“How do you feel about philanthropy? What is your purpose in life? Tell me about your family. I believe a great father is a great employee. I believe a great mother is a great employee. I believe someone who’s willing to give up their free time to help others is a great employee…” As reported in a series of articles in The New York Times, this is how one successful American executive interviews job candidates.
The economy in America seems as bad as it’s ever been, with high unemployment and out-of-control government debt. I would have expected to see businesses tightening up, getting stricter, and focusing on the bottom line. But instead, while I was back in America recently, I was hearing stories of executives who had turned companies around by emphasizing family and community. Something sounded different from the popular rhetoric of the 80s and 90s when I was in the business world.
To find out what had changed and why, I talked to a businessman I have known for years, Nat Calhoun. Over 25 years ago right out of college, Nat and his two brothers started a business with a borrowed lawnmower and strong work ethic. Several business changes later, they now own a wholesale food distribution company, La Tortilleria of Winston-Salem, NC, with annual revenues of $50 million/year.
Several things make their business interesting. One is that they have done especially well in the last 8 years when the economy has been weak. Secondly, among their 80 employees are people from 26 different nations, including Iraq and Ethiopia.
I asked Nat about the community focus in business, and he explained, “Today’s younger workers are not just interested in how much money they’re making and getting ahead. They want to reach out and make a difference. Getting plugged into the neighborhood and community is important. A lot of this is done on company time. In general, 50+ people aren’t like this. They punch the clock and keep their noses in the business.”
I asked how in such a tough economy businesses could afford to be so civic minded. Besides the good publicity that results, he said, “Everyone getting out and working together toward a goal translates into a better workforce, and it’s fun. If employees feel they have something to offer and their voices are heard, it has an impact. It changes how you want to work…you become more productive. They are more willing to sacrifice their time because the business is tied into a bigger cause. It’s about the journey, how you get there, not just reaching your goal.”
“While the older generation,” he also told me, “was looking for security, the new generation wants a sense of purpose. Options are more wide open. ‘How can we accomplish this project and be more productive?’”
What struck me at this point was that American business had allowed itself to be influenced by its young generation of workers. And it had paid off. Was there a lesson here for Japan which tends to ignore the young, or even worse, overwork them and let them quit?
Then, I asked about the increased focus on family. He said that there was much greater flexibility than in previous decades…more personal time off, working from home, even bringing your kids into work when there’s a school holiday. He noted, “Companies have to understand where single moms and dads are. Blurring the lines between work and home takes away the mad rush to get home.”
Many inside and outside of Japan are calling for Japanese businesses to hire and promote more women. But as a young Japanese business woman told me, “All my working (female) friends just want to quit their jobs as soon as possible.” Women will never be full participants until there is a sea-change in the Japanese workplace.
The older generation tends to look to the past and wish for a return to the good old days. A Japanese female president of a small company once told me, “We’ve got to quit trying to think of how to make things the way they used to be. Those days are gone. We’ve got to deal with the reality of how things are and move forward.”
Funny thing, before I mentioned anything about what I had learned about American business, she said that she would like a way to incorporate volunteering into her company. She’s also trying to make the work place more flexible for moms and is allowing employees to have more of a voice in the running of the company.
A recent survey of young Japanese workers shows that they are not so different from their American counterparts. For example, they want interesting, fulfilling jobs where they can grow and “a workplace where opinions can be voiced regardless of position.”
Almost 40% stated that the reason they’re not interested in climbing the corporate ladder is because of “the lack of ethics in the work place, dishonesty and deplorable occurrences there.” In light of the horrendous Olympus scandal, it seems the Japanese corporate world could really benefit from the influence of the younger generation.
Instead of treating the young as disposable workers, the ageing business leaders of Japan should try instead to listen to them and take their ideas seriously. What seems like hopeless idealism to the old may be what ignites the young…and stops Japan’s decline in the age of globalization.
And since, unlike America, Japan has a demographic crisis looming, it shouldn’t just hire women and expect them to conform to the old, outdated salary-man world. Focusing on working smarter, not longer, would free women and men up to have the healthy families Japan so desperately needs.
People who won’t change, even though they obviously must, are not suffering from a humility problem. True humility will learn from others and accept the fact that there may be a better way. Stubborn pride, on the other hand, would rather die than yield.