Culture Management Style and Business Systems

Do Blondes have more fun in Japan?

On the one hand tells on American executive, my first trip to Japan was pretty much a disaster for several reasons. The meeting didn’t run smoothly because every day at least 20, if not more, people came walking in and out of the room just to look at me. It is one thing to see a woman at the negotiation table, but to see a woman who happens to be blonde, young and very tall Japanese standards “5’8” with no shoes” leading the discussions was more than most of the Japanese men could handle.

Even though X was lead negotiator for the Ford team, the Japanese would go out of their way to avoid speaking directly to me. At the negotiation table X purposely sat in the center his team, in the spokesperson’s strategic position. Their key person would not sit across from me, but rather two places down. Also, no one would address questions and / or remarks to me – to everyone (all male) on our team – but none to me. They would never say my name or acknowledge my presence. And most disconcerting of all, they appeared to be laughing at me. We should be talking about a serious topic such as product liability, X would make a point or ask a question and after barrage of Japanese they would all start laughing.

On the other hand for years, Barbie dolls sold in Japan looked different from their US counterparts. They had Asian facial features, black hair and Japanese inspired fashions.

Then about five years ago Mattel Inc conducted consumer researcher around the world and learned something surprising: The original Barbie, with her yellow hair and blue eyes, played as well in Hong Kong as it did in Hollywood. Girls didn’t care if Barbie didn’t look like them at least if you believed their marketing research.

It’s all about fantasies and hair, says Peter Broegger general manager of Mattel’s Asia operations. Blonde Barbie sells just s well in Asia as in the United States.

So Mattel began rethinking one of the basic tenets of its $55 billion global industry – that children in different countries want different playthings. The implications were significant for kids, parents, and particularly the company. In the past, giants such as Mattel, Hasbro Inc and Lego produced toys and ear in a variety of styles. But Mattel went the other direction, designing and marketing one version worldwide. Sales plummeted forcing Barbie makeover.

Culture including all its elements profoundly affects management style and overall business system. This is not a new ideas idea. German sociologists Max Weber made the first strong case back in 1930. Culture not only establishes the criteria for day to day business behavior but also forms general patterns of values and motivations. Executives are largely captives to their heritages and cannot totally escape the elements of culture they learned growing up.

In the United States, for example, the historical perspective of individualism and winning the west seems to be manifest in individual wealth or corporate profit being dominant measures of success. Japan’s lack pf frontiers and natural resources and its dependence on trade have focused individual and corporate success criteria on uniformity subordination to the group, and society’s ability to maintain high levels of employment. The feudal background of southern Europe tends to emphasize maintenance of both individual and corporate power and authority while blending those feudal traits with paternalistic concern for minimal welfare for workers and other members of society. Various identify North Americans as individualists, Japanese as consensus oriented and committed to the group, and central and southern Europeans as elitists and rank conscious. Although these descriptions are stereotypical, they illustrate cultural differences that are often manifest in business behavior and practices.

A lack of empathy for and knowledge of foreign business practices can cerate insurmountable barriers to successful business relations. Some businesses plot their strategies with the idea that heir counterparts from other business cultures are similar to themselves and are moved by similar interests, motivations, and goals – that they are just like us. Even though that may be true in some respects, enough differences exist to cause frustration, miscommunication and, ultimately failed business opportunities if these differences are not understood and responded to properly.