Don’t be Puzzled by the Japanese ‘Meet and Greet’ – Put It to Work

When Akio Toyoda, the president of Toyota Motor Corp., testified before the U.S. Congress recently, he offered a rare example of a Japanese top executive publicly taking the heat from a hostile audience and attempting to lead his company forward. The scene presented a jarring contrast to a much more common and friendly venue for a Japanese CEO: the courtesy call (hyokei homon), otherwise known as the ceremonial “meet and greet.”

To the bewilderment of many foreign executives, Japanese companies seem to have an insatiable appetite for arranging senior-level meetings with their partners. The midlevel Japanese executive who arranges the meeting will convey the impression that it is critical to the relationship and spend considerable time confirming the details.

Despite the buildup and the high-level participation, the actual meetings often feel remarkably devoid of substance. An exchange of business cards might continue with an overview of the foreign company’s business, followed by a brief Q&A. It almost certainly won’t include discussion, much less resolution, of outstanding issues. With so much time spent on the “greet,” and studious avoidance of the “meat,” the event often leaves the foreign executive perplexed and unsatisfied, if not annoyed.

In contrast, the Japanese executive may deem the same meeting a big success. Japanese business depends heavily upon relationships, which must develop over time. A face-to-face meeting between top executives demonstrates mutual respect and creates a foundation for working together. As one top Japanese executive explained his objective to me, “You can’t trust a guy until you meet him.”
In general, high-level meetings come only after extensive work by lower-level staff. Most of the key elements of the relationship will have been hammered out in advance; CEO involvement serves to validate and confirm these efforts. Meeting the Japanese CEO will imbue the counterpart with additional legitimacy in the eyes of the Japanese firm’s employees.

How can foreign executives make the most of a meet and greet event? First, agree to the meeting – and make sure an appropriate senior executive participates (but manage his or her expectations). If a company can’t be bothered to meet the Japanese leader, it will communicate disrespect.

Second, remember that the up-front work is the main event. Strive to identify the key subordinates on the Japanese side and meet with them as they are prepping for the meeting. Timely involvement can shape the outcome, whereas failure to get involved early may require significantly more work later.

Finally, prepare for the social elements of the meeting. Endeavor to learn about the Japanese counterpart. Where did he attend college? What is his corporate background? Identify shared connections or interests. Likewise, prepare to discuss the market or industry news – even better if you can drop a few “inside comments” based upon recent meetings with other key figures (politicians, sports figures, top industry executives).

Although the Japanese courtesy call may never be as compelling as a congressional hearing, with the proper approach it can be an effective tool for creating and building a strong relationship with a Japanese partner.

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