FT employees are in for a corporate culture shock

Japanese business still rooted in deference to authority

A man using his smartphone walks past an advertisement board for Japan’s Nikkei newspaper’s digital media on a street in Tokyo. Japanese media group Nikkei has agreed to buy the Financial Times from Britain’s Pearson for $1.3 billion. Photograaph:  Yuya Shino/Reuters

A man using his smartphone walks past an advertisement board for Japan’s Nikkei newspaper’s digital media on a street in Tokyo. Japanese media group Nikkei has agreed to buy the Financial Times from Britain’s Pearson for $1.3 billion. Photograaph: Yuya Shino/Reuters

 

The takeover of the Financial Times by Nikkei is probably a surprise, at least to those outside the media. Nikkei’s long-term plan might become clear over time, but in the short to medium term FT management and staff are headed for an “interesting” transition.

The management culture of Japanese companies is very different to that of western organisations. European companies in the main have evolved over the past 30 years to become less hierarchical, more concerned with employee welfare and work-life balance, and more transparent about values and goals. Most Japanese companies are still rooted in ancient culture and values, where, for example, it is unwise, even dangerous, to question a superior.

Only last week the latest Japanese corporate scandal hit the headlines, when we learned Toshiba overreported earnings of $1.2 billion over a five-year period. The explanation given was executives felt unable to report to superiors that they had failed to reach targets.

Toshiba is not the first Japanese company to demand that targets, once set, must be achieved, regardless of changing circumstances. In the aftermath of the financial crisis in Europe, I witnessed the career of one senior executive at a Japanese company with an exemplary record come to a crashing end, because he had been unable to reach financial targets set before the crisis.

It is understandable, then, that executives might try to cover up bad news, or at least buy some time.

A common trait among Japanese businessmen is their inability to trust non-Japanese. A former Japanese colleague once explained that before being sent on an overseas assignment, Japanese staff were coached to “never believe what you are told by the local staff – always check the facts for yourself”. One would hope FT employees will not face such a culture shock.

It is to be expected Nikkei will appoint Japanese executives to the FT organisation. Normally, these executives are chosen for their skills in areas such as finance or administration. It is unlikely they will be chosen based on ability to lead a team of foreigners.

It may seem like a stereotype but Japanese staff are resilient compared with their European counterparts. They will work harder for longer hours and wear their suffering as a badge of honour. European counterparts expect to enjoy their jobs, to be well treated and to have a work-life balance. It is common to see Europeans leave such culturally different environments in search of a job that better fits their expectations.

Sensitivity is not high on a list of Japanese business attributes, so mixing these different corporate cultures will be a tough task. In the case of the FT, I hope Lucy Kellaway will share her observations with us over the next years. Des Collins is the author of Sushi and Fries

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