The Chapman Consulting Group co-hosted its inaugural roundtable for Japan HR Business Partners last week at the headquarters of Thomson Reuters in Tokyo. The group enjoyed a lively discussion about the necessary skills and personal attributes that differentiates a good HR manager from a great potential future HR leader. Select Japan HR business partners from high-profile multinationals in the Financial Services, Consumer Goods, Retail, Industrial, Media, and Life Sciences sectors were in attendance.

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The group exchanged a number of personal experiences and opinions about their roles, and in particular focused on the changing nature of HR in Japan today. Being an HR subject matter expert used to be the most valuable skill that was needed in a Japan HR leader in the past, since international HR leaders overseas needed someone who could properly navigate the complexities of Japan’s employment laws. While this is still an important skill, the group agreed that the true difference between HR managers and HR leaders was the ‘softer’ skills in HR. The ability to communicate was the highest priority. An HR leader can no longer rule by decree from the comfort of their office chair. They need to engage with business leaders, international HR stakeholders, as well as their in-country HR teams in Japan in order to gain the buy-in for their ideas.

Following on from this, the ability to influence was also an important consideration. With HR structures becoming more complex, and with Japan playing an ever-increasing role within the regional and international matrix, there are more people (each with their own particular personalities) that need to be bought into decisions than ever before. Japan is no stranger to this, and the concept of ‘nemawashi’ has been has been a traditional business tool for decades. However the complexity of this in modern multinationals has taken many more traditional HR practitioners by surprise.

The group of senior HR business partners exhibited many different qualities, and shared stories that illustrated a variety of different working styles. Each of these practices were shown to be capable of producing successful results. So in conclusion there was not one agreed approach to achieving career advancement into HR leadership positions. Sometimes it comes down to a mixture of HR skills, luck, and good timing, so that you’re in the ‘right place at the right time’ to be earmarked for promotion into top HR management.

However, in the opinion of this author, the skill of a good HR manager is in selecting the right HR Director mentor to work under early in their career. Most of the skills that truly great HR leaders can impart onto their HR managers cannot be taught by textbook - they can only be taught by having a smart HR manager sit alongside a talented HR leader and having that manager watch how to deal with a variety of situations.