Leadership Tips for Running a Foreign Subsidiary

What is it like being a female manager in Japan? I have been asked this question hundreds of times with the expected answer that it must be terrible. It does not need to be. The lessons I learned running foreign subsidiaries in Japan apply to both men and women.

Manage Up
It is easy to give priority to local concerns immediately in front of us. I cared intensely about my people and creating an environment where they could be successful. However, headquarters is headquarters, they must be educated, persuaded and informed. As in any management situation, the boss should not get surprises.

Educate Headquarters
Don’t protect executives when they visit your country. Be brave and show them their worst nightmare of your competitor hitting a home run. Take them to places where your real customers shop and dine. In the case of Japan, quality control is often an issue because the standards that are acceptable in the home market, are below the standards required by Japanese retailers. I went to great lengths to make this point. For one company I worked for, I created a video to be shown to the production team at headquarters, where I interviewed my CEO colleagues on the extraordinary levels of quality they needed to deliver to Japanese consumers to be successful.

Learn the Local Language
It’s worth it. Don’t believe the stories that you can’t learn a language after 30. I did. It should be obvious that being able to talk directly to your staff, customers and vendors is much more effective than going through a translator. After I was able to conduct business verbally, I decided to block out my Sundays to learn how to read Japanese. There were many benefits including being able to walk through an office and know what was going on.

Abide by the Local Culture Within Reason
If you are not a local national, don’t try to make yourself into a bad copy of one. It is better to keep a balance of what you are able to contribute with a foreign view and a good understanding of the local culture.

Walk Around Management Even More Essential
Don’t hide in your office. I spent time with each of my teams. I scheduled some of my time so that I could have lunch with groups of customer service team members and spend days in the field with sales reps. It made a huge difference in my ability to understand our market. Obviously, it also demonstrates that each team’s contribution to the organization is important.

Mentoring Women Managers in Japan
Foreign companies have an advantage in attracting female employees in Japan because women know that they have more opportunities there. They need more support than getting in the door. Many Japanese women are so infused with humility that it gets in their way in taking a stand when they need to.

Managing as a Woman in Japan

In my case, being fluent in Japanese and knowing the marketplace made a huge difference in my acceptance. They kind of forgot I was a woman most of the time.
Don’t sweat the small stuff. If you are from America, you have been taught to be politically correct and expect to be treated as such. Many countries are not on that page. Expect what is reasonable for the culture you are in. Your job carries the authority and responsibility designated to it. You can expect and demand appropriate respect for that role.

This post was inspired by by my friends on a twitter group called #usguys on the topic: Leadership Lessons You Didn’t Learn in School or From a Book. You can find other blogs on leadership and social media on this #usblogs page.

About Linda Sherman

International, multicultural marketing pro, Linda brings a distinguished background of international subsidiary CEO/CMO to her Social Marketing expertise. These include CEO Club Med Japan, Barilla Japan and CMO Wal-Mart Japan. Managing Editor, Boomer Tech Talk, she is passionate about senior services including senior health care and housing. Linda Sherman has been featured and quoted in Forbes, The New York Times, Christian Monitor and other leading publications. She devised and implemented an innovative guerrilla-marketing plan for ZIMA in Japan that produced a lasting, profitable success. Linda has hands-on technical skills in building and search optimizing WordPress websites and an influential on-line presence. Her company, The Courage Group, provides personal and start-up branding, digital film; social marketing strategy and training.

Connect with Linda Sherman on Twitter and Instagram @LindaSherman.


  1. Gabriella O'Rourke says

    Great post Linda! I love your approach to learning and embedding yourself in a different culture – not to lose yourself in it but rather to respectfully engage and contribute in a meaningful way. I wish more people would take the time! I imagine the lessons you share here might be just as applicable even if you never leave the country yet find yourself leading in an environment where the culture is very different to what you are used to. In other words, what’s the equivalent to weekends learning to read Japanese for people switching industries…

  2. You make a very good point Gabriella. If you switch from tech to consumer products or vice versa for instance, you bring the value of who you already are to the party.

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