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To Become a Leader in Japan (3): Bringing out the Talents of Your Subordinates

Can You Manage Talents of Your Subordinates in Japan?

Those in supervisory positions who work hardest to develop the talents of those working under them are the ones who will rise most steadily in the ranks of an organization. A supervisor in charge of people whose work is steadily growing and improving is one who will be recognized for having nurtured their talents.

If one should misunderstand the role of a manager and prevent subordinates from exercising and developing their talents, their performance will not improve. In the end, their achievements will be undistinguished and the manager’s reputation will not stand out.

The story in the Chinese classics of the exchange between Liu Bang (256 or 247-195 b.c.), founder of the Han dynasty, and his famous general Han Xin (?-196 b.c.) illustrates the timeless truth of this observation.

Liu asked Han, “How many troops do you think I could command?”

“Your Highness could probably not lead more than 100,000,” answered Han.

“And how about you?”

“Oh, the more the better,” replied Han.

“If you’re such a good general,” said Liu, “Why do you remain under my command?”

“Because Your Highness is not a general of troops, but a commander of generals.”

In other words, Han had more talent than the emperor as a leader of a massive army of soldiers, but it was Emperor Liu who knew how to get the best out of such a capable general.

One person, no matter how talented, can only do so much. Gaining the assistance of others is crucial. Anyone who cannot nurture and make good use of the talents of others is not suited to a be in a leadership position.

A newspaper reporter once asked Konosuke Matsushita to explain the conditions for being a good manager.

“There is only one condition,” said Matsushita, “You have to be able to direct the activities of people more capable than yourself.”

It is not necessary to be smarter or more capable than those who work in your charge to be a good manager. Managing them successfully is. Success depends on how well you can draw in and build on their talents.

You can tell a person who is well suited to leadership; they invariably have good people working under them. 

 So how do you bring out the talents of your subordinates?

The Knack of Nurturing Talent in Japanese companies

Quite a number of books have periodically appeared and sold well on the subject of how to deal with praise and blame in management. These are issues we face in business all the time. I myself am often asked for my advice and I have written about it in some of my books.

Having sincere esteem for the other person is fundamental. Without such esteem, any praise you might give could easily sound like superficial lip-service. Respect for the other is especially important when you must deliver a reprimand or discuss problems with his or her work; you should be careful to be calm and objective, never emotional. Then, too, you can be lavish and emotional in your praise. Human beings are a combination of reason and emotion. Business is an arena of very human affairs, so it is always a good idea to keep both sides in mind.

When something has gone wrong and mistakes have been made, it is easy to get angry and indignant. But an emotional handling of such situations will put the person on the receiving end on the defensive, causing him or her to clam up and resist you. Especially when you have to say something rather harsh, you should be sure to be calm and composed. If you are not reasonable and convincing, you will simply confuse and upset the person you are dealing with.

On the other hand, when you deliver praise, there is nothing wrong with speaking with feeling. You may find it difficult to praise someone who is lower down in the corporate hierarchy, but should never let yourself become the kind of miserly manager who cannot take pride and joy in the achievements of those you supervise.

Receiving praise from one’s boss or supervisor feels wonderful. Looking someone in the eye, Konosuke Matsushita would speak heartfelt praise: “You really did a great job today.” He might even call later to repeat it, “That was great. It worked wonderfully,” or some such, and the person’s family would be listening to the exchange. Being praised before others feels especially good. It’s exhilarating and fills you with the will to go out and work even harder.

You might agree that delivering reprimands coolly and lavishing praise with plenty of feeling is a good idea but then find that it is difficult to put the advice into practice. There is one secret to making it work: you must firmly and sincerely want the person to grow and do better.  

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