Airbus Japan Chairman Glen Fukushima’s Commencement Address to Univ. of Tsukuba MBA Program in Int’l Business

Glen S. Fukushima, Chairman & Director of Airbus Japan, and former President of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, delivered the following remarks at the July 31, 2010, commencement ceremony of the University of Tsukuba’s MBA Program in International Business in Tokyo.

Thank you, Professor Murphy, for your kind introduction.

Let me begin by congratulating each of you on the successful completion of your studies and on being conferred today the degree of Master of International Business by the University of Tsukuba’s MBA Program in International Business.

You should all be proud of your achievements-first, for having been accepted as an MBA candidate to this selective program in international business, and second, for having graduated after successfully passing the academically rigorous requirements of the program.

Since this graduating class of 25 students is so diverse in terms of age, nationality, and academic and professional background, I don’t know to what extent my brief comments of 10-15 minutes today will be of value to you. But I hope that, based on my own diverse background and experiences, you may learn something from my comments that you can profitably apply to your personal and professional life as a business school graduate getting ready to re-enter the real world of work on a full-time basis.

In the 38 years since graduating from college in 1972, I have worked for 1 year in journalism, 9 years in academia (including graduate and professional schools), 3 years in law practice, 5 years in government service, and 20 years in business (working for one European and four American corporations). During my business career, I have also had the opportunity to serve on the boards of numerous foundations, NGOs, and NPOs. I consider my involvement in all six of these sectors-academia, journalism, law, government, business, and nonprofits-to have been valuable experiences that have contributed importantly to my ability to understand, manage, and lead global organizations. And, along the way, I have also had a lot of fun working in these diverse sectors!

For those of you who are trying to figure out my personal background, I can tell you that I am a U.S. citizen of Japanese ancestry working in Japan for a European company. This sentence has provided you four clues about me: (1) my citizenship, (2) my ethnicity, (3) where I work, and (4) where my company’s headquarters are located.

But globalization-which has accelerated rapidly since the collapse of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989-means that there is no longer a necessary correlation between a person’s citizenship, ethnicity, locus of work, and geographic location of his or her company’s headquarters. So companies are increasingly hiring and placing recruits based on their ability to get the job done, rather than based on their citizenship, ethnicity, gender, or geographic origin. What this means for all of you is that the opportunities open for you to work are increasingly global. My wife, who is a Stanford MBA and Chairperson of the Japan operations of Korn/Ferry International, the world’s largest executive search firm, would say that all of you are extremely fortunate in that your potential field of operations is virtually the entire world.

With so many opportunities available, one needs to be selective and focus on those activities that are most meaningful from a personal and professional standpoint. Based on my experience, I would like to offer three attributes or orientations and seven maxims or aphorisms that I have found helpful to me in my career over the past 38 years on three continents-North America, Asia, and Europe.

The first important attribute is optimism. This is especially true in Japan, where so many people, including in the mass media, tend to be pessimistic about everything-whether it’s the economy, politics, or the future. In Japan, someone who is optimistic risks being ridiculed as being naïve and simple-minded. To be regarded as a sophisticated and thinking person in Japan, one needs to express pessimism. However, on the macro level, stock prices are affected by the psychology of investors, and on a micro level, individual endurance, perseverance, and tenacity are difficult to sustain without optimism about one’s ability ultimately to succeed. Of course, one needs to be realistic and not Pollyanish. But in the real world, optimism is a powerful factor that contributes to finding solutions to problems and to getting things done.

The second important attribute is flexibility. In an increasingly globalized world characterized by change, speed, and diversity, one’s ability to adapt to new and changing circumstances is critical for personal and professional success. In my experience, the best lawyers, government negotiators, and business executives are those who quickly and accurately assess their counterparts and environments and can adapt to them effectively to bring about the desired results. To put it another way, inflexibility, rigidity, and narrow-mindedness are recipes for failure, especially in a cross-functional, cross-cultural, or cross-national setting.

The third important attribute is maintaining a sense of perspective. This includes keeping a sense of balance between the macro and micro, theory and practice, global and local, function and geography, hard and soft, universal and particular, public and private, professional and personal, office and family, work and play, serious and humorous, and so on. It is easy, given the extraordinary demands on our time and attention, to become single-mindedly obsessed with achieving narrow professional goals or objectives. But it is important at times to step back, take a deep breath, and gain a sense of perspective on both the means, methods, and processes one is engaged in and the ends and objectives one is trying to achieve.

Having discussed three attributes or orientations that I believe are important to be effective in the real world, let me now turn to seven maxims or aphorisms that I have found helpful in dealing with reality. Some academics may consider them to be pedestrian or even trite, but I have personally found them to be both entertaining and useful.

1. “Truth is stranger than fiction.” Some of the things I have observed and experienced in organizations, both public and private, are too bizarre to be believed if they were written up in the form of a novel, if only because they are based on decisions and actions that cannot be explained as logical or rational. Another way to put this is that, contrary to what one may read in microeconomics textbooks, one should not and cannot assume that all human behavior follows the model of the rational economic man or woman. In the real world, rationality and reality are often poles apart.

2. “The devil is in the details.” It is often easy to agree on general principles but extremely difficult to work out the concrete specifics, especially of implementation, in a way that is acceptable to all parties concerned. This is true even in two-party negotiations. When the number of parties involved increases, the difficulty of reaching agreement on the specifics can multiply exponentially. Witness, for example, the failure of the Doha Round of multilateral trade negations under the World Trade Organization, involving more than 150 countries.

3. “It’s never over until it’s over.” This is similar to the previous aphorism, although the emphasis here is less on the substance and more on the crucial element of time. Things usually take longer than originally planned, especially if many parties are involved, because there is always the possibility that one or more of the parties will change their minds or introduce new elements into the decision-making or negotiation that had not been considered before. Thus, it is often wise to work on several elements of a project in parallel, rather than sequentially, to ensure that a delay on one item will not bring the entire project to a halt.

4. “The best is enemy of the good.” or “Timing is everything.” Human beings, especially of the highly educated variety, tend to aim for perfection. This results in delaying decisions until more complete information is obtained or in postponing actions until all the right pre-conditions are in place. With speed an increasingly critical differentiator in global competition, it is often better to reach a decision or take action quickly, and to make adjustments, if necessary, later, rather than to delay important decisions or to not act at all. Missed deadlines can be fatal for the success of a project.

5. “Expect the unexpected.” Things in the real world almost never proceed as anticipated, even with the best laid plans. Thus, it is always important to be flexible and nimble enough to adapt to changing circumstances and shifting environments. It may not be possible to predict the future, but one needs to be prepared for the unexpected. Very few so-called “experts” accurately predicted the timing and nature of the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, or the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008. But effectively managing risk, uncertainty, and unpredictability is essential for overall management success.

6.”Different strokes for different folks.” or “Diversity is strength.” In the globalizing environment in which we all work, where the workforce is increasingly mobile and diverse, differences between individuals in values, orientations, and personal preferences are to be expected and respected. I currently work in a company, Airbus, in which the CEO is German, one COO is French, and the other COO is American. The company has 52,000 employees from over 84 nationalities, but the common language is English. A core strength of the company is its ability to recruit, hire, train, develop, and retain highly talented individuals from around the world, and to draw on their diversity to design, manufacture, test, market, sell, and maintain the world’s most technologically advanced commercial aircraft. Increasingly, the ability of companies to manage diversity effectively will weed out the winners from the losers in global competition.

7. “Strategy is execution.” Consultants are masters at crafting ever-more sophisticated corporate strategies based on the latest management theories and arcane quantitative methodologies. Such strategies can be elegant, intellectually appealing, and seductive, but a pure waste of time unless they are firmly grounded in reality and are capable of being implemented. In my experience, for every 10 beautiful corporate strategies that are formulated-often at great expense and investment of time and frequently using teams of highly paid outside consultants-only one or two end up actually improving the organization’s performance. I have concluded that it’s usually better to have a strategy that is inelegant but can be executed and produce positive results rather than a strategy that is theoretically and deductively attractive but removed from reality.

I have provided you three attributes or orientations-optimism, flexibility, and a sense of perspective-and seven maxims or aphorisms-dealing with rationality and reality, principles and specifics, time horizons, perfection and decisiveness, risk management, diversity power, and strategy execution-that I have found useful in my 38 years working in six professional sectors on three continents. Time constraints have not allowed me to elaborate, but I hope that you will find some of these 10 observations to be of value to you as well.

Congratulations again on your graduation. You have a world of tremendous potential in front of you, and I hope you make the best of it, empowered and enriched by the fine education you gained through the Tsukuba MBA Program in International Business.

Best wishes for a future of personal and professional success, however each of you may define it. And, by the way, don’t forget to have fun along the way!

Thank you, and good luck!

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