Platinum Training Consultants
Often, many Japanese who are posted abroad have a good knowledge of English but lack cultural understanding of the country they are going to. This can impede business performance. Similarly, expats coming to Japan can run into trouble if they don’t understand the cultural nuances of doing business here.
Platinum Training Consultants specializes in helping organizations and individuals to navigate the increasingly complex global village through tailor-made courses that cover all aspects of cross-cultural business communications ranging from emails, teleconferencing and presentations to assertiveness, negotiation and leadership.
Co-founder of Platinum Training Consultants is Andrew Abbey who has been working in Japan for the past 10 years. Prior to co-founding Platinum in 2009, Abbey spent seven years working in international tax for major international accountancy firms (including Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu and KPMG) in London, New York and Sydney). In addition to his work with Platinum, Abbey lectures MBA candidates on Global Business Communications at Kenichi Ohmae Graduate School of Business.
You started Platinum Training Consultants in 2009, just after the Lehman Shock. You must have had a tough first few years.
It was a very tough first year. We had a lot of projects that were dropped or shelved. Then last year’s quake was a problem as well because many companies put back projects. But we are doing OK now.
What services do you provide?
We work with Japanese and foreign companies, focusing on helping them to overcome some of the cultural challenges that are sometimes barriers to doing business. As more Japanese companies look to expand abroad, some find their progress blocked not just by language barriers but also by differences in their way of thinking. There is a kind of a disconnect between language education, business skills and cultural understanding. I think Japanese companies and global companies with Japanese staff have tended to address the language issue completely in isolation and don’t relate the English ability to business skills or cultural differences. We meet a lot of people with a high level of English but who culturally find it hard to do business overseas or deal with incoming expats. Expats coming to Japan to work in Japanese companies undergo similar challenges, so our training courses help them to adjust as smoothly as possible.
How do you go about this?
We do a lot of workshops, perhaps a two-day workshop focusing on a specific skill such as cross-cultural negotiations. We tend to work with smaller groups of 4-8 because our courses are very interactive. We shy away from the lecture approach because it doesn’t give them the skills they need.
Fundamentally, there are two aspects that we focus on. No. 1 is the cultural adjustment—why you think the way you do and why common sense to you may be different to someone from another country. The second aspect is that we place a strong focus on specific skills, for example, teleconferencing. This has become more important for many companies as they cut costs. Yet teleconferencing in Japanese companies seems to be based on English skills, when in fact it is not. It is a business skill. Some are better at it than others.
The first aspect you mentioned, cultural adjustment, must be a big challenge?
It’s a constant complaint among Japanese staff who get sent abroad that while their English is OK, they find the way of doing business in some countries challenging or different. Doing some preparation for that is fairly important. For example, there may be an understanding gap between the Japanese manager of a local factory working with local employees who don’t understand the way a Japanese business works. There is a perceived lack of transparency; Japanese tend to communicate with other Japanese in a different way. There is a lot of unspoken communication. It’s not a better or worse style. However, this is impossible for people from another country to understand. The biggest transition for Japanese expats is to become more explicit in communications, become more direct and more comfortable with giving clear instructions.
We tailor our courses depending on the country. We don’t do anything off the shelf. Our team has a very wide global background. I’ve been lucky enough to work in several countries – the U.S., Australia and Japan – and I got very direct firsthand experience of the problems that people face for cultural reasons.
What about for expats coming to Japan?
One of the most popular courses we are running right now is for incoming expats to adjust to working life in Japan. Some people who never had any intention of coming to Japan have been sent here, maybe for only six months. This happens in IT a lot. We teach them Japanese business etiquette, such as exchanging cards, seating arrangements at meetings and adjusting to the Japanese way of thinking, and so on.
If you understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Japanese style of doing business, you can make your transition a lot smoother. We try to stress to incoming expats that the way to make things happen faster is not to stamp your feet and shout at meetings that you don’t agree with something. The shorter your assignment, the more important it is that you adjust quickly to the way things are done. It sounds obvious but if you disagree with something said in a meeting, the right thing to do is not to stand up and say you disagree. You need to quietly, behind closed doors, discuss in a very gentle way why you think there might be an alternative solution.
You mentioned teleconferencing before.
With teleconferencing, for Japanese, one of the key things we focus on is if you are the facilitator, one of your key roles is to make sure everybody speaks. If someone is not speaking, there is no reason for them to be in the teleconference. He or she presumably has some input and it is your responsibility to address that person by name and make sure their opinion is asked at the appropriate time.
What level of staff do you deal with?
We work with quite a lot of people in their early 30s and who the company has identified as the people they want to send overseas in the future. Sometimes we are lucky enough to talk with a CEO who has a vision that he wants to push through the whole company and we have been able to work on a wide globalization project for the company. But more often, it is the HR division. We need to talk to line managers, department heads to find out what this person really needs to do in his job.
We also have a leadership academy where we work on a one-to-one or small group basis with either senior people in companies who are beginning to get a grip on cross-cultural leadership issues, or with people who are identified by these companies as being future leaders.
Who are your typical clients?
Most of our clients are multinational companies, although recently, we have been getting a little bit more interest from Japanese companies looking to expand overseas. We get a lot of repeat business.
How do you market your company?
Networking and word of mouth are the main marketing methods. We do seminars in our office on weekends for individuals whose companies perhaps aren’t willing to support them at this stage of their career development. That’s been quite a productive source for us in the sense that people come and they like the course and find it practical and relevant to their jobs. We get a lot of leads that way.
How do you get feedback on your courses?
We get immediate feedback from participants in the course. We like to have quarterly follow-ups at the manager level because while a fun training session might get good marks from the participants, it doesn’t necessarily translate into real work.
What do you think of the move by Rakuten and Uniqlo to make English their official language?
Those two companies have made fundamental decisions. Rakuten is taking it extremely seriously and doing it top down with board meetings conducted in English. I do think there is a general movement in Japan – at least lip service – toward the concept of globalizing.
What are your thoughts on what happened at Olympus, where the board said it ousted its British CEO due to what it called “cultural differences” in the way of doing business.
Leaving aside the legal issue of what went on at Olympus, it is quite possible they were having difficulties at boardroom level. This is not unheard of in Japanese boardrooms. I think Japanese board members tend to be relatively old and have a very different style to someone who has risen up the ranks in a global company. There is a level of aggression and directness among executives of certain countries that doesn’t sit well with the Japanese in the boardroom.
Tell us about your team.
There are six of us – two British, two Americans, one Canadian and one Japanese on the training side and a few others working on the website, translations, etc.
Do you still do training?
Yes, in presentation skills. It is a very rewarding course because by the end of day two, you can see a really significant change in people’s ability. I also train in some of our other courses, including cross-cultural negotiation and conflict management.
How do you like to relax when you are not working?
I still play football in the Tokyo Metropolis League.