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Leading From The Minority

Leading From The Minority

Putting yourself into situations in which you’re not part of the majority builds valuable leadership skills.

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Leading From The Minority
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This article originally appeared on Forbes.com.

George Bernard Shaw is quoted as saying, “The minority is sometimes right; the majority always wrong.” He was referring to the concept of majority and minority in the world of politics, but it’s important in business, too.

Living and working in Japan, every day I experience something many white, male, American executives rarely, if ever, do: being in the minority. I’m not fluent in the language or in all the unwritten norms of the culture, and I don’t look very Japanese either. I might as well be walking around with a big “foreigner” sign over my head—and sometimes it feels like I am. But I chose this path, and I love it. Though I only recently moved to Japan, I believe it’s making me a better leader.

I had the same feeling when I moved from the US to Europe more than a decade ago and was trying to do business in my then-broken German, which thankfully has since improved. But you don’t have to go overseas. Recently I attended a global women’s conference that my firm, Bain & Company, hosted. In a rare moment in my career in the professional services industry, I found myself one of the only men in a conference room with scores of women. It certainly felt different.

My experience is not the same as that of people who live and work in environments where they are in the minority through no choice of their own. Too often, those individuals and groups lack the critical sense of belonging, support, and trust needed to thrive. As members of underrepresented groups, they often face great challenges, and the increased focus we are seeing today on diversity and inclusion in the workplace and society is crucially important. I am writing about something different, experiences I have had the opportunity to opt into. My experiences are not in any way comparable to theirs, and I want to be clear about that, but they have offered insights that I find valuable and would like to share here.

The opportunity to work in Japan and Europe has helped me look at issues through a new lens. Being in such a very different position builds empathy and understanding, I believe, and can foster that most important of human virtues: humility. 

I’ve come to see proactively putting oneself in the minority as a way to help accelerate leadership development. For years, multinational corporations have effectively done this by rotating leaders around the world. Particularly for global consumer products companies, Japan has been an important stop on the executive development itinerary. If you can make it in Japan as a foreigner, the logic goes, you can make it anywhere.

Studies have found that diverse teams feel less comfortable than homogeneous ones, but that they also perform better. Getting there takes real work building an inclusive environment in which each team member can bring their best work. In today’s rapidly changing work environment, there are many opportunities to flexibly deploy talent across divisions, functions, teams, and geographies. Whether it is something an individual asks for or the organization’s idea, selectively and purposefully taking leaders out of their comfort zone and placing them in situations in which they are in the minority can offer valuable benefits.

My Bain colleague Sebastien Lamy, who has spent most of the past two decades in different parts of Asia as a consultant and an executive, emphasizes how working in a culturally diverse environment helps leaders sharpen their ability to create change. “It’s a constant quest to balance challenging the status quo, which is sometimes easier as an outsider, and seeking to understand and respect why things work a certain way,” he says.

Here are three benefits I have experienced:

  1. Improved communication. Most of the people I’ve worked with over the past decade are not native English speakers. When those of us who are must communicate in a different language, or work through interpreters, we begin to listen with different ears. Perhaps we are a bit quicker to forgive a grammatical error or mispronunciation, having ourselves been in that very same position. The focus shifts toward what is being shared and away from how it is being said. Operating in a different culture requires that you learn how to communicate and interact with people unlike you, skills that can prove useful when dealing with any diverse group.
  2. Increased adaptability. Living in another country, in my experience, makes it easier to be open-minded, more accepting of different perspectives. I can see this in my children, who have grown up as “third culture kids.” Last summer when we were in Southern California for a short time, in between Switzerland and Japan, In-N-Out burgers were exotic fare. A few months later, the kids were on a food tour of Shibuya in Tokyo, gobbling up sushi, yakitori, okonomiyaki, and onigiri. More than an eclectic palate, their expat upbringing has given them an aptitude for identifying with other cultures and an ability to quickly empathize with and understand the nuances of any complex new landscape. In business, this kind of exposure can increase adaptability to new scenarios and expand your capacity to function effectively in any environment, whether you’re in the majority or the minority.
  3. Greater connection. In my experience, being in the minority can bring a sense of cohesion, energy, and community, and by deepening empathy, help us cultivate tools to connect with others. I’ve seen my fair share of executives, often from the US—and I say this as a US citizen who grew up in America—act a bit like a bull in a china shop when working overseas, exhibiting limited interest in understanding or authentically connecting with other cultures. As a result, their organizations and teams suffer. On the other hand, one senior Western executive at a multinational company stationed here in Japan recently remarked to me, “Foreigners often complain about the way business is done here, but if you spend the time to really understand how things work, you’ll find there are many benefits as well. You have to respect that.” Some of the aspects of Japanese business that have earned his respect include attention to detail (automotive engineering is one famous example), respect for one another (people don’t often talk over each other, for example), and diligence (when someone agrees to do something, they will for sure do it, and do it well). I took his comment to heart, especially because his team, international but majority Japanese, responds and works with remarkable shared intent and purpose.

George Bernard Shaw was a bit dramatic in his language—he was, after all, a playwright. The majority is not always wrong. But there certainly is wisdom in minority perspectives. If you have the opportunity to take that point of view, you’ll be a more effective leader for it.

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