Senpai Success Story#2: Emily (Auto Industry Account Manager)

From Fuji-san at Sunrise

Welcome to the second Senpai Success Story, where you can read about others who have walked a unique career path using their Japanese language/cultural skills. If you have your own SSS to share, please read more here. (Psst: Senpai means “mentor” or “teacher,” and the concept is important to understand for anyone wishing to work in a Japanese business setting.)

Senpai Success Story #2: Meet Emily!

Hi!  My name is Emily and I am currently working in the automotive industry as an Account Manager.  For those who are unfamiliar, an account manager is typically the key customer sales interface in charge of managing and growing a certain customer account or accounts. Since I started my career in the industry, I’ve had a variety of opportunities to use my knowledge of Japanese language and culture whether that be working for a Japanese company or calling on Japanese customers. Each type of experience has proved to vary but there are core underlying principles that don’t seem to change from experience to experience which I believe will set anyone up for success if implemented.  I’ll get to those later.  But first I thought I might share my journey with you to give you a sense of how I got where I am.

I like to think I took the path less traveled. 

I have always been interested in international business but unlike a lot of my colleagues I decided to not go to college to get a bachelors in business administration and then go on to get an MBA and then get an internship, and then … well, you get it.  Nor did I choose Japanese for the same reasons a lot of people I know did (let’s just say anime, manga and Japanese dramas aren’t my thing). I had taken Japanese in high school because I wanted something different than Spanish, more challenging, and there I got a good sense of the Japanese way of life, culture and way of thinking which resonated well with me. I found myself in this hyper competitive environment to get into business school and instead of leaning in, I decided to go around.  While the University of Michigan had a great and competitive business program they also happened to have a great Japanese program which aligned with my interests. So while colleagues were killing themselves to get into the business school and graduate with a tough time finding a job thereafter, I chose differently.  I chose to go the culture and language route and earned my Bachelors in Japanese Language and Literature which turned out to be something very important in today’s workforce: differentiation.

I gratefully got a job upon my return to the States from the JET Programme where I taught English for two years in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan.  I was hired at a Japanese company in Michigan as a logistics coordinator with little prior automotive experience.  I am convinced that I would not have gotten that job without my differentiators: knowledge of Japanese and experience living in Japan.  The mere fact that I could relate at some kind of level with Japanese coworkers was a comfort and trust-builder to the hiring manager and company.  This is a constant theme in getting a job using Japanese skills I’ve found.  Contrary to the usual pressure we as Japanese-speakers put on ourselves, I do not believe that Japanese employers expect perfection in most cases.  The most important thing is to build and protect the relationship and trust.  (Note: It is rare that a missed grammar point or inaccurate usage of a word does that.)

I continually found that trust and relationship were key as I proved myself in the automotive industry, building business acumen and attaining my first job as an account manager at another Japanese company.  There I worked with one of my favorite bosses ever who is Japanese and was not too comfortable with English at the time. Understanding the Japanese management style and working Japanese into conversation to support him and keep the trust was a good challenge that required a lot of adapting and a “make it work” mentality.  And it worked! After four years of graduating college I was finally doing what I wanted to be doing! I was working for a Japanese company, doing international business and traveling the world (Japan, China, Mexico, Thailand, Malaysia, The Netherlands, Germany… yeah I think that should cover it.)

Admittedly, after some frustration and, frankly, lack of confidence, I intentionally moved away from the “Japanese thing” altogether to work for an American company calling on an American OEM.  Some could say I gave up. Long story short, it didn’t go well and I moved on to where I am now which is to say I returned to have another crack at this “Japanese thing”, working for an American company calling on a couple of Japanese OEM’s.  This experience in particular has really helped me to remember where some of you might be now, either trying to,  beginning to or in the midst of using Japanese in the workplace.

Which brings me to my lessons learned and advice.

One thing I would like to caution anyone on whether in regards to using Japanese in the workplace, finding a job, getting into international business, and maybe even life: Nothing is as it seems.  While I read back about my experience, I realize it might sound glamorous traveling the world and speaking Japanese galore but I assure you it’s not what you think.  I was nowhere near fluent.  I didn’t speak nearly as much Japanese or as good of Japanese as I wanted to at my past companies. I was not and am not “comfortable” in using Japanese or in international business.  And I would venture to say that most people with these same seemingly glamorous jobs are not either. If they are, they’ve been doing it for long enough and gone through what everyone needs to in order to get there.  And that is this… going through the process of getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Why is being uncomfortable necessary? 

Because you can’t wait till you’re “ready.”  You have to use what you have at the time and make it work (Insert Tim Gunn’s voice from Project Runway here). Because pushing through the times you’re not ready and making it work is what gets you that one step further towards “being ready”, towards being comfortable. Yes, the process will be messy. Yes, the results you focus on will not be how you wanted them.  But I guarantee the next time will be better and you will look back after you’ve overcome the event and potential ensuing embarrassment (don’t worry this lasts a couple days max) and be proud you did it.  And even after all of this, of pushing, standing in the discomfort, rinsing and repeating over and over and over again when you *finally* get comfortable… you can’t stop there.  I would argue if you stop there you’ve stopped doing life right. Again, just get comfortable with the discomfort and push forward.

While this advice may seem too theoretical I believe it actually is the most practical advice I can give that would apply to anyone reading this.  It underlies everything that you do and you will keep coming back to this especially in a career where Japanese is involved. Best of luck and feel free to reach out if you have any questions!

Photo credit: Emily on Mt. Fuji

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