[ Essay ] Does it matter having a professional CEO if workers are already (half) dead?

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As a diaspora, I have been observing my country’s once-almighty business sectors trembling down the eternal downward slope from a bleacher seat. Sony, Panasonic, Sharp—The Big Three—have recently reported historical amount of financial loss, followed by massive layoff.

“Experts” are too happy to point out that Japanese companies need to appoint foreign CEOs to induce fresh points of view and execute drastic but much-needed changes that are impossible under people who have been working inside the same tiny corporate culture for decades. I don’t oppose to this idea, seeing Carlos Ghosn single-handedly salvaging Nissan from the edge of bankruptcy.

But is having an external leader the way to revolutionize a company in a short period of time? After all, Sony was led by Sir Howard Stringer until recently, who couldn’t turn things around in a better direction during his tenure. Is there any reason why home-grown leaders aren’t suited for a large organization?

I started having this doubt after seeing the recent surge of FC Barcelona’s reputation as the greatest soccer team in history. What’s truly impressive is not just its list of trophies but also it’s profile: almost everything that constitutes FC Barcelona is home-grown: players (top players—Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Puyol—have all been trained by Barcelona’s youth system), coach (none other than Pep Guardiola, former Mr. Barcelona), in addition to organizers and loyal supporters who are from…Barcelona.

Watching FC Barcelona’s games makes me think that having a home-grown leader not just works fine but might be essential for success. If Barcelona can make it, why can’t Japanese companies?

But wait a second. Wasn’t Japanese companies today’s Barcelona 30 years ago? During the 1980s, Japanese companies were at the top of the world. Everybody hailed Japan, studied the mystery of Japanese leadership, and yes, concluded that you need a home-grown team to beat the world. It was true back then: the miracle of Japanese companies were achieved by a bunch of people who knew each other for their entire professional lives, just like the current FC Barcelona.

What’s the difference between soccer and business? Answer: age. In soccer, you start thinking about retirement when you reach 30 years old. In business, you have 30 years more before you really start preparing for retirement. How old are Japanese workers these days? The statistics (sorry, in Japanese) say:

  • The average age of workers in major Japanese companies: Over 40 years old (In Samsung, on the other hand, it is 32.8 years old)
  • The ratio of workers who are over 50 years old: more than 30% (as high as 60%, for example in the construction industry)

We get the picture: Japanese companies, armies of home-grown players, were FC Barcelona 30 years ago. The problem was that the players remained on the pitch for 30 years more. Is there any wonder why they aren’t doing well these days?