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All the talent we ignore will find a home

A few years ago I was having a chat with a Japanese female executive in Nairobi. She worked for a large multinational organization headquartered in Tokyo. The Kenya operation was undergoing restructuring, and her job was one of those affected.

“I guess you’ll go back to HQ in Japan,” I asked?

“No,” she said with a sad expression. “Japan is not a good place for corporate women.” She told me she would try to stay on in Kenya, and was keen to know my thoughts on which organizations might need someone like her.

Huh, I thought, here’s something Kenya is ahead of Japan on!

That conversation came back to mind when I read a recent Bloomberg report that confirmed the situation in Japan is still pretty dire in 2024. The government there had a target of having women in 30% of managerial roles by 2020, but keeps having to change the date due to a disappointing rate of progress.

Why is this? Yuki Soga told Bloomberg that when her name was floated to join the board of leading company, an executive reached out to explain why she wouldn’t get the position. It was because the CEO would not be able to handle a young woman questioning or correcting him in front of the old, male board members. She could have possibly been accepted if she was in her fifties or sixties.

Women in Japan make up only 9% of directors on listed companies (compared with 45% in France). So bad is the situation that Bloomberg reports famous brand Canon only recently selected a woman for its board—for the first time in its 87-year history. Most boards remain, to use a damning phrase, male, stale, and frail. This is true in many other parts of the world too. The patriarchal culture is deeply entrenched.

So what do the talented and qualified women of Japan do with themselves? Yuki Soga is not waiting for funerals to take place. She has founded her own consulting firm, and nearly 35% of Japan’s startups are now being founded by women. They don’t find it easy, since venture-capital firms are also male-dominated. But the women are persisting. They’re starting modestly and prudently, and growing steadily.

They do have a big advantage on their side, though. Guess what the brands that are dominated by old men find very difficult to do? Sell to women, duh. And guess which group of consumers makes most buying decisions in most households around the world? Also women. Some studies report that women make or influence 85% of all consumer purchasing decisions. Women entrepreneurs the world over can fill this gap, by designing products and experiences valued by women.

Here in East Africa the women are not staying put. In my time I have observed a sure and steady increase in the number of women taking CEO and c-suite positions, and becoming valued directors on the boards of our most renowned corporations. The era of looking for a woman to tick a box and feature in PR photos is, I trust, well behind us.

There’s a wider point I want to make, though. The world is often structured by those from previous eras, kowtowing to primitive and rigid cultures and norms. Only those approved by the strict custodians get through the gate, and most of us don’t fit the bill. So what should we do? In my personal case I managed to get most gates opened, but nonetheless decided decades ago that conforming was too tiring a game to play. That’s why I struck out on my own. As Yuki Soga says, it’s easier to build from scratch than play a game that’s rigged against you.

Most of us, at a relatively early stage in our lives, find ourselves confronted by rigid authority systems and unyielding customs. Only a few are given the right tickets to play the preset game. Some will strive to be accepted by the rule-makers and guardians, and that’s fine. But those with some contrarian wiring should also ask themselves if they really want to put on the masks and pretend to fit in.

There are many neglected markets out there that the organizations headed by the people of yesteryear just won’t notice. I’m not seeing those led by the stagnant and the antiquated being able to crack the women market, the Gen Z market, or the market for AI-led innovations anytime soon. I don’t see those making decisions up in the glass towers of the city even beginning to understand the rural consumer. Some of these organizations, let’s be fair, are making great strides these days to up their game and are opening themselves up to fresh thinking and energy. Those that are failing in this are already slow punctures, trapped in slow but steady decline.

Talent will flow to where it can be appreciated and deployed meaningfully. If longstanding firms can attract and manage this talent, they have a future. Otherwise, the market will cause new entities to be created, more relevant to an underserved world and more in tune with their buyers.

Big organisations, let in the outliers, rebels, misfits, oddballs, and free thinkers. Adapt yourself to managing them. Or watch them do it their way and take your lunch.

(Sunday 24 March 2024)

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