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Personal Branding

Ohayou Gozaimasu…Creative Use of Cultural Differences in Japan

Last week I had the opportunity to facilitate a strategy workshop for a leading telecommunications company in Japan. As part of my preparation, I spent quite a bit of time contemplating how cultural differences in language, organizational behavior, and general interpersonal interactions might affect the outcome of the workshop. I was especially concerned about people’s comfort level with speaking English (particularly in front of their boss or boss’s boss) and cultural obstacles to voicing dissenting opinions in group work.

In addition to the invaluable assistance in overcoming language boundaries from several bilingual colleagues, I found that a few innovative ground rules were able to turn cultural differences and obstacles into workshop performance boosters. These rules gave participants “permission” to step outside their workplace persona and – temporarily – adopt a much more informal and creative personal brand for themselves. My instructions included the following points

  • There are no bad ideas
  • This seminar room is in New York (not Tokyo)
  • Pick a name that is easy to pronounce for the instructor (me)
  • Relax and have fun. (And it’s okay to take off jackets and ties!)

The combination of the the temporary pseudonym and the (visually) informal and relaxed workshop environment helped bring out a strong creative streak in almost all participants and fostered very lively and productive discussions. Feedback on the workshop was quite positive and many team members remarked how this type of structured exploration of strategy had helped them understand coworkers’ needs better, especially across business unit boundaries.

Cultural awareness and personal branding
You may wonder how the workshop tips and tricks above apply to personal branding? For me, it all boils down to using cultural awareness productively: acknowledge the core norms and tenets of the target culture and comply with the essentials, but don’t lose sight of the fact that creative differences can create unique benefits.

For the workshop, I could have used a Japanese interpreter to explain everything in flawless Japanese and adopted a more traditional format aligned with organizational hierarchies and role expectations. This would have resulted in a comfortable, but poorly differentiated experience for the audience. Instead, I chose to respectfully prod participants out of their comfort zone. This allowed them to have a hands-on and productive learning experience that I hope will stand out in a sea of forgettable corporate seminars.

Applying these lessons to personal branding, I would encourage you to consciously explore your target audience’s or company’s culture in order to find opportunities for productive and memorable differentiation. First, find out as much as you can about shared visions, goals and beliefs. Cultural expectations also include dress code, the level of formality in personal interactions and things like expected work hours and effort. Next, figure out where your personal value system / brand and your target audience’s corresponding beliefs and assumptions already align and where they differ. Can you use areas of difference (and differentiation) to safely create a memorable advantage? Examples may include

  • Using a non-traditional, but effective presentation opener in a normally staid and boring quarterly business review readout
  • Re-arranging a cubicle landscape into a bullpen layout to foster team work
  • Declaring casual days (or even weeks) for your department
  • Creating mini-incentive schemes for your project team

You’ll have to make your own decision which elements of the target culture are flexible – gross violations of expectations and norms certainly create the wrong type of memorability! Also pick the right starting point and timing for your experiment: I was wearing a tie at the beginning of the workshop so I could not only make a public show of taking it off but also to establish a familiar and non-threatening baseline when I first met the seminar participants.

Carefully executed, these small and intentional deviations from the cultural status quo can be great brand builders and help you stand out and “become memorable for all the right reasons.”

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