Carlos Ghosn Runs Three Fortune 500 Companies: Here’s His Advice

Credit: Simon Dawson / Bloomberg / Getty Images

What does every CEO need to have?

Unfortunately, to do this job there are a couple of preconditions: No matter how smart or gifted you are, you cannot do the job if you're not able to sleep anywhere, anytime. If you can't do that, don't even try to be a CEO. You're gonna have a hard time.

What are the other prerequisites?

You also need to be extremely organized and disciplined. People think if you're disciplined that means you're programmed, but no. You also have to be able to make U-turns and listen to a lot of different ideas.

When was your toughest time as CEO?

Probably the first three months at Nissan in Japan because I had to learn the company very fast. It was on the verge of a cash crunch, and we didn't have much time to fix it. And I had to do it with all of Japan looking. I was the ultimate outsider: I was not Japanese. I was not part of Nissan. I was just arriving in the country, and I had three months to announce my plan. Everybody was saying, "OK, what's this guy gonna do? What's gonna happen over there?"

You're responsible for roughly 100 million of the cars on the road today. How do you handle that?

It's heavy, but at the same time some people have more responsibility than you. But it's not only about how many cars are on the road. It's also about the 450,000 people who work in your companies. You have to remember that your responsibility is to your company first and everything else after.

You split your time between Paris and Tokyo, two of the world's great culinary cities. How does that affect your diet?

It's a mixed blessing — because we are in two capitals of good food, and not only French and Japanese food but some of the best Chinese, Thai, Korean, and Italian restaurants in the world. The bad thing is, if you are used to this high standard, when you go to other countries you are always disappointed.

You were born in Brazil and raised in Lebanon. Which culture has the right approach to life?

Obviously there is not one best approach. I'm very connected to Brazil because it's made up of people from all over the world living peacefully together — there's a respect for other people and cultures. The Lebanese part is also important because it's a very old country — people of different origins and beliefs, Venetians, Arabs, Jews, and Christians. It's a place of perpetual conflicts and wars. Living there, you have a completely different view. For you, the world is not one. Diversity is a given. But when I go to Japan, I see one culture, one people, one history, a country that has never been invaded or colonized. It's a shock. But it's a refreshing shock.

What's the most striking difference in lifestyle between Japan and Brazil?

Punctuality. In Japan you invite people to dinner 7 to 8:30 pm, everybody's waiting before 7. At 8:30, everybody leaves. That's Japan. In Brazil, you invite people for 7 pm, the first guy shows up at 9, and then you have some people come at 10:30 and people leaving you at 3 o'clock in the morning. But this is expected. So you have to adapt to both.

What's the most prized car in your personal collection?

Well, the car I'm most attached to is the 350Z because it was the first year of the new Z and it was a symbol of the revival of Nissan. We brought the Z and the GTR back again, and I have both. I also have a Leaf, which was the avant-garde of the industry. The first mass-market zero-emission car.

Does Nissan get enough credit for being early on electric?

No, I don't think so. But it will happen one day. We were the first to produce a mass-market electric car, then we were followed by Tesla as a niche, premium brand, and now everyone else is coming to it. We're very proud of that, but we're not looking for recognition. We're looking for competitiveness. Somebody said, "If you want recognition, get a dog."