Seven Lessons from Global Business

The following text is from remarks delivered by Glen S. Fukushima on July 23, 2014, at the Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, Inc. (LEAP) Renaissance Dinner in Los Angeles.

Pablo, thank you for your kind introduction and for inviting me to speak at this impressive Renaissance Dinner this evening. I would also like to thank Linda Akutagawa of LEAP for introducing me to Pablo.

I have had the privilege of working in global commerce for over 30 years, first as an international lawyer, then as a U.S. government trade negotiator at USTR (Office of the United States Trade Representative), and finally as a business executive working for one European and four American multinational corporations.

Based on this experience, I would like to share with you tonight seven lessons from global business. I derived these lessons from my perspective as a bilingual, bicultural American of Asian ancestry working not only in law, government, and business, but also in journalism, academia, and nonprofits and dealing with companies and governments around the world.

  1. “The world requires flexibility.” In a globalizing world characterized by change, speed, and diversity, one’s ability to adapt to new and alien circumstances is critical for personal and professional success. In my experience, the best lawyers, government negotiators, and business executives are those who can quickly and accurately assess their counterparts and environments and adapt to them effectively to produce the desired results. To put it another way, inflexibility, rigidity, and narrow-mindedness—which lead some to believe, mistakenly, that there is only one way (often the “Anglo American way”) to do everything—are recipes for failure, especially in a cross-functional, cross-cultural, or cross-national setting.
  2. “Expect the unexpected.” Events in the real world almost never proceed as anticipated, even with the best-laid plans. Thus, it is always important to be agile and nimble enough to adapt to changing circumstances and shifting environments. It may not be possible to predict the future, but one needs to be prepared for the unexpected. Very few so-called “experts” accurately predicted the timing and nature of the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, or the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008. But effectively managing risk, uncertainty, and unpredictability is essential for leadership success—whether in business, law, government, or politics.
  3. “The devil is in the details.” It is often easy to agree on general principles but extremely difficult to work out the concrete specifics, especially of implementation, in a way that is acceptable to all parties concerned. This is true even in two-party negotiations. When the number of parties increases or they come from different cultural or linguistic backgrounds, the difficulty of reaching agreement on the specifics can multiply exponentially. Witness, for example, the failure of the Doha Round of multilateral trade organizations under the WTO (World Trade Organization), which involved more than 150 countries.
  4. “The best is enemy of the good.” Human beings, especially of the highly educated variety, tend to strive for perfection. This sometimes results in delaying decisions until more complete information is obtained or in postponing actions until all the desired pre-conditions are in place. With speed an increasingly critical differentiator in global competition, it is often better to reach a decision or take action quickly and to make adjustments later, if necessary, rather than to delay important decisions or not to act at all. I have seen too many cases where missed deadlines or not seizing opportunities were fatal to the success of a project or initiative.
  5. “Strategy is execution.” Consultants are masters at crafting ever-more sophisticated corporate strategies based on the latest management theories and arcane quantitative methodologies. Such strategies can be elegant, intellectually appealing, and seductive, but a pure waste of time unless they are firmly grounded in reality and capable of being implemented. In my experience, for every 10 beautiful corporate strategies that are formulated—often at great expense and investment of time and frequently employing teams of highly paid outside consultants—only one or two end up actually improving the organization’s performance. I have concluded that it’s usually better to have a strategy that is inelegant but based on local knowledge and can be executed to produce results rather than a strategy that is theoretically and deductively attractive but removed from reality.
  6. “Intelligence is multifaceted.” Individuals are endowed with different strengths and weaknesses, and when it comes to intelligence, one needs to assess at least four of its dimensions: (1) analytical or logical reasoning skills, or the ability to think critically and consistently; (2) creativity, or the ability to innovate and create new ideas, insights, and solutions; (3) “street smarts,” or the ability to execute and get things done; and (4) wisdom, including a sense of ethics, perspective, and balance. In managing cross-cultural teams, I have found it essential to include the proper mix of individuals possessing these elements of intelligence in order to produce the optimal results.
  7. “Diversity is strength.” In the globalizing environment in which we all work, where the workforce is increasingly mobile and diverse, differences between individuals in values, orientations, and preferences are to be expected and respected. I worked for nearly 8 years at Airbus, a company in which the CEO was German, one COO was French, and the other COO was American. The company had 54,000 employees from 84 nationalities. A core strength of the company is its ability to recruit, hire, train, develop, and retain talented individuals from around the world, and to draw on their diversity to design, manufacture, test, market, sell, and maintain some of the world’s most technologically advanced commercial aircraft. Increasingly, the ability of companies or organizations to manage diversity effectively will weed out the winners from the losers in global competition.

Tonight, I have offered seven lessons I have derived from my 30-year experience as an Asian American executive engaged in global business. There are actually many other lessons I’d like to share with you—including some fascinating and perhaps unbelievable anecdotes—but to adhere to the schedule, let me conclude here and thank Pablo again for inviting me to join you at this wonderful Renaissance Dinner this evening. Thank you.