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Most global brand CEOs in Japan had no intention of becoming a business leader earlier on in life

Updated: Jul 2, 2021

Following your heart vs. aiming at the top

Common wisdom assumes that the handful of Japanese executives who make it to the very top of global brand companies in Japan set their sights on the top job right from the start of their professional careers, or even earlier, relentlessly pursuing their leadership goals while mercilessly elbowing the competition out of the way in order to get there. Given the exceedingly low odds of being the one selected for a local CEO position with a global company in Japan, you might think that, like elite musicians or athletes, such leaders would need to be nurtured with this intent from the very day they are born; to be inculcated with the various tough lessons of leadership, and to start designing their lofty corporate visions and business aspirations while still in kindergarten and elementary school.

So far, however, in-depth research interviews we have conducted with over twenty Japan Country Managers during the past twelve months, designed to explore and identify common early life and career experiences shared among such leaders, paint a slightly different picture. In fact, 90% of the executives we interviewed said the desire to become a top business leader came much later on than one might expect – on average, after at least ten or even fifteen years of career experience, and typically during their early-to-mid thirties. Furthermore, the pathway to the CEO role was usually one of an experimental step-by-step progression during which the right skills, knowledge, experiences, and confidence were naturally accumulated over time, rather than an impeccably planned and tenaciously executed strategy incorporating all conceivable shortcuts for getting to the top as fast as humanly possible.

“When I applied for an MBA, I didn’t even know what an MBA was”, one consumer brand Japan CEO told us. “But did know I wanted a break, a change of scenery after ten years’ working in Tokyo, and to learn things I couldn’t back in Japan. So, I sold all my belongings to sign up for business school, and moved to Europe. On the first day our professor asked us, “Who’s here because you want to become a leader?” All 80 students stuck their hand up except for me. When he singled me out and asked me to explain myself, I told him I was there by accident, and just didn’t think I was suitable leadership material – which shocked everyone in the room. Ironically, my willingness to be open and to show vulnerability turned out to be key strengths, and I ended up being the first from my year group to make it to a GM role!”

Another retail executive told us, “I had no intention of becoming a general manager during the first stage of my career. But I do enjoy new experiences, new learnings, and taking on and overcoming new challenges. After ten years of work experience, I convinced my company to sponsor me for an MBA, and having completed it, was excited about applying my newly-acquired knowledge and skills. After that, my curiosity to know what it was like to orchestrate an overall business, and wanting to have more of a positive impact on other people, led me to general management as the next logical step.”

We heard many other similar stories of ‘making it’ to the top. One consumer technology Japan general manager cited an eagerness to “be the best” in anything he puts his mind to as the driver that eventually got him to his first Japan CEO role, and that becoming a business leader hadn’t even crossed his mind when he first started out in his career (he had originally intended to become a politician, “falling into” business when that didn’t work out). Another sports brand GM said that winning a new promotion, or landing a bigger role, became “like a game” for him, and learning to play it well led him naturally to the top of the company. Yet another global FMCG Japan GM said the ambition to become a CEO only entered his mind when he was thirty-five, when his people management experience was still non-existent. He decided to set himself a goal of becoming a CEO by the time he turned fifty, and started working backwards from this goal to figure out what he needed to do to get there. He made a habit of performing and delivering at one job level above expectations, and ended up landing a GM job within five years – ten years ahead of schedule.

It seems Japanese global brand CEOs are not alone when it comes to being late in setting their sights on the top job. Research from the CEO Genome Project – a US study of over 2,600 leaders – reported that 70% of CEOs interviewed didn’t set out to become CEOs early in life – and only felt they might be capable of doing the role after 15 or more years of experience. Instead, what they did find was that those who went on to become CEOs had typically gone through three stages of professional development, including “broad”, “deep”, and “high” learning experiences, which – without realizing it at the time – then helped them arrive at the realization they might be a good fit for a CEO position.

Let us be clear: it is not through any sort of serendipity, sheer luck, or for any lack of conviction that these executives end up being promoted into elite leadership roles. While the CEO job may not have been a career objective from the outset, every one of the leaders we interviewed demonstrated a boundless desire to learn, grow, and develop themselves, repeatedly putting themselves into “unknown territory” well beyond their comfort zones in order to do so. And each reflected on a career journey during which they had constantly stepped back – whether consciously or not at the time – to ask themselves questions such as, “Am I heading in the right direction?”, “Am I growing fast enough”, and “Is this job and company taking me where I want to go?”. If the answer to any of those questions was “no”, they changed tack and adjusted course accordingly, setting themselves small step-goals along the way that propelled them forward, eventually leading them to the top. One leader we interviewed described this as a “modular” way of developing. “When you are in the middle of the moment, it is not clear where you are going”, he said. “You don’t know where the steps are taking you. But I wanted to grow, had a strong desire to succeed, and to achieve on the goals I set for myself. I simply followed what I felt was right at the time.”

In his excellent book How Will You Measure your Life? the late Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School talks about the importance of using both Emergent (experimental) and Deliberate (focused) strategies when building one’s career, and of constantly moving between the two. “I’m always struck by how many young people I’ve worked with think they’re supposed to have their careers planned out, step-by-step, for the next five years…that to be successful they need to have a concrete vision of exactly what it is they want to do with their lives.” He goes on, “Expecting to have a clear vision of where your life will take you is just wasting time. Even worse, it may actually close your mind to unexpected opportunities.” Until you find what it is you are looking for, he suggests that one should be prepared to experiment with different opportunities, be ready to pivot, and to continuously adjust your strategy. “When you get it right,” he says, “You’ll know.”


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