Question: “Mr. President, does your company have long-range goals?”
Question: “How long are your long-range goals?”
Answer: “Two hundred and fifty years.”
Question: “What do you need to carry them out?”
This exchange occurred in 1983 at a seminar held by some of Japan´s largest companies such as Honda, Sony, Mitsubishi and Matsushita Electric.* These firms had arranged a series of seminars to which a select group of foreign guests were invited. The seminars surprisingly included speeches by several CEOs. This practice is considered somewhat beneath the dignity of a CEO in Japan. The keynote speaker was the 88-year old Konosuke Matsushita (1894 – 1989), President and founder of the company today known as Panasonic, with 367,000 employees (2010).
Harvey Mckay, author of the classic Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, and himself an exceptional keynote speaker, was impressed: “. . . he spoke eloquently and profoundly.” He was even more impressed with the answer Konosuke Matsushita gave to a question from the floor, the exchange quoted above. Harvey Mackay goes on to comment that if you think it sounds like a joke, then how come every time U.S. firms compete with Japanese ones, “they bury us.”
The Japanese footballer was on a market research business trip. “Trip” does not mean permanent residence for several generations. It also does not mean “instant business” along the lines of “fast food, eat and run,” (or, all too often in the U.S. "eat and waddle away.")
When I asked the Japanese footballer if his trip were for several weeks, perhaps even a couple of months, he said no, my guess was not correct. His business trip was for four years, during which he continued to receive his normal salary.
His father had instructed him to go to the University of South Carolina. He was to start a Bachelors program there with the 18-year old freshmen in any subject he wished. He should complete the course of study to earn a BA. He was not to live with or associate with any other Japanese, just with the young Americans. He was not allowed to return home during that time, so that he could gain a better understanding of American holidays, such as Christmas.
He was a gifted soccer player and had in fact been scouted by professional teams in Japan. However at his parents' urging, he had attended university instead. His father had noted that Americans liked sports. Therefore he was all in favor of his son continuing to play amateur soocer in the U.S. After his English was up to par in perhaps a year, he should, during the university holidays, visit trade shows and companies.
He was to tell them of the company's interest in finding a U.S. partner. He should advise them that the family would have a meeting to make the selection in three years (two, one) upon the son's return. The Japanese said this was his last year in South Carolina. He felt the business trip had been too short to learn the English language properly. Although he spoke fluently and received good grades in various subjects at university, he was still not satisfied with his ability to write in English.
However he felt fortunate in that he would be able to fulfill his assignment. He had the business card of the owner of a medium sized company. That company was the only one that had been able to satisfy his father's criteria. What were they?
The Japanese replied that when he went home and showed his father the one business card, his father would ask three questions. Are these people a) honest, b) competent and c) a good fit for us?
Sure, "do your homework," and "google it before you try to patent it" are obvious. But when was the last time your company sent a 28 or 29 year old "high potential" at full salary to a Japanese or Chinese university for an uninterrupted four years of study, expecting him to earn a degree there, with the sole assignment being to return with a solid business lead?
* Harvey MacKay, Swim with the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive, William Morrow & Co., 1988, p. 76 f.