical, and sometimes repeated, transitions into entirely new industries prior to arriving at their first Japan CEO roles. They make dizzying jumps from electronic appliances into luxury jewellery, from freight logistics into digital marketing, from industrial plastic film into branded cosmetics, from alcoholic beverages into hotel management, from stationery into fashion, from wearable tech into traditional porcelain, from medical device into audio products, and from skateboard shoes into academia. Not always, it must be said, with universal success all along the journey – but they inevitably learn, grow, accelerate, and then elevate out of the experience. It would, thus, seem easy enough to argue that global businesses would do well to actively screen for rebel as opposed to yutosei characteristics and experiences when hiring for key leadership positions in Japan.
When asked what his advice would be for young aspiring global leaders growing up in Japan, one global consumer brand Japan CEO had this to say: “In Japan, school is an institution – a system you cannot avoid. But it’s just a starting point, and nothing more. Like basic nutrition, it’s essential for basic survival. But you also need to develop the ability to disconnect yourself from this system, from all its rules, expectations, limitations, and perceived risks. Disconnect so you can focus on finding your strengths, looking for opportunities, seeing possibilities, and discovering who you are and what you are passionate about. The real learning, the good stuff, starts once class finishes!”
*The Japanese working age population was 75.45 million in 2019, with approximately 5,700 foreign capital companies in Japan. (METI)