Zennovation: The Lion

Excerpt from Chapter 10, “The Lion,” from “ZENNOVATION” Tomio Taki by (John Wiley & Sons, April 2012).

Tomio Taki is the businessman behind the success of Anne Klein Company and Donna Karan International. With more than 50 years of experience consulting for, financing, or directly managing both private and public companies on nearly every continent, Taki has developed a keen sense of business acumen. In his new book, “ZENNOVATION,” Taki shares leadership and management lessons and the East-meets-West approach to business that has been key to his many accomplishments.

By Tomio Taki

I had not anticipated buying the Anne Klein Company in the 1970s. The idea was proposed to me by Anne Klein herself, after my plans for a joint venture between Takihyo Inc. and the Anne Klein Company fell through. Although I was ecstatic, this solution brought about other issues: I could not devote myself 100 percent to a new company, and I had little experience managing in the United States.

Anne Klein had incredible potential as a designer and a business. Gunther Oppenheim, Anne’s original business partner, not only invested money in the company, but also managed much of the business. I would be forced to hire someone to be my eyes and ears as I would be spending most of my time at Takihyo in Japan. I knew that doing this the right way required that I find the right employee.

Selecting the right employees is essential to my managerial philosophy and integral for success. Hiring those individuals, however, is rarely an easy task. I have made many good decisions over the years, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t had my share of mistakes. From what I have gathered, every employee fits into one of four categories—and each category requires its own method via which to make the subordinate an asset rather than a liability.

First, there is the model employee. I believe every employee can be molded into a person who can comprehend and execute instructions efficiently; however, this takes time and experience. The model employee understands the superior’s intentions and implements directives properly even if there are gaps in the initial explanations. The model employee asks questions when matters are unclear without fear of rejection. I try to challenge and nurture the employees I hire who reach this point in their careers, and hold on to them as long as possible.

The second type of employee understands directives but fails in the execution. There are several reasons why someone may fit into this category; however, the main factor is usually that nothing precipitated from the directions given. Managers have to handle these employees differently. Perhaps this person isn’t in the right position, or no longer values their position. In most cases, managers can ask employees what they would like to do and then work to try to make it happen. However, if an employee doesn’t care anymore about the company—or at least about his or her job—management likely should let that person go.

A third type of employee doesn’t understand directions— and fails to follow through as a result. If a manager repeats the same commands in a way that is easier to understand, this employee most likely will execute the task effectively. Sometimes, people need directions framed in differently for the overall picture to make sense—which is something managers must take into account when administering directives. Often, these employees fear rejection or being labeled “inept.” They don’t ask questions, and consequently don’t succeed. Yet once they receive adequate training, these employees may transform into the model employee.

The fourth type of employee represents the most dangerous and potentially destructive employee: those who do not understand directives and act blindly. This type of employee usually does not ask the right questions and/or does not see the purpose of the given instructions. Eventually, the false image of this employee’s work is revealed. Once this occurs, it is too late to amend any damage, and managers must carry forward with whatever losses were incurred.

Another stumbling block is culture. I routinely ask my Japanese employees what my directives were and have them repeat what I have asked them to accomplish. Yet when I have done this in the United States, employees think I am demeaning them. However, I make sure that if there are any comments, criticisms, or questions, everyone acknowledges what they are so we can work together without any administrative or logistical hiccups.

Although there are always exceptions, the way I have learned to categorize employees has been largely effective. Of course, there is plenty of gray area, and these types often overlap within an individual. However, a general outline for viewing different types of employees prompts how I change, instruct, and direct subordinates.

This overview has provided me with an integrated approach to handling problems—based not only on subjective traits but also on anthropological and sociological ones. However, there’s one golden rule that holds true: To be effective across international lines, a manager must keep his or her ego in check. When employees become defensive or fearful, the environment is not right for them—and the wrong environment leads to mistakes, misfortune, and miscommunication. One of the most important elements of management is picking the right subordinates; that way, one has less to manage!

I met Bob Oliver at one of many YPO functions. When confronted with a problem, Oliver would jump over the fence rather than walk to the door. He had an ability to weigh his options quickly and then take the path of least resistance; I thought his skill set was priceless.

I needed someone who could argue the price down for my stake in the Anne Klein Company. The 1970s were a challenging decade in Japan; I had to spend a lot of time dealing with disruptions at Takihyo, as well as a great deal of personal loss. I didn’t have the luxury of paying attention to the minutiae at Anne Klein, so I needed someone on the inside I could trust. I, therefore, decided to temporarily hire Oliver to be my American eyes and ears.

I chose Oliver because of his personality and willingness to take initiative. He was mild-mannered, and I needed to build bridges with Anne and Gunther rather than burn them. Oliver negotiated my concessions while arguing down my price for equity in the Anne Klein Company. If a question needed answering while I was overseas, I could trust Oliver to give me the appropriate information to make the right decisions.

Excerpt from Chapter 10, “The Lion,” from “ZENNOVATION” Tomio Taki by (John Wiley & Sons, April 2012).

Tomio Taki is the businessman behind the success of Anne Klein Company and Donna Karan International. With more than 50 years of experience consulting for, financing, or directly managing both private and public companies on nearly every continent, Taki has developed a keen sense of business acumen. In his new book, “ZENNOVATION,” Taki shares leadership and management lessons and the East-meets-West approach to business that has been key to his many accomplishments.

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