Global expansion: the secrets of leading abroad

ONE MINUTE BRIEFING: The British-born global CEO of Hitachi Rail reveals what he's learned about cross-cultural leadership.

by Jane Nelson
Last Updated: 02 Dec 2018

Leadership in your own country is hard enough, but leadership in an entirely new culture takes it to another level altogether. Yet if you want to expand your business to where the international opportunities are, it's increasingly necessary. 

Alistair Dormer, Global CEO of Hitachi Rail, knows this all too well.The first non-Japanese CEO of a Hitachi business joined as UK managing director in 2003 at the tender age (in Japanese terms) of 39. Initially he struggled to adapt to the idiosyncrasies of Tokyo meeting rooms, but the decision to relocate the company’s rail division HQ to London in 2014 is testament to the trust he built up with the top brass over 15 years. Here's how he did it. 

"At an early meeting with my Japanese bosses, I thought we'd reached a decision, but while their mouths said 'yes', their eyes said 'no'. I used to get frustrated with my young Japanese team that they wouldn't challenge me, even though they were often right.

"But you can't fight these things, because they are so ingrained in the Japanese culture that it would be like banging your head against a brick wall.

"The secret is to listen and watch, and not be tempted to jump in with your point of view, or talk at people - you have two ears, two eyes and one mouth, and you should use them accordingly.

"Because the Japanese work long hours, socialise together after work, and tend to stay with one company for life, the workplace can be like a living soap opera - and I find out what's going on by gossiping with people. I'm also very visible around the business: in Japan I have around 3,000 people who were initially very unsure about having a foreign leader. I spent about 180 days in Japan in 2014, getting my face seen, meeting people, communicating, communicating, communicating, settling everything down.

"I studied Japanese for two years - but it's difficult. English is the universal language of business, but if we expect everyone to speak English then we have to at least speak to them in a way they understand. Call it 'dumbing down', if you like. The Japanese often just can't follow if you speak too fast, and they struggle with idioms and accents.

"In fact, the language barrier can be such that when a large group of Japanese, English and Italian Hitachi employees are together they tend to cluster in their national groups. It's all 'too hard' and they revert to type. I always make a point of going and sitting with the Japanese or Italians, and try to draw in other people too."


Communicate, communicate, communicate. It’s important to spend time with people. Trust and respect can only come when a leader is visible and engaged.

Have a little patience. Refrain from jumping in with your point of view. Listen, watch and ultimately learn how different cultures work.


If you want to understand more about adapting a workplace to suit different cultures read what WeWork's European MD has to say on expanding abroad. To understand the geographical benefits of headquatering a global business in London, read about education firm Nord Anglia's recent relocation to the UK.

Image credit: pigphoto/Gettyimages


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