Random Thoughts on a Saturday Afternoon: The Makings of a Successful Executive
May 28, 2011 1 Comment
The following article is a piece I did for my English literature class – one that contains some examples of successful Japanese executives. Though the characteristics described below are more in line with the Western model of executive management, many, if not all of the principles mentioned are also applicable to the Japanese business model. Enjoy!
For all his fame and $50 billion-strong fortune, Bill Gates is rather prosaic in his appearance and demeanour. The fifty five year old founder of Microsoft Corporation, one of the largest and most influential software companies in the world, drives a dilapidated Ford Focus to and from work. His wardrobe consists of cashmere jumpers, neutrally coloured polo shirts and beige slacks. His house, though expensive, is far from the priciest on the block, and he speaks about his endeavours in a tone only his wife could love. Bluntly put, Bill Gates shows no outward sign of being one of the richest men to ever walk this planet.
His humble appearance, however, begs several questions: in a world where success is sought by many but attained by only a few, why are individuals like Bill Gates so special? What were the factors that made this Harvard dropout and others like him more successful than the rest? Most importantly, how do successful executives like Gates transform small, start-up firms with a limited amount of capital into multinational industry juggernauts with offices across Europe, Asia and elsewhere around the world?
The answer to these questions lies in their ability to steer a company in the right direction – a characteristic that sets the exceptional apart from the ordinary. Such ability is not an instantaneous result, but is rather the product of a willingness to take risk, the ability to innovate and the capability to maximize one’s resources to their fullest potential. The aforementioned characteristics have unfailingly led entrepreneurs, CEOs and CFOs to success in both their careers and affiliated corporations since the beginning of economic history.
At many points in our lives, we are faced with a decision where one choice is more profitable than another, albeit with an increased risk of failure for the more lucrative of the two. Highly successful individuals know when to take the riskier option. In 2008, Softbank (Japan’s third largest mobile carrier) decided to launch Apple’s iPhone in the closed and very conservative Japanese cell phone market under the direction of CEO Masayoshi Son. Though the decision cost the company in adapting the wireless infrastructure necessary to support the primitive iPhone in tech-savvy Japan, Son recognized the innovative value the iPhone brought to the table. The result was beyond anyone’s expectations: Softbank became one of the most profitable carriers in the Land of the Rising Sun, and reported a record net profit of ¥47.1 billion in Q1 2011 from iPhone sales and subscriptions alone. A similar scenario can be said for former Boeing executive and current Ford CEO Alan Mulally, who managed to pull Ford Motor Company from a loss of $12.7 billion in 2006 to $6.6 billion in the black in 2010 under his watchful eye. His secret? Mulally took a calculated risk in bringing non conservative products to the Ford marques, like the once European – exclusive Ford Fiesta and Ford Transit Connect, all while improving product quality across the board. It may have cost Ford a pretty penny, but it was a risk Mulally was willing to take and succeeded in doing so.
Taking calculated risks, however, isn’t the only characteristic common to successful individuals. Innovation, best defined as the ability to think outside the box, is a fundamental requirement and basic driving force behind the majority of successful individuals as well. Long-time Apple CEO Steve Jobs was responsible for single-handedly bringing his company back from the dead and completely revolutionized the way that we think about electronics. The iPod, the iPad and even the new iMacs have led Apple’s charge to dominance in consumer electronics by means of their ingenuity, and have made both Jobs and Apple very wealthy entities through their continued success. Such can also be observed in current New York mayor and founder of Bloomberg LP Michael Bloomberg, who took the financial world by storm in 1983 after the introduction of his Bloomberg Terminal: a dual screened business information system that allowed fluctuations in commodities, gold and stocks to be monitored electronically – cutting edge for an era that still used paper to track such changes. Thanks to his invention, Bloomberg is now one of the richest men in the United States. Both scenarios exemplify innovation as a crucial means to success for these businesses, which in turn passed the material fruits of their success to the individuals that made their creation possible.
For all the value that innovation and calculated risk taking offer, however, humans are social beings. Consequently, executives that are able to maximize human resources available at their disposal will find greater success than those that don’t. The Toyota Way, developed by its founder Sakichi Toyoda and refined by his descendants, emphasizes continuous improvement under the philosophy of kaizen and the value of the worker as an integral part of a company’s overall success. Since the implementation of Toyoda’s philosophy at the beginning of the company’s history, Toyota Motor Corporation grew to become the world’s largest automaker under his family’s tenure, and until recently manufactured automobiles with unparalleled quality. Though the Japanese automaker was rocked by massive recalls last year, the effectiveness of Toyoda’s policy can best be seen in Toyota’s Japan arm, which was less affected by the recalls because of Japanese employees’ dedication to fulfilling the principles outlined by the philosophy. The same can be said for Google CEO Larry Page, who through the construction of the Googleplex (Google’s corporate headquarters) and implementation of perks like free food, keeps employees happy and motivated. Thanks to Page’s efforts, Google was voted the best company to work for in 2007 and 2008 and has grown to become a global leader and innovator in technology. Successful executives can’t go at it alone, and those that act on this realization eventually go on to higher levels of success.
The ability to steer a company in the right direction through the aforementioned characteristics is an ability that no highly successful individual can do without. Softbank would not have experienced the same level of success that it has so far had Son chose not to support the unconventional. Apple wouldn’t have become a household word without the brilliance of Steve Jobs, and even an established company like Toyota would have disappeared to relative obscurity without Toyoda’s ability to maximize and support his human resources through the Toyota Way. Highly successful individuals, then, are individuals that demonstrate the ability to manage, invent and wager accurately in ways that no one else can, and those characteristics, above all, are what make them exceptional.