DETROIT – The differences between working in a Western vs. an Eastern culture are profound, Mazda Motor Corp.’s design chief says.

Following stints at Volvo Cars, Audi AG and Ford Motor Co., Laurens van den Acker joined Mazda last April. It was his first time at a Japanese auto maker.

As general manager of Mazda’s Design Div., van den Acker reports to two bosses – American Ford Chief Creative Officer J Mays and Seita Kanai, Mazda’s Japanese managing executive officer in charge of research and development.

Working for two men from two different cultures has been a learning experience, van den Acker tells Ward’s at the North American International Auto Show here. “I call them ying and yang,” he says.

“It keeps me grounded, because they both have their strengths. It’s both an Eastern and a Western culture, and that’s really an interesting place to be,” he says.

Now with several months under his belt at the Hiroshima-based auto maker, van den Acker says there are fundamental differences in the management style of the two cultures.

“A good leader in a Western culture is good at talking,” he says. “In the Japanese culture, he’s good at listening…someone who absorbs opinions, who listens 90% of the time and talks 10% of the time. I think in a Western culture, it’s probably the opposite.”

In Japan, you must forge relationships before you begin work, he says, which isn’t necessarily the case in the West.

“It’s a very Western mentality to say, ‘I’m the new guy, what’s your biggest problem? Give it to me; I’ll fix it. By the way, what’s your name?’ I’m not saying any of this is wrong. I’m just saying what the differences are,” he says.

While not revealing which culture he prefers, van den Acker admits he didn’t feel pressured to immediately perform upon arriving at Mazda.

“In the Western culture, you have this 100-day window of opportunity,” he says. “If you’re the new guy, you’ve got to make an impact straight away. If after three months, people don’t notice you’re there, you’ve lost your opportunity.

“In the Eastern culture, my boss said, ‘The first three months, I just want you to listen.’ That took a lot of pressure off of me coming into a new company and not feeling like I immediately had to perform.”

Van de Acker says he likes to have different personality types on his team and uses soccer terminology to illustrate the point.

“I need people that are opportunistic, a little bit entrepreneurial; they’re my attackers,” he says. “I need people that have insight and can look forwards and backwards. They’re my mid-fielders. And I need people that are defensive and have quality, process, harmony and discipline,” he says.

“To make a good team, you need all of that. And I think the fusion of cultures in Mazda design gives us that opportunity.”

bpope@wardsauto.com